What Is a Saltbox House?

What is a Saltbox House?

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A classic staple of New England architecture, Saltbox-style houses first appeared in the United States around 1650, making them among the oldest examples of American Colonial-style architecture. They remained a popular choice in the 17th and 18th centuries. With their easy charm and clean lines, Saltbox homes have a timeless look and enduring appeal that help explain why American Colonial architecture spread throughout the U.S. and remains one of the most popular home styles to this day. 

The Saltbox building style has a signature, steeply pitched asymmetrical roof on one side, often with clapboard siding.

Saltbox House
The Rebecca Nurse Homestead in Danvers, Massachusetts

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History of Saltbox Houses

The first Saltbox houses appeared in New England circa 1650. These simple, clean-lined structures were built by early settlers using local timber and post-and-beam construction that limited the need for metal nails, an expensive material at the time. Built around a central chimney to provide heating, the houses were often covered in oak clapboard siding and topped off with asymmetrical roofs that extended over lean-to kitchen additions at the back, providing additional space under the expansive roofs. 

Saltbox-style homes remained a go-to style until the 18th century. Many historic Saltbox homes are still standing today, and some historic examples are considered national treasures. 

One of the most famous examples of Saltbox architecture are the neighboring Quincy, Massachusetts, homes of John Adams, a Founding Father who was the 2nd president of the United States from 1797 to 1801, and his son John Quincy Adams, who was the country’s 6th president (1825-1829). The homes and surrounding property dating back to 1681 now belongs to the National Park Service. 

Saltbox style house

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While most original Saltbox houses were built with wood, the 1754 Josiah Day House in West Springfield, Massachusetts, is said to be the oldest Saltbox-style home in the United States made from brick. Now a museum open to the public for guided tours, it is a National Historic site registered with the Massachusetts Historic Commission.

Built around 1675, the Hoxie House Museum in Sandwich, Massachusetts, is thought to be the oldest example of a Saltbox-style home on Cape Cod. Originally the home of Rev. John Smith, Sandwich’s second minister, who lived there with his wife and 13 children, it is now known by the name of a whaling captain named Abraham Hoxie, who bought it in the 1850s. Today, the home belongs to the town of Sandwich and has been restored to its original condition. 

The Saltbox style is so ingrained in the American popular imagination that it continues to inspire modern architects and designers. Today, elements of Saltbox architecture—notably the signature roofline—live on in a modern revival of the classic style in everything from homes to backyard studios and garages

Small front porch

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Common Characteristics of Saltbox Houses

  • Traditional appearance
  • Flat front
  • Two stories in the front
  • One story in the back
  • Long pitched asymmetrical sloping roof known as a catslide roof that typically extends down over the kitchen on the backside of the house
  • Originally built around a large central chimney
  • Timber frame post and beam construction
  • Wood or clapboard siding
  • Sometimes made from brick
  • Simple, clean geometric look
Saltbox House

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Fun Facts About Saltbox Houses

So why do they call it a Saltbox house? The catchy term was inspired by the silhouette of the small covered wooden salt storage boxes that were a staple of Colonial kitchens. Hung on walls near the stove or sink, the boxes had slanted roofs that opened on a hinge to allow you to reach in and grab a pinch of salt, and resemble dollhouse versions of Saltbox homes.

The shape of the dramatic catslide roofs that visually define the Saltbox house silhouette is known to help prevent excess snow from accumulating during harsh New England winters. But rumor has it that the roofs were more than a case of form following function or merely a pleasing design feature. Instead, according to folklore, the roof shape was a clever trick to help homeowners evade the tax on two-story houses mandated by Queen Anne in the 1600s and 1700s. The long sloping roof disguised the additional square footage hidden beneath it, culminating in a single story at the back, allegedly providing a scapegoat for the extra tax. 

In addition to the early Saltbox houses, American Colonial style architecture includes Georgian, Cape Cod, French Colonial, Spanish Colonial, and Dutch Colonial.