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A Tax on Light and Air

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Posted 09-28-2014 at 10:55 AM by Roy Sanborn

A Tax on Light and Air - A Story About Windows

A Tax on Light and Air. It almost goes without saying that we have some really exceptional and outstanding homes in the Lakes Region. They come in many different architectural styles and designs, use many different types of building materials and construction techniques, and vary tremendously in quality and price points. We live in an area of unique homes. You don’t find many large tracts of cookie cutter residences here. But one thing that many homes have in common is the use of lots of windows.

Because we live in such a beautiful area with mountain and lake views most people will want to have as many windows as possible in order to enjoy those views. Homes are sited and constructed today making nature and the view the focal point. Walls of windows adorn lakefront homes, mountaintop retreats, homes in valleys looking up to the hills, or homes with pastoral garden views. Our surroundings are very important to us. Homes with lots of windows feel larger and are much brighter inside and most of the home buyers today desire that light and the airy feeling.

But, what if the government taxed you on light and air? What if they taxed you on the number of windows you had in your home? Preposterous, you say? Well, if you had lived in England between 1696 and 1851 there was exactly that, a tax on windows. Its many opponents called it a Tax on Light and Air! The tax was enacted as a way around an income tax. Because windows were so expensive to make, it seemed only reasonable that the wealthy would have more windows than the poor folks. They started out with a flat-rate house tax of two shillings per house and then a variable tax on the number of windows over ten in the home. If you had over twenty windows you paid yet another rate. Over the years the number of windows where a tax was incurred was changed to seven in 1766 and eight in 1825.

Now if that weren’t bad enough, there was also a glass tax based on weight. This Glass Excise Tax was in effect from 1745 to 1845. It was originally a tax on raw materials only, but in 1811 it was changed to apply to the finished glass goods including everything from bottles to windows. So, in essence, homeowners with lots of windows were being taxed twice for the same thing. Though wildly unpopular, this did not stop the well to do from having large windows and custom built green houses. The affluent had the money and the more windows you had signified your wealth to the community.

Of course, the tax did have an effect on those least able to pay it. People avoided putting windows in new structures and they bricked up windows in existing buildings and painted them to look like windows. The use of “bulls-eye” glass became prevalent in this time. A piece of bulls-eye glass is very recognizable as it looks like…well, it looks like a bulls-eye. It comes from the process of making “crown” glass and it is where a glassblower’s pontil (blowing tool) is attached to the glass. The glass is spun on a flat plate to make a sheet and when the tool is removed from the center of the pane it leaves a bulls-eye mark in it. That portion of the glass was deemed flawed and therefore not subject to the tax. You can’t see through a bulls-eye window very well, but it does let light in. These windows were commonly used in the backs of houses or businesses as a cost cutting method.

With the invention of cast plate glass in 1848 windows became a lot less expensive. The continuous improvements and innovations in the glass making industry since then have changed the face of architecture worldwide. Today, walls of glass to bring in our astonishing views are commonplace. So while many folks now complain about a view tax, can you just imagine what would happen if we went back to a Tax on Light and Air?

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