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20 weird, strange and unusual taxes

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by James Poulter on May 17, 2013 at 12:02

With France considering a tax on smartphones we took a look at some of the odder taxers throughout history, including ones relating to wallpaper, cooking oil, soap and and beards.

Beleaguered French president Francois Hollande (pictured) is considering introducing a new tax on the sales of smartphones, tablets and laptops in an effort to support French music, film and the arts.

Hollande was presented with a report suggesting the tax to help defend French culture against the threat of the digital revolution on Monday so we thought we’d take a look at some taxes from across history which are weird, strange or just awful.

Click through for more weird taxes we’ve identified.

Cooking oil

Ancient Egypt’s tax on cooking oil is among the first recorded taxes. Tax collectors even went to the length of auditing households to check appropriate amounts of cooking oil were being used and that citizens weren't using leftovers from cooking as a substitute.


Roman emperor Nero levied a tax on the collection of urine, which was recycled and put to a number of uses. Animal skins were soaking in it to remove hair fibres prior to tanning and launderers could use it as source of ammonia for bleaching and cleaning. Eventually removed it was re-introduced by emperor Vespasian who built the Coliseum.


Slaves in ancient Rome were occasionally able to buy their freedom and in 357 BC a law was passed introducing a manumission tax. Freeing slaves then incurred a 5% fee based on the value of the slave. As this was one twentieth it was called ‘vicesima manumissionis’.


If some Indian women from lower castes wanted to cover their breasts from the early 1800s, they had to pay a tax called ‘mulakkaram’. Women who failed to stump up were brutally harassed and had penalties imposed upon them. The tax was ended at the beginning of the 20th century after a woman called Nangeli bled to death instead of paying the inhumane tax.


In an effort to westernise Russian nobility Tsar Peter the Great imposed a tax on beards, following a tour of Europe where nobles were cleanly shaven. All men with the exception of peasants and clergymen had to pay 100 roubles for a ‘beard token’.


Devşirme was a practice which took place every four years in the Ottoman Empire where boys were taken from Christian families. The children were converted to Islam and either conscripted by the military or given careers with other imperial institutions. While technically slaves of the Sultan some were able to become wealthy and powerful.


For centuries soap was taxed in England, kicking up a bit of a stink, because it was expensive and provided a good source of revenue. In 1835 prime minister Gladstone scrapped the tax and the soap making industry flourished – albeit at the expense of the exchequer.

Playing cards

Playing cards have been, and in some cases still are, taxed the world over. This tax was only abolished in the UK in 1960 as the cost of administration had become excessive. The Ace of Spades card on each pack carried a mark to show the tax had been paid.


Another formerly common tax, the hearth tax was introduced by Parliament in 1662 to supplement a shortfall in the accounts of Charles II’s royal household and get the king out of hot water. Before the census was introduced it was considered easier to count hearths than heads.


Described as ‘daylight robbery’ the windows tax worked on the assumption that the more windows a house had, the more tax the occupants could afford to pay. Introduced in 1696 and not repealed until 1851, the tax is the reason some properties from that period have bricked up window spaces.


Known as the ‘bedroom tax’, welfare reforms introduced in April have cut housing benefit for people considered to have a spare bedroom. Hitting 660,000 working-age social tenants, the tax was blamed for the suicide of a grandmother earlier this month.


Another British property tax, bricks were first taxed from 1784 to help pay the national debt accrued fighting the American War of Independence. To reduce the impact of the tax, manufacturers initially increased the size of bricks causing the government to respond by introducing a maximum brick size.


Taxation of salt has occurred throughout human civilisation and has been one of the most unpopular taxes. It is believed to be one of the causes of the French revolution and violent protests against a salt tax in India helped turn opinion against British colonial rule.


First imposed in England in 1712, the wallpaper tax was levied on stained and coloured papers was effectively avoided by putting blank paper on walls and then stencilling by hand. Eventually abolished in the 19th century, the price dropped and wallpaper boomed in popularity.


From 1784 to 1811 the British government levied a tax on men’s hats. It was intended to raise revenue in accordance with wealth and each hat had to carry revenue stamp. The tax was brutally enforced with forgers of the stamps facing the death penalty.

Wig powder

An annual tax of one guinea had to be paid by people who wore powdered wigs or powdered their hair directly. Introduced by William Pitt the tax inspired a short poem by Robert Burns and helped make the wearing of wigs unpopular.

Strip clubs

Strip clubs in Texas which serve alcohol have had to pay a $5 'pole tax' per customer since 2007. The tax is intended to raise money to combat sexual assault and provide health insurance for people on low-incomes.


Since 1946 every household in Britain with a television set has had to pay a ‘TV licence’ to help fund the BBC. It costs 3.4p per £1 to collect and increased by £93 million in the last financial year, despite being frozen.


A handful of European countries started taxing methane emissions from cows, as belching and flatulence from bovines is believed to be contributing to global warming. Needless to say the ‘cow fart’ tax hasn’t been popular with farmers.


Not a tax, and rarely used as both parties had to be named, but until 1999 bribes were tax deductible in Germany. Last year Russia confirmed that bribes paid while abroad are not deductible.

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