In Ancient Rome, human urine was a valuable commodity. It was used for tanning, laundering – the ammonia in it apparently made for whiter-than-white togas – and even teeth brushing. When entrepreneurial types began collecting the waste matter, both Emperors Nero and Vespasian noticed. They levied a tax on the acquisition of wee, which led to the popular Latin phrase Pecunia non olet, or, ‘money does not stink’.
In a bid to westernise the appearance of Russian society, Emperor Peter the Great slapped a tax on what he deemed to be an old-fashioned fashion choice: the beard. Those who opted to retain their facial hair had to pay up and were given a token to carry as proof of payment. Henry VIII had also imposed a similar tax on Tudor England – the amount went up depending on the gent’s standing in society, so beards quickly became a symbol of stature.
A Russian beard token, carried to indicate that the owner had paid the tax
The fact that the upper classes tended to think of the lower classes as smelly ingrates, might have something to do with the 141-year tax that came into play in 1712 – soap. A heavy tax was placed on the sudsy stuff, and it out priced poorer-paid folk. Indeed, it was such a heavy tax that soap makers began to make their product off the books for the black market, after which tax collectors took to locking the lids of the soap boiling pans overnight.
From 1885-1923, Canada imposed what was tactfully called the ‘Chinese Head Tax’ on all immigrants from China, which was introduced to discourage immigrants from the Far East. At a time when no other ethnic group was expected to pay a tax, Chinese settlers had to pay $50 (which rose to $500 by 1903). After settling, they may have earned as little a $1 a day – half the salary white men would have earned.
A head tax receipt
You may not be able to put a price on style but, in 1784, the English government did put a price on men’s hats. The price of the tax changed according to the value of the headgear – a simple flat cap costing under four shillings warranted a threepence charge, while more expensive styles, such as early top hats, costing over 12 shillings demanded a 2-shilling duty.
Winters in much of 17th century England were colder, for many, than they might otherwise have been, thanks to a tax placed on all fireplaces between 1660 and 1689. Much like the window tax of 1696, people hastily bricked up their costly chimneys and shivered through the chilly nights to dodge the tax.
For a short period of time in the 19th century, in the princely state of Travancore, India, women of lower caste were required to pay a tax, should they wish to cover their breasts in public. This tax, known as ‘mulakkaram’, led to an extraordinary act of rebellion when a woman named Nangeli refused to comply – she cut off her own breasts and handed them to the tax collector on a palm leaf. She died from her wounds, but the tax was abolished.
If you were a knight in medieval England and you were called up to war, but you didn’t really fancy it, you could pay scutage – popularly known as cowardice tax – to be let out of military service to the King. Having begun in 1100, the Scutage system evolved into a general tax on knights’ land by the 13th century. It morphed then further still into a hefty fine paid in lieu of service before becoming redundant in the 14th century.
As Lord Protector of England, Scotland and Ireland, Oliver Cromwell brought in some pretty restrictive laws, but one of his most tactical was to tax his enemies. He levied a 10% income tax against known Royalist households, known as the ‘decimation tax’. While he claimed he needed the funds to finance his militia, which in turn had only been necessary because of the acts of the Royalists, some have noted that it’s a very convenient way to have kept his enemies in check.
Ancient Egypt gave us one of the oldest-known taxes, but it’s a remarkably small-fry levy from the land of gold and jewels: cooking oil. Tax collectors, or scribes, would visit people’s houses to make sure they weren’t re-using their fat, or cooking with cheaper alternatives. Not only was the tax paid to the Pharaoh, but the oil itself was owned by the ruler – kerching!