Creative taxes

Early modern England had creative property taxes: window, chimney, brick, and wallpaper tax. Early modern England also had creative methods of tax avoidance: sealed windows, stolen chimneys, larger bricks, and plainer wallpaper.

MaltaGC [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons
How to make taxes fair? Governments throughout history have struggled with this question – and continue to struggle with it today. Do you tax income or wealth? If you tax either, how do you assess it? And, if you’re a non-civic-minded citizen, how do you then avoid that tax?

In early modern England, Wales, and Scotland, an income tax was not a popular idea. Telling the government how much you earned? Far too intrusive, and also relying on the honesty and good faith of the taxed (or the mistrust and investigation of the taxer). Instead, various governments experimented with property taxes that used specific means to assess the value of the property: chimney and hearth tax (1662), window tax (1696), wallpaper tax (1712), and brick tax (1784).

The logic of this was pretty good: the more valuable a house, the more windows, chimneys, bricks, and wallpaper it would have. These assets were clearly visible and easily assessed. There is one thing they did not account for, though: the extremely creative means by which people would work to avoid them.

To avoid the hearth tax, people would block up their chimneys or (in at least one famous case) redirect their oven venting through their neighbour’s chimney. To avoid the window tax, people would brick up or seal their windows. Only patterned wallpaper was taxed, so people bought plain wallpaper and then stenciled patterns on themselves. If bricks were taxed, people used bigger bricks so fewer were needed. The government gave up, and by 1851 all of these taxes were gone.


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