This question comes up regularly, in Wilmington and elsewhere, to explain why old houses lack closets (or had to have them built in later).
“That’s just an urban legend,” said Catherine W. Bishir, an architectural historian who is curator of architectural special collections at N.C. State University in Raleigh.
Bishir, author of “North Carolina Architecture” and other books, said she has never come across any record of a “closet tax” anywhere in North Carolina. Miley Theobald, writing in The Journal of the Colonial Williamsburg Association, goes further and writes that no evidence has been found for a closet tax in any of the 13 American colonies prior to 1776.
Houses did have closets in the 18th century, Theobald writes. These were generally located on either side of a fireplace and were used for general storage.
What we think of as the modern clothes closet, however, is a relatively modern invention, Bishir said.
For one thing, according to Theobald, people in the 1700s or 1800s usually didn’t own as many clothes as we do today. (Unless, of course, they were royalty or peers of the realm.)
What clothes they did have were generally folded in trunks or chests or hung in large wooden furniture pieces called wardrobes. (See, for example, the magical wardrobe in C.S. Lewis’ “The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe.”)
In the early 1900s, the wardrobe began to be replaced by the chifforobe. (These first appear in the 1908 Sears, Roebuck catalog.) The chifforobe usually had a closet-like space for hanging clothes on one side, and drawers like a chest on the other.
Bill Bryson, in his “At Home: A Short History of Private Life,” notes that the closet originally was “more of a study than a storeroom,” just a small room, not necessarily for storage, generally off a bedroom.
Before it became a piece of furniture, by the way, a cabinet (diminutive of cabin) was a small room off the grand hall where a king or lord met with his most trusted advisers. (That idea survives today in the U.S. president’s Cabinet.)
Date posted: November 15, 2011
User-contributed question by: