The Story Behind Saltbox Architecture

Saltbox homes can convey years of American colonial history in a single glance. With distinctive high pitched asymmetrical roofs, and flat, unadorned exteriors, these homes show how people lived in the nation’s earliest days, between the early 16th and late 17th centuries, adjusting their homes as needed to make things easier. Because of their unique features, Saltbox homes are also instantly recognizable, and among the iconic residences of the Northeast coast.

Like Cape Cod homes of the same era, Saltbox homes originated in New England and Atlantic Canada as homes for European settlers. These buildings were simple in design, with rectangular exteriors, high pitched, gabled roofs, and plain central entrances – in many ways exactly like Cape Cod homes, but with extra elements to accommodate the ever-evolving nature of colonial life. Saltboxes were also typically situated farther inland than Cape Cod’s, which helped encourage their more complex designs.

Saltbox homes got their name because they looked like the large asymmetrical wooden saltboxes everyone used in colonial times. This comparison grew even stronger over the years as many of the original Saltboxes changed shape – many Saltbox dwellers added lean-tos on the backs of their houses, mainly for storage purposes, extending the already lopsided roof line. The resulting shape, also known as a “Catslide,” was almost triangular, with one long roof slope plunging two and a half stories from the ridge almost to ground level, and a short, steep slope nearly parallel with the wall on the other side. Other early Saltboxes were simply traditional Cape Cods with an added lean-to, as exemplified by the Ephraim Hawley House, a famous Connecticut Saltbox built in the 1680s, and modified over the decades. Modern and preserved antique Saltbox homes tend to make full use of this extra space at the back, with open floor plans allowing rooms to blend easily into one another.

Most Saltbox homes were built using traditional post and beam methods, with metal nails employed sparingly because of their high cost. Exterior walls are often very simple, featuring shingle or clapboard siding. While the Saltbox style originated and was used primarily for homes, modern builders have adapted the form for other purposes such as churches and university campus buildings.