Myth # 75: Builders of early American houses built few windows to avoid paying the window tax.

Yawn . . . another bogus tax. Let’s all say it together: There were no taxes on — uh, hang on a minute . . . 

There actually was a tax on windows! Toward the end of the Revolutionary War, Virginia passed an emergency tax on homeowners based on the number of windows in their houses. (Hening’s Statutes, vol. 10, p. 280.) It was to last three years and it only counted windows with glass, which eliminated the lowest economic cohort that would likely have had only shutters because they couldn’t afford glass. However, this was a war measure, not a regular tax, so most historians discount it, insisting that there were no taxes on windows. I was unable to discover whether this war-time tax was ever collected, since the war ended shortly thereafter and it was, presumably, no longer needed. Also, this law pertained only to Virginia. Here’s the law:

“A tax or rate of one shilling for every glass window shall be paid by the proprietor of each inhabited house within the commonwealth in the month of September 1781, and so on in each of the three next succeeding years.” The law goes on to list other taxes, calling them “urgent necessities of this commonwealth” due to the war. 

This could be the basis for the persistent window tax myth. An online search of other colonies’ compiled statutes through google books yielded no other examples. Not all records of colonial laws are available online, but the ones I could access–Massachusetts, New York, New Jersey, and South Carolina–did not mention windows. I think it’s pretty safe to say there were no taxes on windows, except for that one little, temporary, exception in Virginia.  

8 Responses to Myth # 75: Builders of early American houses built few windows to avoid paying the window tax.

  1. Could it be that this very real tax in England in some way became muddled into Colonial history? Fits the time period, anyway….

    http://www.projectbook.co.uk/article_43.html

    • marymiley says:

      I think that’s possible, Susan. I, too, have read about such taxes in England. The English were taxed much more than the colonists (if only the colonists had known!). Can you cite any of those English laws?

  2. Marty G says:

    Check out the wikipedia entry:
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Window_tax
    It seems fairly accurate and referenced.

    • marymiley says:

      Very interesting. I think we can conclude that the window tax myth in colonial America originated with the genuine window tax in England and other countries.

  3. Zip Zinzel says:

    I saw a Yale History Professor reference this Window Tax in Colonial America, she mentioned many local historical buildings in downtown Boston where the old windows were bricked-in, to avoid this tax.
    Also in the Penn Undergraduate History Review in 2008 there is a lengthy article starting on p18 about this tax
    http://www.history.upenn.edu/pennhistoryreview/issues/spring08.pdf

    • marymiley says:

      This is a great article! It’s not about colonial America, however, it’s about Britain. At least we now know how the window-tax myth got started–it wasn’t a myth in Britain. I’m so glad to know this. In short, the article says that the English window tax existed from 1676-1851 and was meant as a tax on the wealthy–the more windows your house had, the wealthier you were. Sounds good, but as in all taxes, there were “incessant evasion attempts,” such as blocking up the windows and uncovering them after the tax assessor had gone. The laws had an effect on architectural practices too, as you might expect.
      According to this article, some recently constructed buildings in the colonial style in America have bricked-in windows, a remnant of this British influence. Those were probably the Boston buildings the professor was mentioning. They were old in style, not genuinely old. The article isn’t too long–have a look at it!

  4. Mary Miley says:

    Just thought it was interesting that this week’s ECONOMIST magazine mentions the window tax in Britain in an article on property taxes. “Britain had a window tax in the late 17th century, well before it introduced an income tax.”

  5. kgg says:

    have you never heard of the john fries rebellion of 1799 when john adams was president? it concerned a house tax that was partially levied by counting the number of windows. this is not a myth.

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