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Fun with Taxes!

Throughout history there have been many strange and unusual taxes (read about the history of taxes). Many of them were implemented to raise additional revenue, while the purpose of others was to promote social change. Here are some of the strangest ones:

  • In Ancient Egypt, cooking oil was taxed, and on top of that, people had to buy their taxed cooking oil from the Pharaoh’s monopoly and were prohibited from reusing previously purchased oil.
  • During the 1st century AD, Roman emperor Vespasian placed a tax on urine. At the time, urine was collected and used as a source of ammonia in such tasks as tanning hides and laundering garments. Therefore, those who obtained valuable urine from collectors were charged a tax.
  • In Ancient Rome, it was not uncommon for slave owners to free their slaves after a certain number of years of work, and/or the payment of a certain fee. Slaves could pay that fee because many of them had the opportunity to work in several places, and thus could earn the money used to obtain their freedom. The Roman government required the newly freed slave to pay a tax on his or her freedom.
  • During the Middle Ages, European governments placed a tax on soap. It remained in effect for a very long time. Great Britain didn’t repeal its soap tax until 1835.
  • King Henry I allowed knights to opt-out of their duties fight in wars by paying a tax called “scutage”. At first, the tax wasn’t high, but then King John came to power and raised it to a rate of 300%. Some claim that the excessive tax rate was one of the things that contributed to the creation of the Magna Carta, which limited the king’s power.
  • Oliver Cromwell placed a tax on Royalists, who were his political opponents, taking one-tenth of their property. He then used that money to fund his activities that were aimed against the Royalists.
  • Playing cards were taxed as early as the 16th century, but in 1710, the English government dramatically raised taxes on playing cards and dice. This led to widespread forgeries of playing cards to avoid paying taxes. The tax was not removed until 1960.
  • In 1660, England placed a tax on fireplaces. The tax led to people covering their fireplaces with bricks to conceal them and avoid paying the tax. It was repealed in 1689.
  • In 1696, England implemented a window tax, taxing houses based on the number of windows they had. That led to many houses having very few windows in order to avoid paying the tax. Eventually, this became a health problem and ultimately led to the tax’s repeal in 1851.
  • In the 1700s, England placed a tax on bricks. Builders soon realized that they could use bigger bricks (and thus fewer bricks) to pay less tax. Soon after, the government caught on and placed a larger tax on bigger bricks. Brick taxes were finally repealed in 1850.
  • In 1705, Russian Emperor Peter the Great placed a tax on beards, hoping to force men to adopt the clean-shaven look that was common in Western Europe.
  • The French had a salt tax called the gabelle, which angered many and was one of the contributing factors to the French Revolution.
  • In 1712, England imposed a tax on printed wallpaper. Builders avoided the tax by hanging plain wallpaper and then painting patterns on the walls.
    England introduced a tax on hats in 1784. To avoid the tax, hat-makers stopped calling their creations “hats”, leading to a tax on any headgear by 1804. The tax was repealed in 1811.
  • In 1789, England introduced a tax on candles. People were forbidden from making their own candles unless they obtained a license and then paid taxes on the candles they produced. The tax was repealed in 1831, leading to a more widespread popularity of candles.
  • In 1795, England put a tax on the aromatic powders that men and women put on their wigs. This led to a dramatic decline in the popularity of wigs.
  • In 1885 Canada created the Chinese Head Tax, which taxed the entry of Chinese immigrants into Canada. The tax lasted until 1923 when a law was passed banning Chinese people from entering Canada altogether with a few exceptions.
  • Johnstown, Pennsylvania was devastated by a flood that killed nearly 2,000 people in the late 19th century, and in 1936 another flood damaged the town. That led to the state of Pennsylvania passing a tax on alcohol, the proceeds of which would be used to rebuild the city. By 1942, enough money was raised to rebuild Johnstown, yet the tax exists to this day, and brings in around $200 million a year for Pennsylvania.
  • Salt was a very popular thing to tax because consuming it is necessary to humans. The British placed a tax on salt, and the salt tax gained worldwide attention when Ghandi staged nonviolent protests against it.
  • New York City places a special tax on prepared foods, so sliced bagels are taxed once as food and again as prepared food, thus creating a sliced bagel tax.
  • Maine has a special tax on blueberries, a valuable state resource.
  • Pennsylvania has a tax on coin-operated vacuum machines at gas stations.
  • Pittsburgh has a 5% amusement tax on anything that offers entertainment or allows people to engage in entertainment.
  • States like Iowa, Pennsylvania, and New Jersey exempt pumpkins from a sales tax but only if they will be eaten and not carved.
  • In 2005, Tennessee began requiring drug dealers to anonymously pay taxes on any illegal substances they sold.
    Despite marijuana being illegal on a federal level and in most states, many states impose taxes on the sale of marijuana.
  • In Arkansas, body piercings, pet grooming, and gutter cleaning are all subject to a 6% sales tax.
  • In California, snuff tobacco is taxed differently depending on its type. Dry snuff is taxed at 256% of its price if it’s $1.70 or more. Moist snuff is taxed at 170% of its price if it’s $1.70 or more.
  • In Chicago, candy that is prepared with flour is taxed as food at 1%, while candy that is prepared without flour is taxed as candy at 6.25%.
  • In Florida, a sales tax holiday was created that included items like fanny packs, bowling shoes, school supplies, vests, and a seemingly randomly assembled list of other items.
  • In California, fresh fruit bought through a vending machine is subject to a 33% tax.
  • In Oregon, double amputees get a $50 tax credit.
  • In West Virginia, there is an additional tax on sparklers.
  • Kentucky levies a sales tax on thoroughbred stud fees (whether the horses were in the Derby or not).
  • The IRS taxes stolen property. The 1040 instructions say that you should report it as stolen property. However, doing that would be self-incrimination, from which we are protected by the Constitution; therefore, one has the option of reporting it as “other income”.
  • In Texas, Christmas tree decoration services are subject to a tax only if the decorator provides the decorations and ornaments. In addition, there is a tax on holiday-themed pictures that are meant to be placed on windows.
    Many cities and states levy a “jock tax” on any income earned by entertainers and athletes while working in that city. Therefore, athletes have to pay taxes on a portion of their income in any place they play.
  • Wisconsin is one of the few states that levies a tax on internet access. When dial-up was a popular method of getting online, there was double taxation occurring because phone calls were also taxed.
  • In Colorado, essential food items are tax-free, but straws and cup lids are subject to sales tax because they are considered to be nonessential food items.
  • In New Mexico, people over 100 years old are tax-exempt, but only if they are not dependents.
  • In many states, there are “occupancy taxes” for anyone who books a room in a hotel. For example, in Texas, occupancy of any room costing over $15 is taxed at 6% of the room fee.

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