25 Fascinating Facts About Taxes
Why does Tax Day fall on April 15, and which historical leader taxed beards? Read on for answers to those questions and more in this list, adapted from an episode of The List Show on YouTube.
1. Taxes date back to at least Ancient Egypt.
We can trace documented records of taxation all the way back to Ancient Egypt, sometime around 3000 to 2800 BCE. Apparently, there was a biennial event called the Following of Horus, when the Pharaoh went around collecting taxes in his dual roles as head of state and living incarnation of the god Horus. Taxation is even described in the Bible when Joseph tells the people of Egypt to give a fifth of their crops to Pharaoh.
2. The first taxes implemented in the United States caused a rebellion.
Fans of the Broadway musical Hamilton probably remember the lyric, “Imagine what gon’ happen when you try to tax our whiskey.” What happened was the Whiskey Rebellion, which was largely due to a tax that Alexander Hamilton imposed on—you guessed it—whiskey.
As you might imagine, people were extremely unhappy about it, especially small producers of whiskey, who, because of the way the tax was structured, had to pay nine cents per gallon in taxes, while larger producers were able to get as low as six cents. Violence quickly broke out. Tax officers were assaulted and tarred and feathered for trying to do their jobs, and several people were killed during riots. The Rebellion was eventually quashed in 1794, and the whiskey tax remained in effect until 1802, when Thomas Jefferson repealed it.
3. Abraham Lincoln gave us federal income tax.
Abraham Lincoln signed the Revenue Act in 1861, which imposed the first-ever federal income tax. To drum up funds for the Civil War, Lincoln and Congress enacted a modest 3 percent tax on income over $800, which would be roughly $23,000 today. The law was almost instantly replaced with a new revenue act and would be repealed a decade later, but the relief obviously didn’t last: In 1913, the 16th Amendment established the federal income tax system we all know today.
4. Tax Day wasn’t originally on April 15.
When the modern federal income tax was established, lawmakers set March 1 as the looming deadline.
Although they gave no reason for this particular date, it was presumably to give people a couple of months to gather paperwork and crunch numbers after the end of the year. By 1919, the government tacked a couple of more weeks on to help panicked filers, making March 15 the date. That date stood until 1955, after Congress acknowledged that doing your taxes was getting more complicated by the year.
To help accommodate all of those changes and give people adequate time to file, the date was bumped by another month—but the change wasn’t entirely altruistic. The IRS acknowledged that the extra month would help their employees as well, spreading the workload out across another 30 days.
5. We spend a lot of time doing our taxes.
The amount of time we spend doing our taxes every year suggests that the repeated date changes may have been justified. According to the IRS, the average taxpayer spends about 11 hours doing record-keeping, tax planning, form submission, and other super fun tax-related activities. Of course, if you break it down even further, the amount of time changes based on the type of form the filers use. Business filers spend about 20 hours, including 10 hours on record-keeping alone.
6. The average American gets about $3000 back from their tax refund each year.
This amount ebbs and flows a little bit every year based on the economy, fluctuating consumer incomes, and the IRS’s withholding tables, which suggest how much employers should deduct from employee paychecks to account for income tax. It’s worth pointing out that a huge tax refund isn’t necessarily a great goal: It basically means you gave the government an interest-free loan that year.
7. In 1836, the federal government of the United States had a tax surplus of around $30 million.
Congress gave most of that money back to the states, and each state was able to decide how to handle it. Maine decided to give back to the people, which meant that every single resident received a whopping $2. A woman named Salome Sellers used her money to buy a pair of fancy candlesticks. As she told the New York Star Tribune in 1902, when she was about to turn 101 years old, “Many people put their share of the surplus into flimsy finery … but I bought something that would keep to remember those good times by.” Today, those surplus sticks are in a museum.
8. Peter the Great taxed beards.
In 1698, Russia’s Peter the Great introduced a beard tax. After embarking upon what he called a “Grand Embassy” across Europe to observe more about Western cultures and processes, Peter came back with a number of reforms designed to bring Russia up to speed—and one of those reforms impacted facial hair.
The tsar noted that “modern” Western Europeans eschewed beards, and he wanted to emulate the trend within his own borders. If that doesn’t seem strange enough, wait until you hear how he unveiled his new anti-beard beliefs: At a big state reception, the tsar whipped out a massive barber’s razor and proceeded to shave his guests’ beards.
Although Peter was originally against beards entirely, he eventually decided to make money off of his ban by allowing facial hair, but taxing it. Nobility and merchants were charged significantly more than commoners, by the way.
9. A former IRS commissioner went to prison for tax evasion.
In 1952, Joseph Nunan, who was the IRS Commissioner from 1944 to 1947, was busted for evading over $90,000 in taxes. Among the transactions that he failed to claim was $1800 in winnings from a wager that Harry Truman would beat Thomas Dewey in the presidential election of 1948. Nunan was sentenced to five years in prison.
10. A famous gangster was ultimately taken down over taxes.
Mob boss Al Capone ran a criminal enterprise and regularly ordered hits on his enemies—but he wasn’t sent to prison for murder. Instead, he was charged with tax evasion and fraud, and was sentenced to 11 years.
11. Willie Nelson made an album to cover his tax debts.
It was called the IRS Tapes, and all proceeds went toward his tax bill.
