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9 strangest taxes in history

A greek statue holding a coin

Despite the reputation it has for some, Tax is a deeply fascinating area of accountancy and has a rich and unusual history. Here we list some of our favourite examples of strange taxation throughout history…

Urine tax

This tax was introduced in Ancient Rome. Back then, human urine was viewed as a valuable commodity. It had many uses: tanning, laundering, and even teeth brushing.

It started after entrepreneur types were discovered to be collecting the liquid waste. Both Emperors - Nero and Vespasian - noticed this and levied a tax on it’s purchase. It’s widely believed that this led to the popular Latin phrase Pecunia non olet, i.e. ‘money does not stink’.

Being a coward tax

From around 1100, English medieval knights could opt out of fighting a war by paying for the privilege. It’s official name was ‘Scutage’ but was commonly known as ‘cowardice tax’. It would enable one to be let out of military service to the King.

After its inception the Scutage system evolved into a general tax on knights’ land - by the 13th century. By the 14th century, however, this tax became redundant and faded away.

Beard tax

In 1698 Emperor Peter I of Russia created the beard tax. It was thought to be a move that would help westernise the appearance of Russian society, as he deemed it an old-fashioned fashion choice.

Those who wanted to keep their facial hair had to pay their way and were given a token to carry as proof of payment. Henry VIII had also brought out a similar tax for Tudor England. Given the costs associated, beards quickly became a symbol of stature and wealth.

Window tax

This tax was first introduced in England in 1696. It was intended to be quite a liberal tax as those with smaller houses would pay less or be exempt.

This certainly proved to be the case when applied to the rural poor, but didn’t really help the urban poor. In more densely populated areas it was rare for the working classes to live in individual homes. They would often live in large tenement buildings, amongst many others, and under the terms of the tax this was considered to be one house so they’d be subjected to heavy window tax assessments.

This incredibly unpopular tax led to the removal of windows and much natural light, to prevent paying the extra money. The negative effects of the lack of natural light and ventilation led to a growing movement which successfully stopped the tax in 1851.

Knowledge tax

In 1815 Britain started to tax newspaper purchases. This was initially designed to tax the wealthy. However, this did not work out that way.

The tax quickly proved to be counterproductive, as it put a huge pressure on the press by reducing the circulation and made it less accessible. Plus it was a form of censorship for those too poor to afford it. The tax was abolished in 1855.

Hat tax

A hat tax was introduced in 1784 and was aimed at raising revenue for the government in a way that would mostly correspond to a person’s wealth.

At this point in history it was the rich who could afford numerous hats, whereas the poor might have one cheap hat, or none at all.

Heavy fines were doled out to those who failed to pay. This led to some hat-makers rename their creations. However, in response, a tax on any ‘headgear’ was introduced by 1804. The tax was repealed in 1811.

Playing cards tax

Yes, believe it or not people were taxed for playing cards!

This was in force from as early as the 16th century. Furthermore, in 1710, the English government increased the tax on playing cards and dice. Inevitably, this led to mass forgeries of playing cards. The tax was not removed until 1960.

Wallpaper tax

Brought out in 1712, Britain taxed anyone who bought patterned, painted or printed wallpaper. This tax was introduced into Britain due to the fact that wallpaper provided a cheap alternative to tapestry or panelling, so the government saw a new opportunity to raise revenue.

This led to people finding creative ways to avoid the tax, such as – using plain paper and then having painted after applying. The tax was abolished in 1836.

Clock tax

No doubt similar to the hat tax, the clock was introduced to tax the wealthy. In 1797, the British Clock Tax was applied to all timepieces, such as watches and clocks.

The annual tax rate was two shillings and sixpence for a standard watch, and up to ten shillings for a gold watch. Clocks costing more than twenty shillings were rated at five shillings.

And there we have it! This is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the history of Tax. If you are interested in discovering more or starting a career in tax please visit our courses pages.