Pursuit of Hanging Space: History of Closets

Considering the famous cries for freedom that sparked the American Revolution, the desire for tax-free storage space may seem inconsequential. But imagine the inconvenience of living in a home without closets and you can see why the British tax levied on these storage spaces in colonial American homes would have provided one more motive to revolt.

During British rule, taxes were levied according to the number of rooms in a house, and a closet featuring a door was considered a room. So to save on taxes, most colonial American homes were closetless. In fact, one of the oldest dwellings in Washington, D.C., Georgetown’s Old Stone House, is an architectural anomaly because its third-floor bedroom actually contains a closet.

Granted, the right to tax-exempt storage was not a high priority — for the general population, closets weren’t even a low priority because possessions and clothing were limited. In most cases, wall pegs and trunks provided adequate storage for the minimalist lifestyle of 18th-century Americans. Those who needed (and could afford) storage space simply used freestanding wardrobes.

Though independence from British rule in effect halted the tax on closets, until the end of the 1800s these amenities were common only in mansions. During the next century closets became a standard feature of most homes, and their design typically reflected the architectural style of the dwelling. For example, a bungalow characteristically had one entry closet and a small closet in each bedroom, all with single narrow doors that matched the rooms’ entry doors. True to typical Craftsman efficiency, these closets were often carved out of unused spaces under stairs or behind a small hallway. But they didn’t satisfy homeowners’ storage needs for long.

Wider, shallow closets with generous openings and sliding doors became popular with the development of ranch-style homes in the 1950s. Considered luxurious at the time, these closets offered more rod space and easy accessibility, though the double doors reduced usable wall space in the rooms that housed them, and the sliding-door design limited homeowners’ view of the contents. As a result, sliding doors eventually fell from favor after the 1960s introduction of bifold doors.

It was during the last quarter of the 20th century that closets began to truly evolve. No longer secondary spaces annexed from the ends of rooms, they have grown to become rooms. Walk-ins are now essential features in newly constructed homes, as common as multiple bathrooms and two-car garages. In fact, the space dedicated to closets (or the lack thereof) can make or break a house sale.

Today’s closets are not only large in scale; they are also luxurious, boasting amenities such as windows, furniture, custom storage components, even fitness equipment and TVs. If a tax on these spaces were ever justified, now would be the time. But that would start a whole new revolution.

Handy Fact:
Until the early 1600s, the closet was a small closed off space used not for storage but as a private area reserved for study and prayer.

The word closet is translated from the French word for small enclosure (hardly an accurate definition for today’s luxurious storage suites).