Redwood History: Tax Season, 1864

Tue, 01/26/2016 - 3:37pm -- Redwood Staff

With tax season rapidly approaching, it seemed only fitting to dig a little into the Redwood’s and Newport’s financial pasts, if only for a bit of perspective. Although known for the gilded age mansions that grace Bellevue Avenue, there was a long established tradition of building grand summer “cottages” on the island years before Richard Morris Hunt, Horace Trumbauer and McKim, Mead and White came along.  These imposing wooden structures have almost all been demolished or renovated to the point of being unrecognizable. However, we do still have an inkling of the original “nouveau riche” who owned these homes in their tax records.


Take, for example, the Redwood Library. By 1864 the Library was only two rooms, the Harrison Room and the Reading Room, and our property tax was $51, the equivalent of approximately $755 in 2016. Doesn’t sound like much? Let’s keep going.


Theodore W. Phinney, owner of The Reefs, which would later be famed as the home of Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney, paid $276 in taxes which is roughly $4,085 today. Auguste Belmont, well known for his personality, his money, and his homes paid $456 in taxes. That is about $6,750 in 2016. At this point, Belcourt Castle had not yet been built, and Mr. Belmont was still summering in his first home, By-The-Sea.

One of the highest figures from this volume, was paid by a man named Frederick Berreda. His taxes for the year of 1864 cost him $750, which in modern money is over $11,000.


On the other hand, not everyone in Newport was making that much money. Take Joseph C. Lawton, who paid $1.80 in taxes; about $25 today. Or how about Mary Scott, who had only $10 worth of property, yet still paid $6. At this point, President Lincoln had not yet signed the Revenue Act of 1864. However, the Revenue Act of 1862, begun primarily to help the Union raise money for the war effort, was the first progressive income tax placed on United States citizens, and attempted to separate taxpayers into groups based on their "ability to pay." Unfortunately, this was only partially successful, as the tax rates failed to raise enough money for the war, and were ultimately raised again in June of 1864. 


And here, we even find our friend George Champlin Mason – renowned architect, author, historian and Library member - paying his part to help the Union. 


This delightful volume, part of a larger set, is part of the Schumacher collection and was the gift of Diana Macarthur-Stanham. Taxes were assessed by William J.H. Ailman, William P. Congdon, John H. Ailman, Joseph A. Carr, and William S. Cranston. This book is available for research with a reference appointment.