11 Strange and Wacky Taxes Through History

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"In this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes."
-Ben Franklin

Throughout history, countries have come up with creative ways of generating tax revenue. Here's are some of strangest tax laws both past and present, and what people did to avoid them.

England’s Unusual and Creative Tax Laws

THE WINDOW TAX

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Sunshine and fresh air? That will be extra

First imposed in England in 1696 by William and Mary, this property tax was based on the number of windows a home possessed. At first, the tax rate was set at a flat rate of 2 shillings upon each house and an additional charge of 4 shillings on houses with between 10 and 20 windows, and 8 shillings on houses with more than 20 windows.  The tax replaced the hearth tax which required tax collectors to enter homes. It was more efficient for tax collectors to simply stand outside, count the windows, and levy the tax.

To avoid the tax, people started boarding up windows, constructing homes with fewer windows, or even entire windowless floors to avoid the tax. The tax was likely meant to collect from the wealthy, but lower classes living in windowless tenements paid a high price in more illnesses. The Act was repealed in 1851 after a campaign started by medical professionals argued that it was a “tax on health” and that the lack of windows and crowded homes was leading to a rise in  epidemics.

Tax Receipt. 1790. Princeton University Library Rare Book Division. General Ephemera Collection.

Tax Receipt. 1790. Princeton University Library Rare Book Division. General Ephemera Collection.

THE WALLPAPER TAX

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You want colorful walls? Show us some green.

In 1712, England imposed a tax on printed wallpaper. The tax was originally levied at 1 pence per square yard. Builders avoided the tax by hanging plain wallpaper and then stenciling and painting it later.  The tax was abolished in 1836.

THE HAT TAX

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You want to cover that head? That requires a cover charge.

Between 1784-1811, England imposed a sales tax on hats. In London Milliners were required to buy a retail license for two pounds and shops were charged 5 shillings. On top of that, a sales tax was passed onto the purchaser. The government tracked the number of hats sold by issuing revenue stamps which were pasted inside the hats.

Forgery of these revenue stamps carried the death sentence.

To avoid the tax, sellers stopped calling them “hats.” 1804 the government responded by amending the tax to headgear, anything that could be worn on the head, including wigs.  Incidentally, wig wearing was declining due to a Wig Powder tax introduced in 1795.

Weird Taxes from Around the World

BEARD TAX

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Want to shave your tax bill? Shave your face first.

The Beard Tax was established by Tsar Peter I in 1698. His motivation? After traveling abroad he returned to Russia and wanted to modernize and Westernize the culture. He started with dress and facial hair. He shaved his own beard. He even shaved the beards off of his dinner guests at a reception. When the trend did not take off, he declared all men must shave their beards. When people fought the declaration, he hit them in the pocketbook and instead created a tax on beards. 

Wealthy beard wearers were taxed at a higher rate. The tax ranged from 100 rubles annually for nobility and merchants to a lower 1 kopek for commoners.  Since a rouble was about 38 grams of silver at this time, we can estimate that your beard tax might have cost you a whopping $1,500 today. 

Incidently, Peter I wasn’t the first ruler to introduce the beard tax. That honor goes to Henry VIII who introduced it in Britain briefly in 1535.

THE SALT TAX

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Salt tax sparks a revolution.

Did you know salt was a contributing factor to the French revolution? In the 14th century, the gable tax applied to the sale of any consumer goods. But the 15th century the gabelle specifically was a tax on salt. The gabelle was unfairly applied to French peasants as nobility, clergy and other privileged persons were exempt.

How did they avoid the tax? Revolution of course. The storming of the Bastille occurred on July 14, 1789 and abolishment of the gable occurred on March 1790.

DENMARK’S FLATULENCE TAX ON COWS

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Cow in Denmark? Going green will cost you some green.

Countries around the world making commitments to reducing greenhouse gases have identified agriculture as one of the major sources of methane gas. The main culprit? Methane case in cow farts. Studies have found that the methane released by cows may account for up to 18 percent of Europe’s greenhouse gasses. Several EU countries have adopted taxes on each cow to encourage change. Denmark levies the steepest tax, each cow will cost you up to $110. But it’s not limited to Europe. In 2016 California passed a similar law where a study found that agriculture accounts for nearly 60 percent of methane emissions. The state has some wacky ideas to encourage farmers to limit emissions from California’s 1.7 million dairy cows. Including methane digesters that will capture methane gas from cows and turn it into truck fuel.

Strange State Taxes here at Home

THE BELT BUCKLE TAX

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Want to giddy up with your posse? First you’ll have to pony up with us.

If you are going to dress like a real cowboy, it will cost you extra in Texas. Go ahead and grab your Stetson hat, belt, boots, and shiny spurs, but that big ole belt buckle? You will pay an extra 6.25 percent sales tax on that part of your getup. But the buckle is the finishing touch on the outfit, right? How can you refuse?

By the way, Texas also generates about $15 million in annual revenue from their “pole tax” that assesses each strip club patron an additional $5 admission tax.

NEW MEXICO REWARDS IT’S CENTENARIANS

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Are you 100-years old? No tax if you live in New Mexico.

If you live in New Mexico when you celebrate your 100th birthday, you’ll have something else to celebrate. No more sate personal tax returns! In New Mexico, beginning with tax year 2002, persons 100 years-old or more who are not dependents of other taxpayers are exempt from filing and paying New Mexico personal income tax.

THE PLAYING CARD TAX

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Want to play poker? The joker and tax is wild in Alabama.

Alabama charges a 10 cent tax on any pack of cards that contains 54 or fewer in the deck. Sellers pay an additional $1 fee and $3 annual license fee. Uno players rejoice, with 108 cards in the Uno deck the tax doesn't apply.

THE TATTOO TAX

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Want that body art? Get ready to pay for the pain.

In Arkansas, your ink and body piercings will cost you an extra 6% sales tax.

This is must my top 7, there are several more that made sense to the governments at the time. 

Tax records can be funny, but they do tell us a lot about history and our families. Read my blog post here about how taxes records can be a great resource for clues and details as you research your family history.  

NEW YORK STATE BAGEL TAX

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Want that sliced? New York takes a cut too.

New York is known for their bagels, but did you know the state adds an 8-cent tax to any altered bagel. Want your favorite cream cheese with it? Lox, capers, and onions? Toasted? Even just sliced? New York’s consumption tax (meant for food eaten on the premises) will ad 8-cents to your order. Any altered bagel, even if you get it to go, is considered by New York state law one to be consumed on the premises. If you want to avoid the tax, prepare your bagels at home.

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Hi, I’m Kimberlie. Do you need help researching your family? I always say, follow the money. Tax records can be wacky, but they can also be wonderful too! They provide a goldmine of information and clues for researching your family's history. Read more about it in my blog post "Tax Records - A Rich Resource When Researching Your Ancestry."

Kimberlie Guerrieri