Barbecue stopper: Weird taxes
If the tax system seems unfathomable sometimes, keep in mind that throughout human history there has been a plethora of “strange” rules and regulations in regards to tax that citizens of various jurisdictions, and time periods, have had to cope with.
The hipster haters
Henry 8th, who had a beard, is said to have taxed them in 1535. But it was a “progressive” tax in that the rate varied depending on the beard wearer’s social position (so we presume the King was spared the tax). His successor, Elizabeth 1st, is also said to have introduced another form of her father’s beard tax, although perhaps this form of the tax reflected her taste in facial embellishment. She taxed every beard wearer if he had more than two weeks’ growth. Both of these taxes however may be apocryphal.
It is certain however that around 1700, the Russian emperor Peter the Great placed a tax on beards. It is documented that he developed anti-beard sentiments after his 1697 grand tour of western Europe. The tour famously convinced the monarch that Russia was desperately behind-the-times — economically, scientifically, and sartorially — and inspired him to undertake substantial efforts towards modernising his country’s male population with the clean-shaven look. With Movember coming up, one wonders which of these initiatives has the capacity to raise more revenue.
During the 1st century CE, the Roman emperor Vaspasian imposed a urine tax (Latin: vectigal urinae) on the distribution of urine from public urinals connected to Rome’s cloaca maxima, which means “great sewer” (so this clears up another bit of trivia).
The urine collected from public urinals was sold as an ingredient for several chemical processes, as well as in the tanning process. It also whitened togas, as it contained high levels of ammonia.
When Vespasian’s son complained about the disgusting nature of the tax, his father held up a gold coin and asked whether he felt offended by its smell. The phase pecunia non olet (money doesn’t stink) is still used today to indicate that the value of money is not tainted by its origins.
Perhaps a modern equivalent of the above is today’s “flatulence tax”. Ireland and Denmark, along with other EU nations, have begun taxing cattle owners on cow flatulence. The US state of California has also looked at a similar plan. The “byproduct” of livestock is responsible for about 18% of the greenhouse gases that are causing global warming, according to the Food and Agricultural Organisation of the UN.
Note however that reports have deemed the tax’s nickname a tad misleading, as most methane production is from the first stomach of bovine livestock, and therefore a byproduct of burping rather than from the other end.
A window tax
In the 1690s, England taxed the number of windows on a house. Consequently, houses began to be built with very few windows, or people would close up existing windows. When this led to health problems from lack of fresh air, the tax was finally repealed in 1851.
Where does the word “tax” come from?
Latin possesses a word that has come to be deemed the origin of our modern word tax, which was the verb taxare, which means to estimate or appraise. Hence taxo (“I estimate”). The original Latin verb became taxer in Old French, and crossed over into English as both task (retaining the meaning of estimate) and tax (both verb and noun).
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