• Weird History

The Weirdest Things People Were Actually Taxed For

List RulesVote up the strangest historical taxes.

Everybody expects to be taxed, but what is appropriate to tax? We're all used to taxation on income, imports, vices, and the like. But really, all sorts of things are taxable in theory - if a government (or despot) is determined to do it. Whether people will stand for it is another question. Unpopular taxes can have enormous consequences, as any student of the American Revolution knows.

The taxes below are some of the more peculiar ones to come down through history. Some are millennia old, while others are still current, or very recent. And if you're trying to do your taxes now, at least you don't have to fill out a line in your 1040 about the state of your facial hair.

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  • Photo: British Library / Wikimedia Commons / Public domain
    1

    Women in Travancore, India, Were Taxed If They Wanted To Cover Their Breasts

    In the early 20th century, the Indian Princely State of Travancore imposed a heavy tax on women from lower castes if they covered their breasts. The tax was meant to enforce dress codes that would allow members of each caste to be identified easily.

    There is a story that one woman, Nangeli, refused to uncover her breasts, and also declined to pay the tax. After being pressured by the tax inspector, Nangeli defiantly cut off her own breasts in protest. She died from blood loss shortly afterward. The king of Travancore eventually abolished the tax. However, although the tax itself is historically well attested, some scholars doubt the authenticity of Nangeli's rebellious act.

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  • 2

    Conegliano, Italy, Levied A Tax On Shadows Cast In Public Spaces

    In 2015, the town of Conegliano, Italy, began to tax shopkeepers 100 Euros per year if their signs created shade on public walkways. (This is not to be confused with shade created by awnings or sidewalk furniture, which is taxed separately.)

    An association of small shop owners led by Lucas Ros, a Conegliano resident, was fighting the law as of 2017. Ros said the law was barely different from paying protection money to the Mafia: “The only difference is that this is legal.”

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  • 3

    In Sweden, Baby Names Need To Be Approved Or A Tax Must Be Paid

    Swedish parents are required to have every child’s name approved by the national tax agency by the time the child turns 5, or they can be fined up to 5,000 kroner (about $600-$700, depending on currency fluctuations).

    The rationale is that the government reserves the right to forbid names that are offensive or confusing. Some that have been rejected are “Ikea” and “Allah.” One parent, Elizabeth Hallin, named her child “Brfxxccxxmnpcccclllmmnprxvclmnckssqlbb11116” to protest the law. It's not clear whether she paid the fine the named generated.

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  • Photo: U.S. State Department / Wikimedia Commons / Public domain
    4

    Czar Peter The Great Taxed Beards

    Determined to modernize Russia, Czar Peter I (“The Great”) famously toured Western Europe in 1697-98, absorbing the modern ideas and practices he found there. Upon his return, he set about implementing a policy of “Westernization” that would bring Russia closer to parity with the European great powers.

    Apparently feeling that beards were a sign of Russia’s barbaric past, Peter tried to get rid of them. He initiated the policy in dramatic fashion, pulling out a razor and personally shaving a number of guests at a reception held in his honor.

    Although Peter initially favored total abolition of beards, he softened his stance to mere taxation. Those Russians who wished to retain their beards - as cultural inertia and even as Orthodox Christian practice compelled many to do - could pay an annual tax, in return for which they would receive a token and be exempt from the razor.

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