The 6 Most Ridiculous Things Ever Taxed
You can tell a lot about a civilization by the taxes it collects. Throughout history, governments have used high taxes to try to discourage certain behaviors (like smoking) and cash in on others. So it's very telling and/or frightening that at various times governments have taxed ...
Over a million people lived in ancient Rome, and one of the big problems was what to do with all those bodily fluids that leaked out of the citizens in an era when advanced plumbing wasn't really a thing. We're talking about an amount of urine that could quickly turn their city into Venice.
Ew. No. Just ... ew.
The Romans liked keeping their city neat and therefore had lots of public toilets scattered throughout the city. They also famously had a sewage system, but not surprisingly, not every toilet was connected to it. Not by a long shot. All those public toilets just had large containers under them, which if left alone would eventually fill up. But luckily, ancient Romans were like the MacGyver's of piss.
Emperor Vespasian was the first one to realize he was quite literally sitting on a liquid gold mine. He started sending people out to collect urine, which he got for free, and then sold it to a huge variety of workmen in the city. These workmen paid a tax for the use of the urine, which was easier than going out and rounding it all up themselves.
Obviously. Wait, what?
So just what did they do with it? Let's just say everyone in Rome must have been walking around smelling like a latrine: Tanners used it to soften leather, and it was especially practical in the laundry, where it was used to get togas that famous bright white. So the city stayed clean, everyone had nice clothes and the government took in lots of tax revenue. Everyone wins.
Finally, drunken urination pays off.
When Vespasian's son pointed out (and rightly so) that this whole thing was utterly disgusting, the emperor supposedly held up a gold coin and said, "It doesn't stink," meaning that money is money no matter where it comes from. Although if it had been in your toga too long it probably would have had a faint smell of piss.
Don't mock, yours is covered in ball sweat.
For being such an awesome guy, Vespasian was rewarded by having his name applied to toilets all over Europe. No, seriously, the word for public toilets is "vespasiennes" in French, "vespasiene" in Romanian and "vespasiani" in Italian. So while Mel Brooks lied to us when he said toilets were named after Prince John, that same scenario really did happen in Italy.
The Anti-Cleanliness Tax
We think of people from the past as pretty lax when it comes to personal hygiene, and compared with today's "Oh-my-God-it's-a-germ-kill-it!" culture, that's probably a fair assessment. However, this wasn't necessarily through lack of knowledge about the benefits of being clean or the lack of desire. No, part of the reason people in England and France were so dirty for so long was the fact that buying soap was discouraged with heavy taxes, because the government decided bathing was the devil's pastime.
Mostly because it is.
Bathing regularly is something that has gone in and out of fashion over the past 2,000 years. While some queens happily boasted that they had bathed only twice in their lives, other people, like the ancient Britons and the odd "eccentric" aristocrat, thought that bathing at least once a week was good for you. The popularity of more regular baths was on the up again in England when King Charles I pissed off Parliament and got his head chopped off. His replacement was the ultrareligious, royalty and Christmas-hating, no-fun Puritan Oliver Cromwell, and it is thanks to him that the English went back to being filthy.
The God-fearing Puritans thought being too clean was ungodly. All that smelling good and being naked and wet -- nothing good would come of it. So to discourage it, they slapped on a huge soap tax, like the massive taxes on cigarettes now. Although Cromwell initiated the tax, when the royal family was restored under Charles II, the king never bothered to change the law. After all, if people were willing to pay to be clean, the king might as well make some money off it.
Capes don't buy themselves.
The tax was in place for 200 years and was taken so seriously that soap makers actually had representatives of the king watch them make all of their soap to ensure that none of it was being made in secret and sold on the black market. When this tax was finally repealed in England in the 1800s, the chancellor supposedly said, "A clean nation is a happy nation," and clothes that you could wash regularly became all the rage. Of course, from that moment on, Britain became the nonstop hedonistic fuck orgy it is today.
Russia pretty much sucked in 1697. Peter the Great, new to the throne and having that awesome name to live up to, had grand plans to modernize the country to catch up to the rest of the world. This led to some great things, such as the construction of St. Petersburg from the ground up. But he thought there was one major thing holding Russia back:
No one in Europe wore beards anymore. Russians, in their long facial hair, looked as ridiculous as someone walking around in 6-inch platform heels with goldfish swimming inside would look today. In an effort to modernize Russia and make it more European than Eastern, Peter the Great made men cut off their beards. And when we say he "made" them, we're talking a man who was known to attack bearded men in the street and forcefully shave them.
But being a slightly reasonable giant psychopath, he also offered them the option of paying a ridiculously heavy tax to keep their long beards. That way, if they had to embarrass the motherland with their fashion faux pas, at least the czar made money off it (the fact that Peter himself couldn't grow a beard probably had nothing to do with his decision).
Honestly, if you let that guy beat you up, you kind of deserved it.
This yearly tax was especially controversial because Russian Orthodoxy said that men needed to wear beards down to their chests. It wasn't just a suggestion, either. Ivan the Terrible once stated that "to shave the beard is a sin the blood of all martyrs cannot cleanse," which to be fair is probably a little extreme on the pro-beard side.
But he could actually kick your ass, so there was that.
