Britain used to have a special tax on windows.
Source: Original photo by JannHuizenga/ iStock
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Britain used to have a special tax on windows.

Taxes fund many of the services we need, but no one enjoys paying them — and it’s likely that many of our ancestors didn’t, either. Governments worldwide have levied taxes for thousands of years; the oldest recorded tax comes from Egypt around 3000 BCE. But England — which relied heavily on taxes to fund its military conquests — is known for a slate of fees that modern taxpayers might consider unusual. Take, for instance, the so-called “window tax,” initially levied in 1696 by King William III, which annually charged citizens a certain amount based on the windows in their homes. Some 30 years before, the British crown had attempted to tax personal property based on chimneys, but clever homeowners could avoid the bill by temporarily bricking up or dismantling their hearths and chimneys before inspections. With windows, assessors could quickly determine a building’s value from the street. The tax was progressive, charging nothing for homes with few or no windows and increasing the bill for dwellings that had more than 10 (or, in later years, seven).

Britain taxed soap.
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Incorrect.
It's a Fact
The British government taxed many everyday items, including salt, candles, and beer. But its 1643 tax on soap created a lather among soapmakers and drove up prices for shoppers — many of whom turned to French soap-smuggling rings for the lower-cost suds they needed.

Not surprisingly, homeowners and landlords throughout the U.K. resented the tax. It didn’t take long for windows to be entirely bricked or painted over (much like fireplaces had been), and new homes were built with fewer windows altogether. Opponents called it a tax on “light and air” that hurt public health, citing reduced ventilation that in turn encouraged disease. Even famed author Charles Dickens joined the fight to dismantle the tax, publishing scathing pieces aimed at Parliament on behalf of poor citizens who were most impacted by the lack of fresh air. Britain repealed its window tax in July 1851, but the architectural impact is still evident — many older homes and buildings throughout the U.K. maintain their iconic converted windows.

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Numbers Don’t Lie
Number of windows in London’s Buckingham Palace
760
Number of years British citizens were required to pay window taxes
155
Year double-glazed windows were invented
1934
Approximate height (in feet) of the world’s largest glass window (Beijing, China)
54
Glass windows were first used in _______.
Glass windows were first used in ancient Rome.
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Think Twice
The United States had its own (short-lived) “glass tax.”

Just two decades after declaring independence from Britain, the U.S. was in need of funds to bolster its military — this time in preparation for potential conflict with France. President John Adams knew that building up troops wasn’t a cheap initiative and that the country would need to raise the money somehow. That’s why Congress passed the 1798 U.S. Direct Tax (more commonly called the “window tax” or “glass tax”) with the goal of adding $2 million to its coffers. Each of the 16 states was responsible for assessing the property of its residents; homes and property worth more than $100 were taxed. Given the cost of pane glass during the late 18th century, buildings with glass windows could quickly reach that cap even if they were modest in size — hence the tax’s nickname (although windows were not directly taxed as in Britain). The tax was controversial and repealed just a year later, but some records still exist, giving genealogists and historians a glimpse into how early Americans lived.

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