The Glass Tax Of 1798

   In the year 1798, on the 14th of July, the government of the fledgling United States of America passed what correctly was called the U.S. Direct Tax. More commonly, this attempt by the new government to raise revenue was called the Glass or Window Tax. As noted in the heading of the return for Bedford County, the tax was to be an assessment of the:

  "PARTICULAR LIST or Description of all Lands, Lots, Buildings and Wharves, owned, possessed or occupied on the First Day of October, 1798, in Bedford County & ----- Assesment District being within the Eighth Division... in the State of Pennsylvania, excepting only such Dwelling Houses as with the Outhouses appurtenant thereto and the Lots on which they are erected, not exceeding two Acres in any Case, are above the Value of 100 Dollars."

   The 1798 U.S. Direct Tax was commonly called, variously, the Glass Tax or the Window Tax because of the fact that window glass was practically the most expensive article in any house. Wood, in the form of either logs or framing lumber, for the construction of a homestead was plentiful and required very little monetary expense to procure. The construction of either a log or wood frame homestead structure depended primarily on the personal industrious motivation and physical abilities of the constructor. Unlike today, at a time when the common homeowner has lost the ability and personal motivation to set out into a boundless wilderness and chop down trees to construct their homes, the homesteader of the 18th Century was essentially free to do so. The wilderness forests of the 18th Century were, it must be remembered, seemingly boundless, and the wood and lands on which that wood thrived (assuming those lands were unwarranted by someone else) were there for the taking, so it eventually came down to the simple point of personal motivation to make use of that natural resource.

   Because of the fact that the physical exertion of the homesteader could not be measured and therefore taxed in any equitable manner, and because the wood itself was not seen to carry much value, the next best item to measure the value of a house with was the window glass.

   Glass was a difficult article to produce, in the 18th Century being produced by the hand blowing method. Without going too deep into an explanation of the window glass making process, I'll attempt to describe the basic process. Glass in the result of the mixing of sand or ground flint (or both) and some kind of alkali or metallic oxide (such as red lead). The type of alkali used in the process determined the quality of the glass: sea sand mixed with pulverized slag from an iron furnace produced a greenish-hued cheap glass; white salt (i.e. potash) produced clear window glass; pearl ash and actual powdered flint produced fine "flint glass". The color of the glass was derived from metallic oxides added to the mixture: silver and aluminum produced a yellowish glass; copper or gold made reddish glass; chrome or iron oxides gave a greenish tint; and cobalt produced a deeply hued blue color. The various minerals were added to a large earthenware pot which was situated in the center of a brick furnace structure that looked quite a bit like an iron furnace. The raw materials were added to the glass furnace much in the same way as the raw materials used in the manufacture of iron were; they were simply poured into the mixing pot, or cauldron, through holes in the sides of the furnace itself and allowed to mix on their own. At times the mass of fluid glass would be stirred with iron tools and the impurities that floated to the top of the cauldron.

   The actual process of blowing the glass was a strenuous activity. The glass blower would extend a six-foot long blowing iron (i.e. tube covered at one end with a wooden sleeve) into the cauldron through a hole (known as the glory hole) in the wall of the furnace. A glob of molten glass, called the parison, would adhere to the end of the blowing iron. The glass blower would then place his lips to the somewhat cool wooden covered end and blow his breath through the tube. The air, forced through the tube solely by the physical power of the craftsman, would thrust its way into the body of the parison and cause it to expand into a bubble. The bubble would then be formed into particular shapes by alternately twirling and rolling the blowing iron to allow centrifugal force to develop a pleasing shape and blowing more air into the bubble's center. When enough air had been blown into the molten glass shape, it could be transferred to a solid iron tool called a punty. The glass article, when finished being shaped, would be snipped off of the blowing iron and placed in a leer, or long arched tunnel where it would be moved gradually away from the source of heat to cool gradually in order not to become too brittle.

   The production of window glass followed the basic process with a slight exception. The glass blower would form a large bubble of glass on the end of his blowing iron, it would then be transferred to a punty. The point where the glass bubble was snipped off of the blowing iron would leave a small hole opposite the point where the glass was adhering now to the punty. The glass blower would take the punty and push it through a glory hole so that the glass bubble would be resting somewhat in the heat of the furnace. The glass blower would then begin to rotate the punty swiftly. The effect of the continual rotation would flatten the bubble and increase the size of the hole until suddenly, with a loud popping noise, the hole would fly wide open and the craftsman would have a large flat disc of glass spinning on the end of the punty. Depending on the size of the parison used, the disc could stretch to over four feet in diameter. Because of the properties of the molten substance and the spinning action, the disc would be rather uniform in thickness, except for the very center where it was still adhering to the iron punty. It also would be somewhat uniformly transparent and clear except where the punty touched it. The disc would be drawn through the glory hole and the rotation would be maintained until the disc had cooled sufficiently to support its own weight. After being annealed in the leer and cooling, the disc would be cut into panes. The largest pane possible was about fifteen by twenty-four inches, and only two panes of that size could be cut from one disc. The center of the disc, where the glass had been attached to the punty was called the "bull's eye" and would be sold as the cheapest glass because, although it admitted light through, it was only translucent. Taverns and inns, where fighting among the patrons was a very real possibility, and the breaking of glass panes was equally possible, were the primary purchasers of bull's eye glass panes.

