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Saltbox Roof: Definition & Design

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

What's the best kind of roof for your house? In this lesson, we'll check out the saltbox roof, explore its history, and consider both the pros and cons of this unique style.

The Saltbox House

There have been many people who have wished to live in a house of chocolate. For some, it seems simpler to just jump inside a jar of sugar and call it home. While these sugar-centric fantasies may not be overly realistic, there are many people who can actually claim to live in a saltbox. In American architecture, a saltbox house is a wooden-frame building with a distinctive, asymmetrical roof. We may call it the saltbox, but there's no denying that this style is simply sweet.

The distinctive saltbox roof
Saltbox roof

Features of a Saltbox Roof

The definitive feature of a saltbox house is its roof. Saltbox roofs look like a patched, gable-style roof with two sides sloping outwards from a central ridge. However, instead of sloping to the same length, one side reaches all the way to the first floor of the house. Basically, one side is short and the other side is very long, giving a uniquely asymmetrical appearance. Saltbox roofs also tend to feature a central chimney over the lower floor, although this is just a trend and not a definitive rule.

Saltbox roof
Saltbox roof

History

The obvious question with this design is: why? Why would anybody do this? The first saltbox roofs appeared in colonial New England in the 17th century. They probably started as alterations to the Cape Cod and Colonial style houses of the region, as people were looking to expand the size of their homes. To enlarge the house, single-story rooms were built onto the back. Instead of creating a new roof, the builders just extended the existing roof down to that level. As a result, you can often see a line on the open sides of saltbox houses where the former back wall of the house used to be.

The first saltbox roofs appeared in New England around 1650. By 1680, people started creating houses like this intentionally. The saltbox style became popular in New England for its unique appearance, as well as its unique drainage capabilities. Snow and rain slid easily off of this roof, and when it didn't they could easily climb up and shovel it. It was practical, and it was aesthetically appealing.

Saltbox roofs first became really popular in colonial New England
Saltbox New England

It was around this time that people found a name for this style. In the colonial era, basic goods like salt could be hard to come by. Colonists displayed their salt in decorative saltboxes, which hung on the wall. The saltboxes were covered by a long, slanted lid. That was all the inspiration the colonists needed. They started calling their slanting roofs saltboxes, and the style spread from there. It was always most popular in New England but did gain support across the United States all the way until roughly 1800, when it faded from use.

Pros and Cons

One of the important questions with any roof is whether the benefits outweigh the costs. Saltbox roofs are very useful in areas that get lots of snow and rain since they help precipitation slide off the house. They also let people expand their homes without building a new roof, which can help maintain a unified aesthetic across the entire structure.

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