A History of Creative Taxation
Today, taxation has become reasonable formalized into income and sales taxes. Throw in taxes on property, inheritances, and casino winnings (you should be so lucky) and that about covers the subject. But, in the bygone ages, imaginative officials dreamed up novel ways of relieving people of their excess money; equally imaginative people figured out ways of holding on to their cash.
Way Back then
The Pharaohs of Ancient Egypt had a good scheme going. The common herd had to pay a tax on cooking oil and it could only be bought from a monopoly run by the Pharaoh. And, the head honcho passed a law forbidding people from reusing oil already purchased.
The Roman Emperor Vespasian (69-79 CE) placed a tax on urine. The product came from public “comfort stations,” and was bought by merchants who paid the tax. The urine was then sold it on to tanners and launderers who used it to bring out a vivid whiteness in togas – bit on the funky side though. Some Romans also used it for, wait for it, whitening their teeth.
History does not record whether or not Vespasian pissed the tax revenue away. (Profound apologies)
In 1535, Henry VIII brought in a beard tax. The amount paid depended on how high the grower stood in society, so beards became a status symbol. The monarch himself, although sporting much facial adornment, was exempt from the tax.
Henry’s daughter, Queen Elizabeth I, said that any man with more than two-week’s worth of stubble had to be taxed.
The Russian Emperor Peter the Great (1682-1721) liked the beard tax idea as a way of modernizing the country’s society. Bearded men had to carry around a token as proof they had paid the tax.
In 1696, a window tax was introduced in Britain. All houses were charged two shillings; properties with 10 to 20 windows paid an additional four shillings, and those with more than 20 windows paid eight shillings extra. The principle being that if you lived in a house with many windows you were probably rich and could, therefore, afford to pay more.
But, inventive as the tax collectors were, taxpayers could be equally inventive. They took to finding ways of camouflaging windows and bricking them up. To this day, visitors to Britain can see windows that are filled in for no apparent reason. The Window Tax was repealed in 1851.
When printed wallpaper became fashionable in Britain, the government of Queen Anne put a tax on it in 1712. Decorators quickly found a way around this by buying plain paper and stencilling patterns on it.
Taxation by Theft
There are those of a libertarian leaning who are apt to say all taxation is robbery. Canada's former prime minister Stephen Harper said in 2009 “I don’t believe that any taxes are good taxes.” Presumably that included the taxes that paid his salary and covered the upkeep of his official residence.
Several English kings believed taxes to be a good thing and were happy to commit larceny with a regal touch to collect them.
Richard I of England (1189-1199) sold some of his property so he could afford to join Peter the Hermit’s crusade. But upon returning, he took the property back. He had to, he explained, because he had no right to sell it in the first place.
The infamous King John (1199-1216), imprisoned and ransomed priests’ mistresses, confident that the holy men’s lust would overcome their greed.
Edward I (1272-1307) pretended to launch a crusade and used this as an excuse to take money, silver, and gold plate from monasteries and churches. After faking a voyage to the Holy Land, he kept the money for himself.
The fiscally sound Henry VII (1485-1509) taxed wealthy families according to “Morton’s Fork,” a ploy named after his minister of finance. If a household was thrifty, Henry took its savings. If a household lived extravagantly, he considered it wealthy and able to afford any taxes.
Taxation has not always been in the form of money. The ancient Chinese paid with pressed tea, and Jivaro tribesmen in the Amazon settled their tax debts with shrunken heads.
Tonia Sharlach is an associate professor of history at Harvard University and something of an expert in taxation history. She says that in ancient Mesopotamia “the tax on burying a body in a grave was seven kegs of beer, 420 loaves, two bushels of barley, a wool cloak, a goat, and a bed, presumably for the corpse.” That sounds a bit steep and one would think might lead to a lot of cadavers being hauled into the hills and left for the vultures.
She also tells the story of a man who claimed to be broke except some very heavy millstones in his possession; “You want your taxes? You haul those blighters off my property.”
The earliest taxes were followed almost immediately by the first known case of whining about taxes. A clay tablet from the Sumerian civilization (3200-2300 BCE) records a complaint about government levies.
We all know that Lady Godiva rode naked through the streets of Coventry to protest taxes almost a thousand years ago. Well, probably she didn’t. The good lady’s husband was Leofric Earl of Mercer and Lord of Coventry and carried attached to his name the unpromising adjective of “grim.”
The story goes that her ladyship pleaded with the grim one to lower the oppressive taxation of the people. He said he would if she got the old nag out of the stables and trotted through town wearing only a smile.
Sadly, The Harvard Magazine reports, that “most medieval scholars agree the ride never took place.”
A woman called Nangeli took her taxation protest way further than the temporary embarrassment of appearing nude in public.
Two hundred years ago lower castes were taxed heavily in the kingdom of Travancore in India. This ensured the poor people remained in debt bondage while higher castes did very well thank you very much.
As The Hindu puts it “Besides the tax on land and crops, peasants had to pay taxes for the right to wear jewellery, the right of men to grow a moustache, and even the right of women to cover their breasts.”
Nangeli was poor and she could not afford the breast tax. When the tax collector arrived for payment she cut off her breasts and presented them to him on a plantain leaf. The tax man fled and Nangeli bled to death. As with Lady Godiva’s story, verifiable facts about Nangeli’s sacrifice are hard to come by, but it’s said her ordeal led to the cancellation of the breast tax.
There have been numerous riots and rebellions against taxes over the centuries that have led to rising death tolls, 308 since 1600 by one count. Among the protests was one by New Zealand farmers in 2003 against a tax on methane emitted by sheep and cattle – the fart tax. The anti-tax moo-vement members sent packages of animal poo to members of parliament.
“Taxes are what we pay for a civilized society”
U.S. Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes
Ancient Rome had an inheritance tax of five percent, later 10 percent; however, close relatives of the deceased were exempted. Perhaps, it was felt they had already suffered enough in the loss of their loved one.
As Lady Godiva allegedly made her stately progress through the streets of Coventry the locals were ordered to stay indoors with covered windows. One fellow called Tom couldn’t resist a peep as the comely lady rode by. The story goes that he was instantly struck blind and that from his injudicious peek we got the term “Peeping Tom.”
According to Ferdinand Grapperhaus, author of Tax Tales, the origins of modern taxation can be traced to wealthy subjects paying money to their monarch in order to avoid military service.
The folks heading up India’s Mauryan Empire (ca 321-185 BCE) held an annual contest for people to come up with good ideas that would help solve government problems. The winner received an exemption from taxes for the rest of their lives.
“Feeling Overtaxed? The Romans Would Tax Your Urine.” Brian Handwerk, National Geographic, April 14, 2016.
“Lady Godiva: The Naked Truth.” Charles Coe, Harvard Magazine, July-August 2003.
“200 Years on, Nangeli’s Sacrifice only a Fading Memory.” Nidhi Surendranath, The Hindu, October 21, 2013.
“Farmers Raise Stink over New Zealand ‘Fart Tax.’ ” David Fickling, The Guardian, September 5, 2003.