   Plate glass, produced originally by the French, was not introduced into the United States until the very late 18th Century and not produced here until the year 1856. Plate glass was produced by pouring molten glass onto copper slabs and rolling it flat. It had to be annealed and ground smooth on both sides and then polished by hand. Broad glass was produced in much the same was and appeared in the United States around the year 1800, but it was not polished and hence was dull and not very transparent.

   What the foregoing explanation points to was the fact that the production of glass was a rather dangerous process for the craftsmen who risked their lungs and general health to make it. The consumer therefore paid dearly for each pane and the use of it in home construction raised the overall value of the homestead structure.

   Estate inventories from the period prior to the mid-1800s often reveal panes of glass being maintained as household items. Not only were they of direct value to the property itself, but they were good to have on hand to use for barter in transactions when currency was not readily available.

   The government had attempted to raise revenue a few years previous to 1798, with disastrous results. On the 3rd of March, 1791 the government had passed An ACT repealing, after the last Day of June next, the Duties heretofore laid upon Distilled Spirits imported from abraod, and laying other duties in their stead; and also upon Spirits distilled within the United States, and for appropriating the same. This Act of Congress was recorded as Chapter XV of the Third Session of Congress in the Laws of the United States of America, Volume I. By 27 July, 1791 citizens in the western counties of Pennsylvania were beginning to meet to protest the excise. It would not be until the Autumn of 1794 that the so-called Whiskey Rebellion that resulted was ended. The crux of the protest over this Act of Congress lay in the fact that the tax was not universal in nature; only the farmers and whiskey distillers would be subjected to the tax. If it had affected the majority of the population, it might have been better received, but such was not the case, and (as they say) the rest is history.

  For more information concerning the Whiskey Rebellion, click on this icon.

   The 1798 U.S. Direct Tax, or Glass Tax, on the other hand, was indeed universal in its inclusion of all citizens. It was really little different from the county assessments that had been employed for decades, basing the tax to be collected on the value of the property. But, whereas the county assessments tended to be based on the value of the land and livestock, this tax was predicated on the valuation of the buildings owned by the residents. In the same way that the other assessments assumed that improved or cultivated lands were of greater value than uncultivated tracts, the 1798 U.S. Direct Tax assumed that the house and other buildings constructed by the resident would dictate the value of the property because they were in essence an "improvement" to the property.

   The Glass Tax was assessed and collected only once. On 28 February, 1799 the Act calling for the collection of the excise was repealed. The information to be obtained from that assessment therefore is very singular and unique. In fact, not all of the returns from that assessment have survived over the years. Only the returns from Maryland, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania and a portion of Georgia are extant and available for researchers to utilize in their attempts to reconstruct the daily lives of their ancestors.

   Pennsylvania was divided into nine divisions for the purpose of administering the assessment in 1798. Bedford, Huntingdon and Somerset Counties were included in the Eighth Division, as noted in the heading on the returns. Each Division was then separated into districts. Bedford County constituted the First District of the Eighth Division. Huntingdon County constituted the Second District of the Eighth Division. Somerset County constituted the Third District of the Eighth Division. The Districts were, in turn, divided into subdivisions, which were made up of two or three townships. The following are the various subdivisions into which the regions encompassed by "Mother Bedford" in 1798 were separated:

First District Bedford County Township Subdivisions
(Included on
National Archives
Microfilm Roll #20)
Volumes 646 to 662 Air & Dublin
Bethel & Belfast
Hopewell & Woodberry
Providence & Colerain
Bedford & St. Clair
Cumberland Valley & Londonderry


Second District Huntingdon County Township Subdivisions
(Included on
National Archives
Microfilm Roll #21)
Volumes 663 to 680 Frankstown, Morris & Allegheny
Huntingdon, Barree & West
Dublin, Shirley & Springfield
Franklin, Tyrone & Warriors Mark
Hopewell, Union & Woodbury


Third District Somerset County Township Subdivisions
(Included on
National Archives
Microfilm Roll #21)
Volumes 681 to 685 Brothers Valley & Elk Lick
Quemahoning & Cambria
Milford & Turkeyfoot
Somerset & Stonycreek

   The assessment itself consisted of three different lists: the Particular, the General, and a Summary list. Each list was set up with surnames grouped in alphabetic order by first initial, although the names themselves, within each group, are not alphabetized.

