Myth # 78: People built one-and-a-half story houses to avoid the tax on the second story.

There are so many myths that involve taxes–can you stand one more?

Taxes are a complicated subject–what’s new there? In early America, most of the government’s money came from import/export duties on liquor and slaves and from port charges. Colonists paid several sorts of taxes but no income tax and only occasional taxes on real estate and personal property. The usual tax assessments due from individuals were the parish tax, which paid for churches, clergy salaries, and aid to the poor; county taxes, which paid for courthouses, bridges, and ferries; colony taxes, which paid for public officials and the Capitol Building; and in some colonies, the old feudal quitrent to the king, who legally owned all the land. (Property owners were technically only renting.) These taxes didn’t necessarily occur every year and they varied over time. Most taxes were based on the number of “tithables” in the household (white males over 16 and all slaves over 16), meaning those with the most slaves and the largest families paid the most tax.

I could find no mention of taxes on a second story in the colonies of  Virginia, Connecticut, Delaware, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and Georgia, after having searched online databases of those colonies’ laws. (If you are not aware of this resource, see http://libguides.bgsu.edu/content.php?pid=65781&sid=486039 to find links to the laws of the 13 colonies.) I plan to check the remaining colonies–a tedious task–as the week progresses, but I do not expect to find any mention of a tax on the second story.

A one-and-a-half story house is just a one-story house with a finished attic for extra living or storage space. As the director of research at Colonial Williamsburg wrote so succinctly when this myth surfaced back in 1968: “One-and-a-half stories are simply cheaper to build than two.” 

3 Responses to Myth # 78: People built one-and-a-half story houses to avoid the tax on the second story.

  1. Edward says:

    Does this hold true for Mansard roofs in France as well?

  2. marymiley says:

    I don’t know enough about French history to answer that one. My guess would be that the style was just that–a style–not a reaction to some tax on upper stories, but I have no facts to back that up.

  3. Janet K. Seapker says:

    Mary, I can’t find your response, so am attaching to this one to get through to you. I can only get as far back in architecture to Myth #76. I don’t see a “previous” heading. What am I doing wrong? Janet, jseapker@ec.rr.com?

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