GENEVA — Governments rarely have an imagination except in one area: taxes. There was even an Emperor Vespasian who created a tax on urine, a resource that was employed at the time to treat fabric and laundry, and was even used in medicine. History is littered with such examples. Here’s a glimpse at some of the most absurd ones.
Always in pursuit of money, Henry VIII started taxing subjects sporting a beard in 1535. His daughter, Elizabeth Tudor, followed his example and also instituted a tax on stubbles more than two weeks old. In Russia, Czar Peter the Great introduced a similar tax at the end of the 17th century. Bearded men received a bronze token to prove they had paid the tax. It was engraved with a drawing of the beard and the Russian words for "the tax was collected." History doesn’t say whether women with beards were equally affected.
Fireplaces and windows
In England, a tax on fireplaces and windows was introduced in 1660 and 1696 respectively. Taxpayers came up with a creative response. They built fake walls to hide their chimneys and windows. This bizarre tax made homes unhygienic and triggered diseases (tuberculosis in particular began to spread easily).
The "trompe l’œil", an unexpected consequence of the tax on windows — Photo: Tim Green
Art, on the other hand, took a step forward as a result of the tax. The technique of "trompe l’œil" — the visual illusion of three dimensions in a painting — spread across cities. Concerned by the medical cost of the tax, the government of London abolished it in 1851.
It’s Great Britain that once again had this great idea: a tax on the perfumed powder applied on wigs. Since wigs were popular, a long list of people were exempted from the tax including, most notably, the members of the royal family and their servants. This tax, which was implemented in 1795, slowly but surely changed the rules of fashion. In 1812, the number of people who paid the tax was 46,684. In 1855, it was a mere 997, signaling the waning trend. In 1869, the tax was abolished.
To profit from Chinese immigrants constructing the large network of railroads, canals and dams in Canada, the government created a special tax on Chinese in the country in 1885, writes Alessandro Giraudo in 20 Stories To Understand The Global Economy. The tax, which reduced their numbers in Canada, was abolished in 1923.
Chinese laborers in Ontario — Photo: BiblioArchives / LibraryArchives
Pay your tax or else…
To deter tax evasion, empires got creative. In 294 AD, Emperor Diocletian published tax declarations of all citizens in the public domain so that everyone could see what their neighbor had paid and rat out evaders. He also created a special force to investigate fraud. "The investigators used torture if needed," writes Omar Fassal in A History of Financial Fraud.
They didn’t hesitate to employ tactics of psychological pressure. They encouraged children to denounce their parents, wives to denounce their husbands, and slaves to denounce their masters. They increased revenue from peasants by adding children and old people to their tax base. If peasants abandoned their fields and fled, their property was forced onto neighbors — who had to foot the tax bill.
In the German city of Essen, authorities slapped a tax on owners of tanning beds (20 euros per month per machine) in 2010.
In Denmark, a tax on fat was introduced in 2011. It targets products like butter and oil in order to encourage people to eat healthy.
Taxes have, apparently, come a long way since the days of tariffs on urine and wig powders.