The famous old Benjamin Franklin quote that ‘there are only two things certain in life: death and taxes’ has certainly rung true throughout history. It’s fair to say there have been some weird and perhaps not-so-wonderful taxes down the years including taxing beards, windows and – believe it or not – urine and cow flatulence.
It’s hard to imagine modern tax forms such as the W-2 being used to record such taxes as whether or not you’re single, how many windows you have, whether you sell urine, drink alcohol or how many bricks your house has.
So, what are some of the more unusual historical taxes?
- Window tax
In the 18th century, the British government looked for surreptitious ways to tax the wealthy with the window tax being one such method.
The thinking behind this tax was that wealthier people likely had larger homes with several windows, hence the tax. Printed wallpaper was another variant on a ‘sneaky wealth tax’ but some got around this by hanging plain wallpaper and painting a pattern on it.
- The beard tax
In Russia, Tsar Peter I – known as Peter the Great – levied a beard tax to encourage Russians to emulate the generally clean shaven look of their European counterparts.
The tax soon saw the clean shaven look predominate in Russia.
- Greenhouse effect – flatulent cows tax
A more recent tax was that imposed on farmers in 2003 to compensate for flatulent cows contributing to greenhouse gasses: studies say cows could be responsible for some 18% of them, so each cow had a tax levied on it.
- Urine tax
In Ancient Rome urine was used for various purposes including tanning, laundering and even brushing teeth; the ammonia it contained had strong cleaning properties.
Entrepreneurs collecting urine and putting it to use soon found themselves making less profit as Emperors Nero and Vaspasian levied taxes on this human waste product.
- Pro-smoking tax
Taxing smokers has been a feature of many governments to try and encourage people to quit while raising significant revenues in the meantime, but in the Chinese province of Hubei there was a tax to actually encourage people to smoke.
At the time – about 2009 – China was relying on the revenues from cigarette taxes to help combat a tough economy so quotas were set for cigarette sales.
Those building homes in Georgian Britain had to pay taxes on bricks to help fund wars in American colonies.
Larger bricks were manufactured to lessen the effect of the tax, but the government countered by imposing a maximum brick size and doubling the taxes on larger bricks.
- Being single
Single people nowadays often complain about single travel supplements and other ways the single state costs more than being in a couple, but how about a tax purely for being unattached?
In 9 AD, Roman emperor Augustus introduced taxes for those who had no children. The idea was to encourage procreation and curb immoral behavior.
Other parts of the world including the Ottoman Empire, England and Russia followed – and even today in the US, the state of Missouri charges single men aged between 21 and 50 $1 per year.
- Cowardice tax
If a knight in medieval England didn’t fancy risking life and limb in battle, they could pay a fee – a ‘scutage tax’ – to skip the odd battle or two.
The tax also operated in Germany and France until the 14th century.
- Alcohol tax
In the late 19th century Johnstown in Pennsylvania was hit by a flood that killed around 2,000 people with another striking in 1936.
This led to the state of Pennsylvania taxing alcohol to raise funds to rebuild Johnstown: by 1942 enough money had been raised to rebuild the city but today the tax is still in force raising some $200 million.
- Tightening the belt
In Texas, those seeking the ‘cowboy look’ have to pay extra if this includes a big belt buckle. It’s considered an accessory and not part of ‘essential clothing’, so the buckle attracts extra sales tax while the rest of the essential cowboy attire, such as the belt itself, boots, hats and the rest doesn’t.