Revisited Myth #1: Houses didn’t have closets in the colonial era because people wanted to avoid paying the closet tax.

Stuff03

Ah, that dreaded closet tax, always striking fear in the hearts of law-abiding colonists! Well . . . not really.

      Inventories and floor plans of the period show that many early American houses—timber frame and brick, modest and grand—were built with closets. Typically found on either side of a fireplace in bedrooms and dining rooms, these closets were used for general storage purposes, not for clothing. Clothes were not hung on hangers—clothes hangers did not come into use until after the Civil War—rather they were folded and kept in a chest, clothespress, or chest of drawers, or hung on hooks or nails. “People didn’t have as much stuff in those days,” says Alden O’Brien, Curator of Textiles and Clothing at the DAR Museum in Washington, D.C.  “They didn’t need big walk-in closets. Even a well-to-do colonial woman would have had just a few dresses.” 

     The myth regarding the onerous closet tax probably resulted from the misunderstanding of how closets were used in our country’s early years and the fact that they were not located in every bedroom as they are today. Taxes varied widely from colony to colony and later from state to state, but research has turned up no examples of a tax on closets in any of the thirteen original colonies. 

     Today you can see closets in many historic houses that are open to the public, including Stratford Hall (the Lee home in northern Virginia, begun around 1738), Montpelier (the Madison home in Orange, Virginia, built from 1765 with additions in 1797 and 1812), and in Williamsburg at the Wythe, Randolph, Geddy, and Waller Houses, to name a few. Here is the George Wythe House floorplan and a picture of one of its closets, above.

Wythe House floor plan

To see others, click these links.  Montpelier floor plans: http://montpelierrestoration.wordpress.com/elevations-and-floorplans/ 

Floorplans for both Rosewell in Gloucester Co., Va., and the Nelson House in Yorktown, Va., are available at _Neck_Tour.pdfhttp://research.history.org/Files/ArchRes/VAF_2002_Northern

8 Responses to Revisited Myth #1: Houses didn’t have closets in the colonial era because people wanted to avoid paying the closet tax.

  1. Melissa Nesbitt says:

    I hate to make assumptions, but would this hold true for the late 19th/early 20th centuries as well?

    • Melissa Nesbitt says:

      P.S. I work at a historic home in east Texas built in 1885. From what I can tell, closets weren’t added until the early 1900s.

      • Mary Miley says:

        Simple houses were less likely to have had storage closets than large, fine houses, in any era. Certainly, not all “nice” houses had closets, but some did. As fireplaces became unnecessary, the space beside the chimney was no longer a natural place for a storage closet, and that may have limited the building of storage closets. Bedroom closets for clothing are more 20th century; before that time, people generally stored clothing in chests (colonial era) or wardrobes (Victorian era). However, the point is, whether they had closets or not had nothing to do with a supposed tax.

      • Emma Rogers says:

        There is a house museum in Galveston, Texas called Ashton Villa. It was built in 1859 and each bedroom has its own closet (not necessarily for clothes storage). They appear on the original floor plans and were not added later.

      • Mary Miley says:

        Ahh, no closet taxes in Texas? :-)

  2. Cathi Horowitz says:

    Also the records wouldn’t mention that they were closets they were taxing, they would have been noted as rooms. Also the “closets” on either side of the fireplace have shelves as far as I can tell. This makes them cupboards, not closets. They might show up as closets on floorplans but if the folks that live there put shelves in they are no longer closets – they are cupboards. Hmmmm

    _____

  3. Sarah Uthoff says:

    This is one near and dear to my heart because my great-grandfather, who helped his parents build a house – this was around 1910 in Iowa, specifically said they didn’t put closets in because of the closet tax. So while I agree with everything you said, I think people in the past were just as ignorant of the law as they are today and even once they got in the era where closets made sense some people might not have put as many closets in as they have otherwise just because of this story even though it wasn’t true. :)

    • Mary Miley says:

      As far as I know, property taxes are based on the value of the property (house + land), not the number of rooms. So a small, beautifully appointed brick house on a choice lot in the best part of town would be taxed higher than a wooden shack with twice the number of rooms located way out in the country. Whether a closet is a “room” or not would be irrelevant.

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