Economy

Beards, Windows, Chinese Migrants: A History Of Bizarre Taxes

Hipsters beware: beards have been on the list of unusual taxes.

What are the most absurd taxes?
What are the most absurd taxes?
Amanda Castillo

GENEVA — Governments rarely have an imagination except in one area: taxes. There was even an Emperor Vespasian who created a tax on urine, a resource that was employed at the time to treat fabric and laundry, and was even used in medicine. History is littered with such examples. Here's a glimpse at some of the most absurd ones.

Beards

Always in pursuit of money, Henry VIII started taxing subjects sporting a beard in 1535. His daughter, Elizabeth Tudor, followed his example and also instituted a tax on stubbles more than two weeks old. In Russia, Czar Peter the Great introduced a similar tax at the end of the 17th century. Bearded men received a bronze token to prove they had paid the tax. It was engraved with a drawing of the beard and the Russian words for "the tax was collected." History doesn't say whether women with beards were equally affected.

Fireplaces and windows

In England, a tax on fireplaces and windows was introduced in 1660 and 1696 respectively. Taxpayers came up with a creative response. They built fake walls to hide their chimneys and windows. This bizarre tax made homes unhygienic and triggered diseases (tuberculosis in particular began to spread easily).

The "trompe l"œil", an unexpected consequence of the tax on windows — Photo: Tim Green

Art, on the other hand, took a step forward as a result of the tax. The technique of "trompe l"œil" — the visual illusion of three dimensions in a painting — spread across cities. Concerned by the medical cost of the tax, the government of London abolished it in 1851.

Wig powder

It's Great Britain that once again had this great idea: a tax on the perfumed powder applied on wigs. Since wigs were popular, a long list of people were exempted from the tax including, most notably, the members of the royal family and their servants. This tax, which was implemented in 1795, slowly but surely changed the rules of fashion. In 1812, the number of people who paid the tax was 46,684. In 1855, it was a mere 997, signaling the waning trend. In 1869, the tax was abolished.

Chinese immigrants

To profit from Chinese immigrants constructing the large network of railroads, canals and dams in Canada, the government created a special tax on Chinese in the country in 1885, writes Alessandro Giraudo in 20 Stories To Understand The Global Economy. The tax, which reduced their numbers in Canada, was abolished in 1923.

Chinese laborers in Ontario — Photo: BiblioArchives / LibraryArchives

Pay your tax or else…

To deter tax evasion, empires got creative. In 294 AD, Emperor Diocletian published tax declarations of all citizens in the public domain so that everyone could see what their neighbor had paid and rat out evaders. He also created a special force to investigate fraud. "The investigators used torture if needed," writes Omar Fassal in A History of Financial Fraud.

They didn't hesitate to employ tactics of psychological pressure. They encouraged children to denounce their parents, wives to denounce their husbands, and slaves to denounce their masters. They increased revenue from peasants by adding children and old people to their tax base. If peasants abandoned their fields and fled, their property was forced onto neighbors — who had to foot the tax bill.

Tanning

In the German city of Essen, authorities slapped a tax on owners of tanning beds (20 euros per month per machine) in 2010.

Fat

​In Denmark, a tax on fat was introduced in 2011. It targets products like butter and oil in order to encourage people to eat healthy.

Taxes have, apparently, come a long way since the days of tariffs on urine and wig powders.

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Society

Dutch Cities Have Been Secretly Probing Mosques Since 2013

Revelations of a nationally funded clandestine operation within 10 municipalities in the Netherlands to keep tabs on mosques and Muslim organizations after a rise in radicalization eight years ago.

The Nasser mosque in Veenendaal, one of the mosques reportedly surveilled

Meike Eijsberg

At least ten Dutch towns and cities have secretly used a private agency to probe mosques and other local religious organizations, Amsterdam-based daily het NRC reports in an exclusive investigation.

The clandestine operation — funded by NCTV, the National Security Services, the Netherlands' leading counter-terrorism agency — was prompted by the social unrest and uncertainty following multiple terror attacks in 2013, and a rise in Islamic radicalization.


The NCTV, which advises and financially supports municipalities in countering radicalization, put the municipalities in touch with Nuance by Training and Advice (Nuance door Trainingen en Advies, NTA), a private research agency based in Deventer, Netherlands. Among the institutions targeted by the investigations, which came at a cost of circa 500,000 euros, were the Al Mouahidin mosque in the central Dutch town of Ede, and the Nasser mosque east of the city of Utrecht, according to NRC.

Photo of people standing on prayer mats inside a Dutch mosque

Praying inside a Dutch mosque.

Hollandse-Hoogte/ZUMA

Broken trust in Islamic community

Unlike public officials, the private agency can enter the mosques to clandestinely research the situation. In this case, the agents observed activity, talk to visitors, administrators, and religious leaders, and investigated what they do and say on social media.

All findings then wound up in a secret report which includes personal details about what the administrators and teachers studied, who their relatives are, with whom they argued, and how often they had contact with authorities in foreign countries, like Morocco.

Leaders of the Muslim organizations that were secretly probed say they feel betrayed.

It is unclear whether the practice is legal, which is why several members of the Dutch Parliament are now demanding clarification from the outgoing Minister of Justice and Security, Ferd Grapperhaus, who is said to be involved.

"The ease with which the government violates (fundamental) rights when it comes to Islam or Muslims is shocking," Stephan van Baarle, member of the leftist party DENK, told De Volkskrant, another Dutch newspaper.

Leaders of the Muslim organizations that were secretly probed say they feel betrayed. Hassan Saidi, director of one of the mosques investigated, said that the relationship with the local municipality had been good. "This puts a huge dent in the trust I'd had in the municipality," he told the Dutch public broadcaster NOS.

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