What is a Saltbox Style House?

Jessica Ellis
Jessica Ellis

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.

Wood clapboard is traditionally found on older houses.
Wood clapboard is traditionally found on older houses.

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.

Saltbox-style homes can be vulnerable to termite infestation.
Saltbox-style homes can be vulnerable to termite infestation.

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.

Jessica Ellis
Jessica Ellis

With a B.A. in theater from UCLA and a graduate degree in screenwriting from the American Film Institute, Jessica is passionate about drama and film. She has many other interests, and enjoys learning and writing about a wide range of topics in her role as a wiseGEEK writer.

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Discussion Comments


Living in the northwest part of the country, I haven't seen too many saltbox style homes in this area. I've seen a few, but they aren't very popular here. Why, I'm not sure.

The style seems to be a part of the tradition back in the New England states. I think that they fit very nicely on some of the small neat looking farms in the east.

Speaking of home styles, just after World War II ended, my parents bought a house. It was tiny, just kind of thrown together, one level, and square or slightly rectangle, with a flat roof. It was called a "cracker box" style house. They were so tiny, you literally felt like you were living in a cracker box!


It was very clever of the colonial settlers to design homes in the shape of a saltbox. I would guess that the idea of saltbox style homes sprang from the high taxes that were charged by the English on two story houses.

Maybe the name came from their shape looking like saltboxes that were always around.

From looking at pictures of the saltbox homes,it looks like a practical style. Even though it has a very slanted roof, it looks like there was plenty of room for bedrooms on the upper front level until you got to the back.

Having lean-tos at the back must have been handy for easy access storage.

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