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.
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