Taxes from History Youíll Be Glad You Donít Have to Pay!

No one is excited about a new tax (except maybe a monarch charging the tax)—and that was as true thousands of years ago in the great ancient civilizations as it is today. But, now, as then, taxes are used to raise money for the government—be it a democracy or monarchy or some other form—to pay for roads, schools, and defense, among other things. As you’ll see in the list below, some taxes are so unpopular and have such dire unseen consequences that they are short lived. You will also see how the desire to avoid paying certain taxes influenced cultural aspects like fashion, architecture, and interior design.

10 Historical taxes

  1. Cooking oil in ancient Egypt. The Pharaoh of Egypt had quite the scheme in place with the cooking oil tax in ancient Egypt. Not only did the Pharaoh have a monopoly on oil production and sale, he/she then taxed everyone on their purchase of the oil! Scribes would visit houses to ensure no one was re-using oil or substitution rendered fat from animals.
  2. Soap—eek! At several points throughout European and British history a tax soap has been imposed. Britain’s soap tax began in 1712 and wasn’t repealed until 1835! The tax was so heavy, it made soap too expensive for poor families, which left them working hard, stinky manual jobs and no way to get clean! A soap black market sprung up, but only lasted long enough for tax collectors to find a way to shut down the illegal sales of suds.
  3. Fireplaces and wallpaper. Want to build a house with a fireplace in each room to, you know, keep warm? Or maybe you already have a fireplace in your master bedroom. Either way, starting in 1660, England placed a tax on each of those fireplaces! Luckily this tax only lasted eight years, because people were bricking up their fireplaces to avoid the tax…and freezing!
    What about simply updating the look of your sitting room? If you wanted to redecorate your home in the early eighteenth century in England, you needed to factor in the new wallpaper tax into your budget! A tax on fashionable printed wallpaper had builders throwing up plain wallpaper and then painting patterns on the walls to avoid the extra cost!
  4. Windows. 1696 in England saw a window tax imposed on house owners. This was thought to be a sneaky way to tax the rich, who owned big houses with lots of expensive glass windows. However, people of all classes began dodging this tax by bricking up old windows or building new homes with fewer windows. The dark, unventilated spaces affected people’s health and finally led to the tax’s repeal in 1851.
  5. Beards. Russian Emperor Peter the Great wanted Russia to join its progressive, modern Western Europe neighbors, and so in 1705 he placed a tax on beards to encourage men to adopt the newer clean-shaven look. If you wanted to keep your facial hair, you had to pay the tax and carry a special token as a receipt of payment.
  6. Playing cards. This was a real bummer. Playing cards and dice had been taxed to some degree since the sixteenth century, but in 1710, the English government drastically raised those taxes. The tax wasn’t repealed until 1960!
  7. Bricks, of all things! England was at it again in the eighteenth century when they began taxing bricks, a primary building material of the time, to help fund the war against the American revolutionaries. Since the tax was levied simply on the number of bricks used, bricklayers began making larger bricks to cut down on the tax owed. The government caught on and placed a proportionally larger tax on larger bricks. This tax was in use until 1850. Today, brick size is one way used to date buildings in Britain—smaller bricks mean the building was probably built before the 1784 brick tax.
  8. Hats. In 1784, your personal style could be taxed in England, thanks to the men’s hat tax. Once again, haberdashers and the fashion conscious began skirting the tax by creating and buying head ornaments that weren’t called hats (although that’s what they really were). The government caught on, though, and any headgear, including wigs, were taxed starting from 1804 until the end of the tax in 1811.
  9. Salt. Both Britain and France tried to implement a salt tax on their countrymen, with dire results. Gandhi staged nonviolent protests against it and the French commoners added the tax as one more reason for their revolution in 1789.
  10. Candles. As if the days before electricity weren’t dark enough, England imposed a tax on candles in 1789. And don’t think you could simply make your own to evade the tax! If you did that, then you must get a candle-making license and pay taxes on the candles you made. Thankfully the tax was ended in 1831.