What Won't They Tax?

The following is reprinted from Uncle John's Curiously Compelling Bathroom Reader. They say the only certainties are death and taxes. Death may be the better option…


Oliver Wendell Holmes called taxes “the price we pay for civilization.” But few things provoke more outrage in people than being taxed. The first recorded tax evader was imprisoned by Holy Roman Emperor Constantine in A.D. 306. The greatest revolt in English history occurred in 1381 when Richard II imposed a poll, or “head,” tax. The first armed rebellions against the newly formed United States were Shay’s Rebellion in 1786 (by New England farmers against property taxes) and the Whiskey Rebellion of 1791 (against a liquor tax). During the French Revolution in 1789, all tax collectors were rounded up and sent to the guillotine. And despite all that, governments persist in extracting revenue from their reluctant citizenry. Here are some of the more peculiar examples through the centuries:


Imposed by the Roman emperor Nero, around A.D. 60. Why urine? The contents of public toilets were collected by tanners and laundry workers for the ammonia, which was used for curing leather and bleaching togas. Nero slapped a fee on the collectors (not the producers) and it was such a money-raiser that Nero’s successor, Vespasian, continued the tax. When his son, Titus, complained about the gross nature of the tax, Vespasian is reputed to have held up a gold coin and said, “Non olet” (“This doesn’t stink”).


Peter the Great, czar of Russia, imposed a tax on souls in 1718…meaning everybody had to pay it (it’s similar to a head tax or a poll tax). Peter was antireligious (he was an avid fan of Voltaire and other secular humanist philosophers), but agreeing with him didn’t excuse anyone from paying the tax—if you didn’t believe humans had a soul, you still had to pay a “religious dissenters” tax. Peter also taxed beards, beehives, horse collars, hats, boots, basements, chimneys, food, clothing, all males, as well as birth, marriage, and even burial.


A favorite strategy of governments to encourage population growth and raise money at the same time. Julius Caesar tried it in 18 B.C. The English imposed it in 1695. The Russians under Peter the Great used it in 1702, as did the Missouri legislature in 1820. The Spartans of ancient Greece didn’t care about the money—they preferred public humiliation. Bachelors in Sparta were required to march around the public market in wintertime stark naked, while singing a song making fun of their unmarried status.


In 1795 powdered wigs were all the rage in men’s fashion. Desperate for income to pay for military campaigns abroad, British prime minister William Pitt the Younger levied a tax on wig powder. Although the tax was short-lived due to the protests against it, it did ultimately have the effect of changing men’s fashions. By 1820 powdered wigs were out of style.


Pitt the Younger also tried a chimney tax, but found that windows were easier to count. People paid the tax based on the number of windows in their home. Result: a lot of boarded-up windows.


On June 30, 2006, the U.S. Treasury Department stopped collecting a 3% federal excise tax on long-distance calls—familiar to billpayers as one of a list of taxes tacked onto every phone bill. The purpose of the tax? To help pay for the Spanish-American war…in 1898. Phone service was so rare at the time that the tax was intended to impact only the wealthiest Americans. But the tax persisted long after the war ended, and virtually every American household ended up paying it. “It’s not often you get to kill a tax,” Treasury Secretary John Snow said after the tax was repealed, “particularly one that goes back so far in history.” Taxpayers can file for a refund for the last three years the tax existed…but not for the previous 105. (Note: There’s still a 3% excise tax on local phone calls.) Reprinted from Uncle John’s Curiously Compelling Bathroom Reader. ©2006 by the Bathroom Reader’s Press.
The article above is reprinted with permission from Uncle John's Curiously Compelling Bathroom Reader, a fantastic book by the Bathroom Readers' Institute. The 19th book in this fan-favorite series contain such gems like The Greatest Plane that Never Was, Forgotten Robot Milestones, Ancient Beauty Secrets, and more. Since 1988, the Bathroom Reader Institute had published a series of popular books containing irresistible bits of trivia and obscure yet fascinating facts. If you like Neatorama, you'll love the Bathroom Reader Institute's books - go ahead and check 'em out!

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