Taxes and the story they tell, 1878 snapshot

Sandy Vasko

    We all complain about taxes, gas tax, school tax, plastic bag tax, sugary drink tax, etc.
    It does seem that there are more and more things that we are taxed on. In the 19th century it wasn't so complicated.You were taxed on everything you owned. Pretty simple.
    Today we look at personal property tax and the story it tells.
    In July of 1879 the Joliet Signal published a chart about the recent round of personal property taxes for the year 1878, that were paid in Will County in each township.
    The chart is very telling, and not so telling about Reed Township compared to others.
    First let us go over the categories of things that Will County residents were taxed on.
    They were horses, cattle, mules and asses, sheep, hogs, steam engines and boilers, fire-proof safes, billiard tables, carriages and wagons, watches and clocks, sewing and knitting machines, pianos, melodeons and organs, franchises, royalties, patents, steamboats and sailing ships, store merchandise, manufacturing tools, farming tools, gold and silverware, jewelry, money in the bank, stocks and bonds, railroad cars, property of saloons and furniture, household furniture, and finally dogs.
    When it came to horses, Reed Township was the second lowest in Will County with only 322, Custer coming in last with 245. But when it came to mules and asses, Reed was the highest with 42.
    This can be accounted for by remembering that mules and asses were used underground in the mines to pull coal cars.
    Reed Township recorded no sheep, while Custer had 491. Reed did have 187 hogs. It appears many of them were in Braidwood itself as we read in April 25, 1879 in the Wilmington Advocate, “City Marshall Bain says “the hogs must go” - off the streets.”
    The personal tax assessor must have been blind when he counted the number of dogs in Reed Township, as the chart does not list a single dog. But we read on March 26, 1875, “A drive through Braidwood demonstrates the fact that we can boast of more dogs to the acres than any other town in the State; allowing two dogs for each family, which is really less than actual average, the number can be estimated at 2,000.”
    Hard to believe they all disappeared in four years, or perhaps by then, there were too many to count.
    Reed Township also led the others in the category of steam boilers. Forty-two were listed, second only to Joliet where the steel mills were located.
    These were all in used at the mines, for lifting coal and people, pumping water out and air in, etc.
    As primitive as Braidwood seems to us, it also ranked second highest to Joliet in burglar and fire proof safes, billiard tables, value of saloon property and sewing machines. I believe the first three things went hand in hand.
    Joliet Township was the only township to claim jewelry at all. It seems many there did not get wind of the assessor's visit, and did not have time to hide theirs.
    However, they did successfully hide their canal boats as no steam canal boats are listed there, while Custer claimed three, Wilmington two and Lockport four.
    Reed Township was the only township to claim value of railroad cars, claiming $21,000 worth within its borders, about $530,000 today.
    It was also the only township to claim pawn broker's property, which amounted to $710, about $18,000 today.
    So, all in all, how rich were the people in Reed Township compared to their neighbors?
    We provide the following list:
    • Custer Township - $33,531 ($847,000)
    • Wilmington Township - $233,794 ($5,933,000)
    • Reed Township - $93,769 ($2,368,000)
    As we see, Reed was an average place to live, in the 19th century, as we have always known.