Thomas A. Reinhart, Director of Architecture
There is a popular myth that says closets were rare in the 18th century because they were taxed as rooms. This is just that: a myth (and a persistent one at that); research conducted by Colonial Williamsburg in fact found no closet tax in any of the original thirteen colonies. So why are closets so rare in old houses? Simply put, people in the 1700s had a lot less stuff than we do. The question of closets is really a bit more complicated than that though.
We first need to understand what closets were in the 18th century. When we think of a closet, we generally think of a clothes closet, a small room off a bedroom used for storing clothing. This kind of closet was indeed rare 200+ years ago for two reasons: 1) people really did not have as many clothes as we do today, and 2) people generally stored their clothing in pieces of furniture, such as chests or clothes presses. In our ancestors’ homes, closets were much more commonly used for general storage, which is why we find them in entertaining rooms like parlors and dining rooms.
Second, 18th- century Americans used the word “closet” to describe another type of room that is less familiar to us today: a closet as a small withdrawing room (bigger than most clothes closets today) opening off a larger room and used for private functions. These closets are sometimes called “dressing rooms” in historic house museums because that is one type of private activity that would have been be carried out in them, but that is not the only way they functioned. Withdrawing closets were also used to conduct business, to hold private conversations, to pray or study, to relieve oneself or bathe in the days before bathrooms, and to store valuables that needed to be locked up. In some gentry homes, such closets had decorative elements like cornices and fancy wooden trim; many had windows.
Both of these types of closets obviously would be more useful to the rich, who had more stuff, more leisure, and larger houses, and who could afford to create more private spaces, but they are also found in much more modest dwellings as well, especially the smaller storage type. Counting both types, the Mansion has an incredible 16 closets, ranging from the spacious “dressing rooms” off the Washingtons’ bedroom to a small storage closet in the plainest bedroom up in the garret.
Here in the Chintz Room, we have that rarity: a clothes closet. We know this is so because the shelving tells us it functioned for storage, but it also had a peg board which would have held articles of clothing. Supporting this is a lack of chests or clothes presses in this room.
Also of note is that hidden behind the plaster of the south wall is framing for an earlier doorway This doorway dates to 1758 , before Washington added the south wing to the Mansion. From 1758 to 1774, that earlier doorway led out to the roof of a one-story addition, which in the Washington papers, is called a closet. This closet, accessed through both the bedroom and dining room on the first floor, would have provided a small withdrawing room or storage for valuables.