Some Tax Myths… Busted!

Benjamin Franklin once wrote that “Nothing is certain except death and taxes.” And with the deadline to pay the federal income tax only days away it would be difficult to disagree with the founding father. However in the 200 years since the American Revolution, a few popular misconceptions attach themselves to that universal truth. This blog post will debunk two such highly-repeated but highly-inaccurate tax myths.

The Closet Tax

The misconception that early Americans were taxed for the number of closets in their homes has been repeated so many times that almost everyone has heard it somewhere at some time. The pervasiveness of a story, however, does not make it true.  No records show any of the 13 colonies or early states had a closet tax.

How did this myth originate?  There are two likely culprits.  First, most historic homes seem to lack closets but that is simply a modern impression.  In the 18th century, closets were not used to store clothes. That practice became popular after the Civil War. Instead, clothes were kept in a trunk or a clothes press and this leaves bedrooms woefully lacking in closet space to modern eyes. Despite our notions, 18th century homes, like wizards who arrive exactly when they mean to, had just as many closets as early American homeowners wanted.

The other culprit in creating the closet tax myth may be England’s window tax. From 1696 until 1851, England taxed the number of windows in homes as a way to tax individuals proportionately to their wealth because it was thought that more windows meant a larger home and more wealth.  A similar logic – more closets meant more wealth – is said to explain the mythical closet tax. The window tax ultimately affected architecture in England and resulted in homes with fewer windows.  The same thing is claimed to have resulted from the faux closet tax.  Both Virginia (in 1781) and Pennsylvania (1798) tried a window tax, unsuccessfully, but there was never a closet tax.

Bricked Up Windows

As a result of the window tax, many homeowners in England bricked up their windows to reduce their tax burden. This house was constructed in 1830 on Portland Street in Southampton. Credit: Gary Blunt / Wikimedia Commons

This cartoon from an 1850 edition of the British satircal magazine Punch advocated for the repeal of the window tax. Indeed, repeal finally took place in July 1851. Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

This cartoon from an 1850 edition of the British satircal magazine Punch advocated for the repeal of the window tax. Indeed, repeal finally took place in July 1851. Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

The Boston Tea Party

It is sometimes claimed the Boston Tea Party was a protest against tea’s rising cost.  Actually, the Tea Act made tea cheaper for colonists.  In 1770, Lord North, the new Prime Minister, repealed all of the Townshend Duties, except for the one on tea. He also passed the Tea Act of 1773 which allowed the East India Company to sell tea directly to the colonies, dropping the price of tea well below that of smuggled Dutch tea even with the small tax included. To Parliament, repealing all the duties except the small one on tea seemed perfect. The action did away with measures the colonists disliked, enacted an alternative that was much cheaper, encouraged English/colonial shipping, and used something colonists already bought.

In spite of all of this, it was not a welcome measure with some colonists like the Sons of Liberty, a radical group of Boston merchants. Colonists were not forced to spend their money on tea and its tax. They could even refuse ships that held the tea from entering their ports. Most other colonies protested the Tea Act through boycott. Massachusetts’s Royal Governor Thomas Hutchinson, however, ordered a tea-filled ship be allowed into the harbor despite the insistence of Bostonians. This act by the governor speaks more directly to the motives of the Sons of Liberty on that evening in December 1773.

"Americans throwing Cargoes of the Tea Ships into the River, at Boston," engraving by W.D. Cooper in The History of North America. London: E. Newbury, 1789. Credit: Library of Congress / Wikimedia Commons

“Americans throwing Cargoes of the Tea Ships into the River, at Boston,” engraving by W.D. Cooper in The History of North America published in London in  1789. Credit: Library of Congress / Wikimedia Commons

The governor’s disregard for the people’s wishes and the reaction of the Son of Liberty were indicative of a long-standing animosity between the two. While motives were varied, numerous, and complex; the Sons of Liberty were not protesting the oppressive cost of tea when they tossed it into Boston Harbor.

Joe Ziarko
Manager of Interpretation & Visitor Services

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