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

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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.

However . . . blog readers contributed further information about another, more likely origin for the American window tax myth: there was a genuine window tax in England, Ireland, and Scotland in the 18th and 19th centuries. In Great Britain, the window tax existed from 1696-1851 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 away. The laws had an effect on architectural practices too, as you might expect. See the full article in the Penn History Review, Spring 2008“A Tax on Light and Air: Impact of the Window Duty on Tax Administration and Architecture, 1696-1851.” Note well: the article is about Great Britain, not America, but it isn’t too long–have a look at it! There is also decent information for further reading at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Window_tax that is referenced. It seems likely to me that the window tax in Great Britain was the basis for the mistaken belief that there were taxes on windows in the American colonies. 

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

  1. Ella Aderman says:

    There was the 1798 Window Pane Tax in PA. Although not collected, the detailed surveys that were done in some townships continue to serve as a great resource for descriptions of the buildings at that time including measurements, number of stories, materials, and number of windows.

    • Mary Miley says:

      Right you are. And thank you. I looked it up. The July 14, 1798 tax was a U.S. direct tax that pertained to all states, not just Pennsylvania. It was repealed the next year. Here’s what I learned at http://www.phmc.pa.gov: it was the first federal direct tax based on wealth, and it was nicknamed the Glass Tax. Interestingly, there was nothing in the instructions of the assessors to count windows or panes of glass. They were instructed to “assess” houses, lands, and slaves, but some of them took it upon themselves to count and enumerate windows as part of their assessments. These lists not only document property owners but also the number and types of buildings and slaves that they owned. Because it was so brief and so narrowly applied, records are rare. The best are in Pennsylvania. But still, it was a property tax. There was NO SPECIFIC TAX ON WINDOW GLASS or WINDOWS.

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