England invested an inordinate amount of money in building and maintaining a naval fleet to better protect her island shores and foreign interests during the seventeenth- and eighteenth-centuries. Government coffers were kept topped-up with monies raised through all manner of taxes with industry being an obvious source and luxury goods also providing valuable revenue.
I have mentioned before the tax on the hearths used by smallworkers in their production of locks and later, looking glasses (indeed glass for drinking vessels and windows also attracted duty at various rates and periods). Timber (most of which was imported at the time) also attracted a levy – including those varieties employed in the manufacture of furniture like oak, walnut and mahogany.
Few early seventeenth-century households enjoyed the opulence of even a solitary chair; simple benches, forms or stools being the norm. However, with Britain’s increase in wealth during the seventeenth-century, chair ownership increased. Chairs became one of the most prestigious items a man of above-average means might own and so, in 1661, the government introduced a hefty chair tax.
Actually, the common term ‘chair tax’ is somewhat of a misnomer as it affected stools as well and was in fact levied, not on the seat as a whole, but on the number of legs it possessed. Whilst it might be obvious a three-legged chair or stool would be the natural choice in a dwelling with an uneven compacted clay- or stone flag floor, the excise on that fourth leg surely caused embarrassment to many a squire and promising merchant eager to display their wealth.
The chair tax didn’t hinder the up-take of chairs in the seventeenth-century and yet despite Britain’s continued growth and prosperity throughout the eighteenth-century, the manufacture and ownership of three-legged ‘excise chairs’ remained commonplace (especially in rural areas) as an expression of frugality and humility.
Fig. 2. Very fine Geo I ash and elm excise chair, circa 1720. (Wakelin & Linfield)
The excise imposed on chair legs remained for a century-and-a-half until the act was repealed by order of the Prince of Wales in a bid for popularity when he became Prince Regent in 1811.