12. Henry David Thoreau went to jail for failing to pay taxes.
The poet was imprisoned in 1846 for failing to pay a poll tax (a tax levied on every individual, regardless of income). Poll taxes were once typical in much of New England; paying the tax was typically a requisite to be able to vote, so they often functioned as a form of de facto discrimination against poorer citizens. Thoreau’s refusal to pay the poll tax was his way of protesting slavery. Someone paid the tax on Thoreau’s behalf, however, and he was released the next morning.
13. Shelled nuts are sometimes subject to taxes.
In England, shelled nuts are subject to a 20 percent value-added tax.
14. India has an entertainment tax.
Movie tickets are taxed anywhere from 18 to 28 percent depending on the price of the tickets. This is actually an improvement—before the government launched the Goods and Services tax, it was left up to each state to set their own entertainment tax. In Jharkhand, the tax was 110 percent.
15. There’s a cow flatulence tax.
Cow farts (really more like cow burps) are no laughing matter. The methane they produce is contributing to climate change in a big way. To help offset some of these drawbacks, many EU countries are looking at introducing a cow tax to tax producers for cow flatulence.
16. England once had a special hat tax
From 1784 to 1811, British citizens had to pay a tax on their hats. To prove they paid the tax, a stamp was pasted inside the hat. If the hat police caught you wearing a stamp-less hat, you’d be hit with a hefty fine. In 1798, a man named John Collins was caught using a printing press to forge the stamps, which would allow people to skirt the tax. He was sentenced to death.
17. There’s a Tax Court.
There are always people who get creative with their tax deductions. While most don’t pass muster, the Tax Court, a court of law dedicated to tax-related disputes and issues, does occasionally find in favor of some pretty unusual claims. For example, TurboTax tells the story of a professional bodybuilder who successfully claimed his supply of body oil as a professional necessity. (He also tried to claim buffalo meat and vitamin supplements, which they nixed.)
18. New Mexico gives a tax break to all centenarians.
If you live in New Mexico, and have lived there for at least a century, great news: You don’t have to pay state taxes. The Land of Enchantment provides a major tax break to all centenarians. But considering there are only 80,000 100-plus-year-olds in the entire United States, New Mexico isn’t exactly losing out on major money by providing this perk.
19. Even astronauts in space need to file their taxes on time (or ask for an extension).
The IRS is a notorious stickler for on-time filing—which no one knows better than Jack Swigert, the command module pilot for Apollo 13, who joined the crew at the last minute. He was mid-mission when he realized that he was going to miss the April 15 tax deadline, so he radioed Houston to request an extension. Although the ground crew laughed at what they presumed was a joke, Swigert was dead serious. According to NASA transcripts, he said, “Hey, listen, it ain’t too funny; things kind of happened real fast down there, and I do need an extension. I didn’t get mine filed, and this is serious.”
This sort of thing happens more than you might expect, by the way. In 2005, NASA astronaut Leroy Chiao was commanding the 10th expedition to the International Space Station when Tax Day reared its ugly head. He prevailed upon his sister, an accountant, to file an extension on his behalf, and he got right on it when he returned to Earth on April 24.
20. The President of the United States isn’t exempt from taxes.
In fact, the POTUS is expected to pay their rightful share, though there are a few nice perks, including a nontaxable travel account worth $100,000 and a nontaxable entertainment account with a $19,000 limit.
21. The IRS updates tax requirements on a regular basis.
With the Reform Act of 1986, the IRS started requiring taxpayers to list their dependents’ Social Security numbers for the first time. When citizens were forced to provide this evidence, several million children mysteriously “disappeared” from tax returns [PDF].
22. Most people file their taxes electronically.
As of 2018, only 10 percent of people were still filing paper tax returns. Not only does this mean that those people will wait longer to get any refunds back, it also increases their chances of screwing things up: Paper tax returns are around 40 times more likely to contain mistakes compared to online filing.
23. There’s a good chance you can file your taxes for free.
If your adjusted gross income is less than $69,000, you’re eligible to use IRS Free File. Seventy percent of filers qualify, which works out to 100 million Americans. If your adjusted gross income is more than $69,000, you can still use Free File. But it’s not going to walk you through the process step-by-step like the other version, so you have to feel pretty comfortable doing your taxes.
24. Founding Father Sam Adams was bad at collecting taxes.
Adams was elected to Boston’s tax collector post in 1756, but he wasn’t terribly interested in the job. He was prone to overlooking tax debts from people having financial or medical difficulties, which made him a bit like Robin Hood to working class Bostonians. The problem was, the tax collector was personally liable for uncollected taxes—and by 1765, he owed more than £8,000—equivalent to nearly £1.5 million today. He did end up trying to go after some of the uncollected taxes, but apparently without much success. According to the New England Historical Society, his well-to-do friends ended up covering most of Adams’s debt.
25. Vermont once declared war on Germany for tax purposes.
In the lead-up to the United States entering World War II, Vermont lawmakers voted to give residents serving in the military a $10-a-month bonus. If the raise was instituted during peacetime, though, everyone would have been hit with a new tax. In order to avoid it, the bonus needed to be issued during a time of armed conflict.
War hadn’t officially been declared yet, but President Franklin Roosevelt had issued orders for the U.S. Navy to shoot first if they came across German ships in waters “necessary for our defense.” Vermont lawmakers decided this order was enough for them to basically declare we were at war with Germany in September 1941—three months before the United States did.