Most men found that their love of money and fear of Peter outweighed their religious leanings and shaved. Those who had their beards chopped off saved them and were buried with them to prove (presumably to God) that they had wanted to do the right thing but couldn't (because really, who has that many kopecks to spend on divine facial hair?).
Going to war isn't for everybody, as illustrated by the fact that all branches of the military are having a hard time reaching their recruitment quotas. Men even risked imprisonment by dodging the draft during the Vietnam War, figuring that sharing a cell with Stabby McGee was a far more enjoyable prospect than being shot at all day.
"Uh ... guys, I think I'm just going to sit this one out if you don't mind."
But there was a time when you could get out of your fighting duties just by paying a tax. Called scutage, it was levied on knights who refused to go to war. See, back in the Dark Ages the entire point of a knight was to fight for his king. That's why many of them were rewarded for their service, built big houses, married an important guy's daughter and basically started living the (relatively) cushy life of an aristocrat. But then some king would remind you that you only got to live that way because you (or more likely your grandfather) had been a great soldier. Never mind if you had serfs and children to be looking after -- if a war started, you had to be there.
Eventually, Henry II worked out that some knights were just not going to fight, or at least fight well, under this system and came up with an idea to let them pay a fine for being pansy asses afraid of a getting their heads chopped off in battle. This way the king could hire regular soldiers to fight for him who were much cheaper, enlarging his fighting force. For a while this worked quite well, even as the tax you had to pay to get out of fighting slowly got more expensive.
After a while, only a rare few could still afford it.
Then things fell apart. King John of Robin Hood fame, not remembered by history as one of the great monarchs, raised the tax again. This might have been fine, but he even started charging men this tax in years where no wars occurred. Now, we can understand having to pay for being a coward, but having to pay because the king didn't feel like going to war that season? That seems a bit much. The barons thought so too, and scutage was one of the main issues brought up in the Magna Carta they made John sign.
Wigs and Hats
As ridiculous as we might think men in old portraits look wearing white curly wigs, for the rich, having a wig was a big deal back in the day. Fortunes were spent on buying them and keeping them nice. A lot of highway robbers weren't after the money or jewels people had, but the wigs, the most expensive thing they owned by far. They were so expensive that only the very rich could own one. So when the British government was looking for a way to fairly tax the rich more than the poor in the late 1700s, it decided to tax wigs and wig powder.
And we all know what happens to wigs without the powder.
However, the plan backfired when almost overnight the number of people who wore wigs, or even just powdered their natural hair, plummeted. The high tax effectively ended the fashion for wigs. But the government had an ace up its sleeve: the hat tax.
Oh, HELL no!
By the time the wig tax was levied, wigs were already considered a bit uncool, and mostly older men wore them. But hats were very cool. Even poor men owned hats, while the rich might own several very expensive ones. Therefore, the tax depended on the price of the hat you were buying, and boy, was the increase steep. Every hat sold had to be from a licensed retailer (like with alcohol today) so that the government knew it was getting its tax money. If you were stopped in the street and had to prove you'd paid the tax, you simply showed a stamp on the inside of your hat. So unlike those mattress tags that say, "Do not remove" but you do anyway, no one would remove the paper tag inside his hat.
While others never removed the actual hat.
Anyone caught not paying the hat tax was heavily fined. But the government was seriously not fucking around when it came to getting its money out of this. Anyone caught forging the stamps that proved the tax had been paid faced the death penalty if convicted. Holy shit!
And the forgeries weren't that hard to spot.
Most of the items on this list are from the olden days, but don't worry -- creative taxation is something that won't go away until the last nation disappears from the earth.
Probably not Germany.
For instance, obesity is becoming the plague of the modern world -- increased rates of diabetes and heart disease put a strain on health services, and those are strains that a lot of broke countries can't afford. So what to do if you and your neighbors let yourselves go a little too much? Tax you for it. The logical way to do this would be to increase taxes on fast food or sodas, but Japan went for a more literal approach and just straight-up taxes your extra inches.
Wait ... Japan? Literal? Isn't there something in the Bible about this?
Despite not being famed for its big-boned population, Japan got ahead of the game by refusing to let its citizens go the way of America and the U.K. It has started measuring the waists of all of its citizens over the age of 40 which is about 44 percent of all the people in the country. Men and women with waists larger than 35.5 inches will be given information on healthier eating and lifestyles. If after a few months they have not lost enough weight, they will be fined by the government.
And possibly forced to "stop doing crazy shit."
Technically, it isn't the individual being taxed. Companies and local councils are responsible for keeping their people in line, and in the end, they are the ones who actually pay the fine. And these aren't small fines, either; one company discovered it would be fined $19 million if none of its employees lost any weight. Since no company wants to lose money because of fat employees, the pressure to be slim is huge. Because that is obviously so much better for your stress level -- if you look like you're carrying a little extra weight, say goodbye to your job. Or maybe you suddenly find that all your neighbors are bullying you every time you so much as look at a dessert.
Fortunately, healthy options do come in Hello Kitty form.
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For more insane laws, check out 6 Laws That Were Great On Paper (And Insane Everywhere Else) and The 5 Most Popular Safety Laws (That Don't Work).
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