MYTH: HOUSES DIDN’T HAVE CLOSETS IN THE 18TH AND 19TH CENTURIES
BECAUSE PEOPLE HAD TO PAY TAXES ON CLOSETS
Docents have been known to say that the reason there are few if any closets in early houses was
because the closet counted as a room and people were taxed on the number of rooms they had. This is not true. Research at Colonial Williamsburg has turned up no tax on closets.
A study of floor plans in early houses shows that many houses had closets—just not as many as we
have today and certainly not of the walk-in variety. Since people did not have as many clothes as we have today, there was no need to have a closet in each bed chamber. Clothes were kept in a chest or trunk, clothes
press, or a chest of drawers. Clothes kept in closets were hung on pegs not on hangers. In fact, night gowns, shirts, and other light clothing were hung on pegs around the room.
Closets were also found in dining rooms and on either side of fireplaces and these were often
called cupboards. All kinds of things were stored in cupboards but people then did not see a need for as many cupboards as we have today because they didn’t have as many items to store. Estate inventories
reveal that people did not commonly have sets of dishes, trays of flatware, many tablecloths, or glassware, so there was not as much need of cupboards.
Kitchens, of course, did not have built in cupboards but might have a cupboard as a piece of furniture. At the side of some fireplaces, including the one in the Orange Johnson House, might be a small cupboard built in called the “preacher’s cupboard.” Legend has it that the family Bible was stored there.
The Orange Johnson House has a clothes closet in a bed chamber and a cupboard in the dining room
and that was probably not that unusual for a well-to-do family like the Johnsons.
Source: Theobald, Mary Miley. “Stuff and Nonsense: Myths That Should Not Be History.” Colonial Williamsburg, Winter 2008: p. 66.