   The Particular List consisted of the following information:

Number (sequential as taken); Name of occupant or possessor (blank if owner was the occupant); Name of the owner; Number of dwellinghouses and outhouses of a value not exceeding 100 dollars; Dimensions of dwellinghouses and outhouses; Dwellinghouses and outhouses of a value not exceeding 100 dollars; Number of dwellinghouses; Value - Dollars / Cents; Number and description of all other buildings and wharves; Situation and adjoining proprietors; Quantities of land and lots claimed to be exempted from valuation; Acres / Perches / Square feet; Quantities of land and lots admitted to be subject to valuation; Acres / Perches / Square feet; Dollars / Cents

   There were actually two slightly different "Particular Lists". The one, the largest of the two, was for property consisting of more than two acres of land and cultivated as a farm. On this list, if the dwelling house was considered to be valued at more than $100, the space for its description would be blank. The second, smaller list gave the same information as the first, with the exception that the properties which contained dwelling houses valued at more than $100 would be included and described therein. A single property owner, therefore, might have been recorded on either just the larger first list or on both, depending on the value of the house. And, as noted in the common name of the tax, the number of panes of glass influenced the valuation.

   An example of this Particular List can be shown by the property #128 for Woodberry Township, Bedford County. Jacob Dively was the occupant, but the owner was listed as Simon Gratz (who was a non-resident). The dwellinghouse consisted of a log house 20ft by 16ft valued at 10 dollars. Additional buildings on the property included two stables and one outhouse. The property adjoined Bartholomew Bougher (i.e. Bucher) in Woodberry Township and included 280 acres. The total valuation of the property was $430.

   The General List consisted of the following information:

Number (sequential); Name of occupants or possessors; Names of reputed owners; In what County, Township, Parish, Town or City in the assessment district situated; Dwellinghouses and out-houses of a value not exceeding one hundred dollars; Number of dwellinghouses; Value - Dollars / Cents; Quantities of lands, lots, &c, exempted from valuation; Acres / Perches / Square feet; Quantities of lands, lots, &c, subject to and included in the valuation; Acres / Perches / Square feet; Valuations as determined by the principal assessors, including dwelling-houses &c, not exceeding one hundred dollars in value - Dollars / Cents; Rate per centum of prescribed by the Commissioners; Valuation as revised and equalized by the Commissioners; Dollars / Cents; Whole valuation of lands belonging to and possessed by one person; Dollars / Cents

   An example of this General List can again be shown by the property of Jacob Dively, #128. This list basically summarizes the information in the Particular List by noting that he is the occupant in a house owned by Simon Gratz in Woodberry Township. The property consisted of one house valued at $10 and occupying 280 acres; the total valuation of the property being $430.

   The Summary List consisted merely of an abstract of the total valuations.

   The 1798 U.S. Direct Tax, especially the Particular List, is very useful to historical research because of the descriptions of buildings that appear on it and because it records adjoining property owners. In regard to the common name of the Glass Tax, it is interesting to note one thing. Despite the fact that the valuation of the buildings on the property was based somewhat on the number of panes of glass in the windows, besides on the size of the structure itself, the actual number of glass panes is seldom, if ever, mentioned in the assessment returns.

For further information...

   If you are interested in using the 1798 U.S. Direct Tax to trace a Bedford County ancestor, you can obtain a copy of the microfilm from the National Archives in Washington, DC. Bedford County's returns appear on microfilm #372, roll #20. Huntingdon County's returns appear on microfilm #372, roll #21. Somerset County's returns appear on microfilm #372, roll #21.

   In view of the fact that the Particular List portion of the 1798 Direct Tax is the most useful of the various lists in terms of descriptive information about the dwelling houses and outbuildings, the following is a list of the frame numbers by County and Subdivision.

Bedford County

Air & Dublin (0167-0175, 0189-0205); Bethel & Belfast (0176-0180, 0206-0217); Hopewell & Woodberry (0218-0234); Providence & Colerain (0235-0272); Bedford & St. Clair (0181-0183, 0273-0316); Cumberland Valley & Londonderry (0184-0186, 0317-0329)

Huntingdon County

Frankstown, Morris & Allegheny (0066-0098); Huntingdon, Barree & West (0135-0168); Dublin, Shirley & Springfield (0187-0206); Franklin, Tyrone & Warriors Mark (0223-0243); Hopewell, Union & Woodbury (0279-0303)

Somerset County

Brothers Valley & Elk Lick (0377-0388, 0442-0452); Quemahoning & Cambria (0373-0376, 0456-0478); Milford & Turkeyfoot (0389-0392, 0428-0436); Somerset & Stonycreek (0393-0422)

   For the benefit of researchers residing in or near Blair County, the Blair County Genealogical Society possesses copies of these two films, which can be viewed in their library. Also, returns of certain of the Bedford County townships, which eventually fell under the jurisdiction of Fulton County when it formed in 1850, can be found in the Fulton County Historical Society's publication: Volume 7, 1985 (titled: U.S. Direct Tax of 1798 for Fulton County, Pa.).