A Window on 18th-Century New Gloucester: Theriault Discusses Rare 1798 “Glass Tax” Find

Megan Theriault displays rare 18th century New Gloucester “Glass Tax” records – Photo courtesy of Tom Blake, NG Historical Society

In New Gloucester’s documents vault, Megan Theriault, an archeologist-historian with the Maine Historic Preservation Commission, discovered rare tax records that offer a picture of life—and wealth and privation—in New Gloucester at the end of the 18th century.  Calling them “Google Maps for our town in 1798,” Theriault shared the documents and their significance in a May 16 talk sponsored by the New Gloucester Historical Society at the meetinghouse.  

The documents, original assessor’s records for the 1798 Direct Tax, painstakingly detail the ‘dwellings and holdings’ in the town, including names of property owners, acreage, house dimensions, condition, construction materials, and most important for calculating and collecting the tax, the number of windows with glass – one shortcut for measuring value, according to Theriault. 

The Direct Tax, which came to be known as the “Glass Tax” or “Window Tax,” was levied by Congress on July 14, 1798 to raise $2 million from the then-sixteen states at a time when war against France seemed a real possibility.  According to Theriault, the revenue project involved not only real property, but also an enumeration of slaves, for a tax of 50 cents per slave.

What New Gloucester has that may be unique within Maine, Theriault said, are the “Particular Lists” compiled by assessor Nathaniel Coit Allen.  Far more common are consolidated summaries, she said.  She compared the rare Particular Lists to the worksheets present-day taxpayers might use to calculate their income and deductions and then discard once they’ve filled out their 1040 return.  Theriault believes New Gloucester may have the only Particular Lists in the state.  Bringing the point home, she said that when she came across the records in the town vault, “I almost died.”  

Using the New Gloucester records and related documents in Augusta, Theriault has pieced together a picture of 1798 New Gloucester that was both an “affluent hub” compared with neighboring towns, and a place where a 36’ x 30’ house (roughly the size of a generous two-car garage today), valued at $90, might have only one window with glass and other windows open to the air in season and shuttered, dark and drafty, with boards in winter.  That $90 house?  The James Winslow house, now home to Beverly and Richard Cadigan, next to the Stevens Brook pond on Gloucester Hill Road.  Topping New Gloucester’s 18th-century equivalent of Zillow?  The Samuel Foxcroft house at the corner of Church Road and Gloucester Hill Road, boasting 1428 square feet and 27 windows.    

Theriault’s research includes the house that she and spouse Cole Theriault own at 61 Gloucester Hill Road, across from the Block House site.   Their house, with an impressive 23 windows and 146 square feet of glass, was valued at $700 back in the day.  

Theriault’s talk wrapped up the Historical Society’s monthly meetings/talks until September.  But its History Barn open houses continue through summer on the first Saturday of each month.

                                  — Reported by Joanne Cole and edited by NGX staff