How did colonial settlers avoid heavy taxes on multi-story houses? By designing the now-famous saltbox style house. This ingenious piece of architecture is notable for its asymmetrical roof that makes a house one story in back and two in the front, allowing already exhausted American taxpayers relief from stiff additional fines in the 17th century. Still popular in colonial-inspired architecture the saltbox style house is seen by some as an early hint of colonial rebellion against the tax-happy British monarchy.
In addition to helping avoid taxes, the saltbox style house had another possible practical origin. On the back of some two story dwellings, homeowners would build basic, single story structures known as lean-tos, typically used for storage or equipment. Eventually, lean-tos became incorporated into the design of homes, creating the saltbox structure. It is unknown whether taxation or the use of lean-tos first lead to the design of the saltbox style house; historical experts believe both reasons may have contributed to the final design concept.
The name of this unique house style comes from an important item in the colonial world. In days when salt was a major commodity, people kept the precious flavoring and preserving agent in metal or wooden boxes. These containers featured a similar design to the house, leading to the eventual common name for the style.
A saltbox style house has several defining features that make it unmistakable. In addition to the unusual roof, these houses usually feature a central chimney and flat front. The rooms on the upper story have a heavily sloped roof, sometimes too low to walk under. For this reason, uppermost rooms were often used as attic storage.
Most saltbox style houses are wood-framed and feature a clapboard exterior, though at least one historical house is made primarily of brick. Like most wood framed houses, the building style was based on available materials; colonial America had a much more wood than metal available, leading to the popularity of woodwork jointed architecture. Unfortunately, this does make the style subject to an increased risk of fire and termite damage. Modern saltbox style house design typically uses reinforced construction to limit these dangers.
A saltbox style house is complemented by the use of Colonial or early American landscaping and interior design. Since these houses were gained popularity primarily on the East Coast, Cape Cod, Pennsylvania Dutch, and colonial-style furnishings remain popular choices for furnishing a saltbox style house.