I’m not sure but I think it was Ben Franklin who said, “Nothing is certain but death and taxes.”
The past few months here in Maine, folks have been talking more about taxes than death. But don’t worry, I have no intention of getting into the tax fray here. I won’t even go on record and say whether I’m for death and taxes or against them – you’ll have to tune into my radio show to get that story. But I would like to scribble a few words about some of the taxes that have plagued people in earlier times.
Speaking of guys named Ben, I was reading a small book entitled “Schott’s Original Miscellany,” by Ben Schott, published by Bloomsbury. That Ben writes that the British Parliament once levied a tax on men’s hats and the dreaded Hat Tax remained in effect throughout the United Kingdom for over 20 years. For some reason, Parliament ignored women’s hats and decreed that only men’s hats be taxed.
Right now I want you to stop and imagine yourself in the average rural diner some morning in Maine. In your mind’s eye you should notice that most every man in the place is wearing some kind of head cover or cap, probably of the Red Sox or Sea Dog variety.
Now try to imagine all the revenue that could be collected for our depleted state coffers if every one of those hats were taxed. We can assume their owners all paid sales taxes on these hats, but what about another tax, a tax on a hat just for being a hat – over and above any “sale” that might have been involved.
In the jolly old London of the late 1700s, hat sellers – or “purveyors of hats” – were required to buy a hat seller’s license and display a sign that read: “Dealer in Hats by Retail.”
To enforce its hat tax, Parliament ordered the printing of duty stamps that had to be bought by each hat seller and pasted inside every man’s hat sold.
All this may sound quaint and silly to us now, but Parliament in those days was very serious about such taxes and it was pretty tough on anyone who tried to avoid them. In its wisdom it decreed that evasion of the Hat Tax – by either hat seller or hat wearer – was punishable by a stiff fine. Just to show it meant business, Parliament further decreed that forgery of hat-duty stamps was punishable by death. Yes, death!
Not even our IRS goes that far (yet).
It says a lot about a Brit and his hat that rather than avoid the tax by simply not wearing a hat, he would, at the risk of execution, “procure” forged hat-duty stamps.
Long before the Hat Tax got going, Parliament passed the Window Tax, which was first levied in 1697.
Believe it or not, that law required that every house in the kingdom be taxed at least 2 shilling for its windows. Properties with up to 20 windows paid 4 shillings and if you were lucky enough to have more than 20 drafty windows in your dwelling you could pay as much as 8 shillings.
Like any tax, these levies steadily increased, year after year, and eventually poor people began “stopping up” their windows just to avoid the ever-increasing tax.
Believing that the tax-collecting arm should be the strongest appendage in government, “window inspectors” were hired to go from house to house to make sure that no resident receive sunlight through an untaxed window.
I don’t know if any of this makes you feel better or worse about our present tax situation, but I feel better after telling you about it.
John McDonald is the author of five books on Maine, including “John McDonald’s Maine Trivia: A User’s Guide to Useless Information.” Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.