5 of the Strangest and Funniest Taxes Ever RecordedIncome Taxes
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Our tax laws might seem convoluted, but they look completely normal compared to some of the strangest historical taxes. In fact, almost everything has been subject to taxation at one time or another, and there are still a number of bizarre taxes currently in effect.
These are some of the most unconventional tax laws ever recorded, including taxes from around the world. Who knows what will become taxable in the next 50 or 100 years?
Fireplaces might sound like an odd thing to tax, but hearth taxes were relatively common in the medieval and early modern worlds. The Byzantine Empire created the first hearth tax in the 9th century, and several European nations followed suit later on.
The French fouage, for example, was designed to cover the king’s expenses and was widespread in the 1340s. England’s hearth tax was first imposed in 1662. Before the modern census, it was simpler for officials to count hearths than to take time every year to determine how many people were living in each home.
England’s hearth tax ended in 1689, but the tradition continued in Scotland during the 1690s and persisted in Ireland until as late as the 19th century. Historians continue to research hearth taxes, and you can view hearth tax records dating back hundreds of years.
Urine isn’t exactly considered a valuable commodity, but it was once commonly taxed in the Roman Empire. At that time, urine was used for a variety of household tasks including chemical processing, laundering clothes, and tanning.
The tax on urine was first created by Emperor Nero in the first century, although it was later removed. Vespasian, a later emperor, brought the tax back and applied it to urine distributed from the Roman sewers. This made it easy for officials to determine the right amount to tax each buyer.
The urine tax eventually led to the well-known Latin phrase pecunia non olet, or “urine does not stink,” which points out that we should not associate money with how it was earned. Marx also referenced this phrase when discussing the nature of commodities and the concept of exchange value.
As with the hearth tax, England eventually moved on to taxing windows as a way of generating income without managing an entire census. The first window tax was recorded in 1696 and was set up to tax wealthier citizens more than people in the middle and lower classes.
At this time, houses with ten or fewer windows were not subject to the window tax at all, and the fee gradually increased as the number of windows grew beyond ten. That said, there was still a house tax of two shillings on even the smallest houses.
The tax was applied to houses with as few as seven windows in 1766, and owners quickly adjusted their properties to have no more than six windows. In turn, this led to unsatisfactory living conditions as many properties no longer had a sufficient number of windows.
Opposition to the window tax grew significantly in the 19th century as people became aware of its effects on public health. After several years of resistance, the tax was finally removed in 1851, around the time when Ireland repealed the world’s last hearth tax.
4. Hair Powder
In the 18th century, hair powder was commonly used to give wigs the distinctive off-white color we generally associate with them today. As they became more popular, the British Parliament eventually decided to create a tax for those who wanted to use a powdered wig.
The first version of the tax required one guinea from everyone interested in using hair powder. This didn’t apply to certain exceptional groups such as members of the military, poor clergymen, and the Royal Family.
Like many other taxes on luxury goods, the tax on hair powder gradually led to much lower demand for powdered wigs, and it was virtually useless when it was finally removed in 1869. While it once led to tens of thousands of pounds in revenue, it no longer made England more than roughly one thousand pounds.
A tax on beards is well-documented in Russia, although experts question the truth of the rumor that they existed in England. The Russian version was intended to encourage the practice of shaving and to make the Russian population adopt a more western look.
Emperor Peter I created the beard tax in 1698, and he allowed the authorities to shave men by force if they failed to accept the tax. This punishment was performed in public and intended to demonstrate that the tax was to be taken seriously. Many people resisted on religious grounds, but they didn’t stop the tax from being implemented.
The beard tax was different for different classes of people. Government, military, and aristocratic figures along with the middle classes, for example, were charged just 60 rubles. That increased to 100 rubles for wealthier merchants, while peasants and other members of the lower classes were charged a substantially lower tax.
In addition to paying the tax, bearded men had to obtain a silver or copper beard token indicating that they were authorized to wear a beard. The police could legally stop and forcibly shave anyone who wore a beard without a token, which didn’t go over well with some members of the clergy and aristocracy.
The beard tax was controversial from its inception, and it never became as popular as Peter I had hoped. That said, it was part of a larger campaign of westernization which led to many other reforms. In response to criticism, Russia’s beard tax finally ended in 1772.
American tax law is incredibly complicated, but it generally isn’t as unintuitive as some of the strangest examples of historical taxes. These are just a few of the most obvious cases — taxes have been applied to nearly anything you can think of at some point in human history.
Logan is a practicing CPA, Certified Student Loan Professional, and founder of Money Done Right, which he launched in July 2017. After spending nearly a decade in the corporate world helping big businesses save money, he launched his blog with the goal of helping everyday Americans earn, save, and invest more money. Learn more about Logan.