Filing taxes is a pain but be glad you’re (hopefully) not paying any of these ludicrous levies. From a penalty on hirsuteness to fees for pig-feeding, here are 10 of our favorite bizarre taxes.
“Russians who wanted to keep their beards were forced to a ‘beard tax’ upon payment of which a token or receipt was issued. This was the famous Russian ‘beard token.'”
Robert Svensson, “Coin Collector’s Corner,” Reading Eagle, September 24, 1972
King Henry VIII of England set up a tax on beards in 1535, perhaps as a convenient way to raise funds (the bearded king was himself exempt from the fee). His daughter, Elizabeth I, reintroduced the tax, penalizing “every beard of more than two weeks’ growth.”
The beard-token was introduced by Peter the Great of Russia in 1724. It was a copper coin given as a kind of receipt “to those who had paid the tax of 50 rubles every year for the privilege of wearing their beards.” The czar introduced this beard tax in the spirit of modern reform.
“Æthelred had in an earlier part of his reign levied a land-tax known as the Danegeld to pay off the Danes – the first instance of a general tax in England.”
Samuel R. Gardiner, Student’s History of England, 1915
The Danegeld was “a tax levied in England from the 10th to the 12th century to finance protection against” Danish invaders, otherwise known as Vikings. Danegeld comes from an Old Norse word meaning “Dane tribute.”
“Another of Sir William Petty’s helps in the arithmetic of population was the Chimney Tax, a revival of the old fumage or hearth-money- – smoke farthings, as the people called them – once paid, according to Domesday Book, for every chimney in a house.”
Sir William Petty, Essays on Mankind and Political Arithmetic, 1888
Fumage, or tax on chimneys, was set up in England in 1662, as “it was considered easier to establish the number of hearths than the number of heads” per household. The tax was repealed in 1689 by William and Mary, who stated that fumage was:
not only a great oppression to the poorer sort, but a badge of slavery upon the whole people, exposing every man’s house to be entered into, and searched at pleasure, by persons unknown to him.
Fumage, which ultimately comes from the Latin fumus, “smoke,” is also known as chimney-money, feuage, hearth-tax, and hearth-penny.
“The peasants came to understand that what he wished was to break up the Mir, or rural Commune, and to put them all on obrok – that is to say, make them pay a yearly sum instead of giving him a certain amount of agricultural labour. Much to his astonishment, his scheme did not meet with any sympathy.”
Donald Mackenzie Wallace, Russia, 1905
In feudal Russia, a peasant absent from his lord’s estate had to pay a special tax or rent called the obrok. Obrok translates from Russian as “rent, tribute,” and is also known as quitrent.
“The importance of the family had thus dwindled, but they still retained the old Saxon manor-house, with a couple of farms and a grove large enough to afford pannage to a hundred pigs – ‘sylva de centum porcis,’ as the old family parchments describe it.”
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, The White Company, 1890
Pannage was, in medieval England, “a tax paid for the privilege of feeding swine in the woods.” It was apparently a common practice to release domestic pigs in the forest to let them feed on “ fallen acorns, beechmast, chestnuts or other nuts.”
Pannage also refers to the act of pigs foraging in the woods, says the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), as well as the fallen acorns, etc. that they feed on. The word ultimately comes from the Latin pastio, “feeding, pasturing.”
“The usual payments made to the owners of markets and fairs are of toll and stallage. In some places, however, piccage, pennage, and other dues are payable.”
Joseph Gerald Pease and Herbert Chitty, A Treatise on the Law of Markets and Fairs, 1899
If you were a strolling player in Tudor-era England, you had to pay a piccage tax for the privilege of setting up a booth at a fair. Also spelled pickage, the word probably comes from the Anglo-Norma pic, “pickaxe,” perhaps for the act of breaking ground to set up a booth.
“The Justice Department, acting swiftly under President Johnson’s orders, filed a federal court suit yesterday to wipe out Mississippi’s poll tax. Under the law, state voters must pay $2 a year to cast ballots in state elections.”
Nicholas Katzenbach, “U.S. Sues to Kill Mississippi Poll Tax,” The Miami News, August 8, 1965
A poll tax is “a tax levied on people rather than on property, often as a requirement for voting.” The term poll tax originated in the 17th century where poll means “head” and comes from the Middle Dutch pol, “head, top.” Poll meaning “the casting and registering of votes in an election” also comes from the Middle Dutch pol, from “the notion of counting heads.” Thus, a poll tax as a requirement for voting has a double meaning: a tax on a person rather than property, and a tax to vote.
In the 19th century United States, the poll tax as a requirement for voting emerged “as a means of restricting eligible voters,” such as African Americans, Native Americans, and poor whites. In 1937, the poll tax was found to be unconstitutional.
“Continued abuses of scutage, extortion of money from nobles in return for certain privileges, aroused not only the Barons, but the lesser gentry and even the lowly citizens.”
Lynn Poole, “Stamp Will Mark Anniversary of The Magna Carta,” The Morning Record, June 3, 1965
Scutage, also known as escuage, is “a tax paid in lieu of military service in feudal times.” The word comes from the Latin scūtum, “shield.”
“The sheriffs themselves must brood upon the long decline of their once powerful office. Why was the ancient custom of tenure by ‘sheriff tooth‘ abolished? The tenant was bound to furnish abundant good food and drink to the sheriff of his county.”
“N.Y. Times Comment on Raid Made on Sheriffs’ Banquet,” The Montreal Gazette, July 13, 1928
In 13th century England, the sheriff-tooth was levied for “the service of providing entertainment for the sheriff at his county courts.” Between 1327 and 1377, according to the OED, residents of Derbyshire, a county in England, complained of the sheriff-tooth as “wrongful exaction,” akin to extortion.
“There was at one time in England a due called wax-shot or wax-scot, a gift of wax candles presented to churches times a year.”
William S. Walsh, Curiosities of Popular Customs, 1898
Wax candles don’t come cheap, or at least they didn’t in 17th century England. Parishioners were required to pay a wax-scot “to supply the church with wax candles.”
Wax-scot is also known as wax-shot. Shot meaning “discharge of a weapon” comes from the Old English gesceot, which also means “payment.” This is also where we get the term scot-free, “without having to pay.”