A Taxing Subject for Americans–and for Austen and her Peers

April 15 being tax day in the U.S., I thought it appropriate to celebrate the many ways the tax man visited Jane Austen and her fellow citizens during Regency times.

The tax philosophy of the day echoed the views of the famous tax philosopher, George Harrison of the “Beatles”: “If you get too cold I’ll tax the heat/If you take a walk, I’ll tax your feet.”

Well, they didn’t tax feet in the Regency era, but they did tax other modes of transport such as horses and carriages.

Among the items taxed between 1795 and 1820 were: almanacs, bricks, candles, carriages, dice, glass, gloves, hair powder, hats (men), horses, leather, letter franks, newspapers, perfume (women), ribbons, servants and gamekeepers, shooting licenses, sporting dogs, spirits and wine, starch, timepieces, tobacco, wallpaper, and wills.

Taxes ranged from threepence for a cheap worker’s hat to several pounds for luxury items. Though the tax on alcohol and tobacco affected everyone, most taxes were geared toward the wealthy. Riding horses, for example, were taxed, but working horses were not.

In “Pride and Prejudice,” Mr. Bennet’s horses, which were farm horses first and pulled a carriage in their spare time, would have escaped taxation. Otherwise, the Bennet family probably could not have afforded a carriage. The carriage tax was among the highest: £8.16s for one four-wheel carriage; £9.18s for a second ; and £11 for each one after that, as Hazel Jones documents in “Jane Austen’s Journeys.”

By comparison, an unskilled laborer of the day made about £25 a year, and the Austen women, after the death of Mr. Austen, lived on about £400 annually.

Most of the tax revenue went toward the war with France, which carried on for most of Austen’s adult life.

The window tax, which had been around for many years, is a tax Austen mentions in “Mansfield Park” as a proxy for wealth. Henry Crawford gravely shakes his head at the size of Sotherton Court, the Rushworth house, and the narrator comments that there are more windows “than could be supposed to be of any use than to contribute to the window-tax.” This comment may have originated with Jane’s mother after Mrs. Austen’s trip to the fabulous Stoneleigh estate.

Tax policy and its implications arise subtly in the opening scene of my trilogy, The Marriage of Miss Jane Austen, in which Austen observes the entrance of a young man, Mr. Ashton Dennis, who quickly emerges as the male protagonist. After describing his wardrobe, the narrator observes: “He wore his own hair, whether because of the new fashion or unsuitable political views, it was impossible for Jane to know.”

The reference is to Ashton’s lack of a traditional wig and the hair powder used to keep it fresh. Old-fashioned Tories wore wigs and gladly paid the tax on powder as a patriotic show of support for the war with France. Some people, however, stopped wearing wigs to avoid the tax, while many Whigs disposed of wigs to protest the war itself, which ran counter to their commercial interests. Walking into a room, one could often tell political affiliation at a glance.

Having failed to raise as much money as expected, the hair tax was ultimately reduced; but by then a more natural look was in, sporting real hair in Roman styles. Vic Sanborn provides a lovely tutorial on changing men’s hairstyles in this era. This was also the beginning of the Romantic era, when hair could be as wild as the heath.

Despite the lack of revenue production, the hair-powder tax did have a positive effect. The powder was made from wheat; by discouraging its use, the tax somewhat reduced the pressure on food supplies for the army.

Every tax has such unexpected consequences, some negative, some positive. The tax on English newspapers led to the start of book clubs and subscription libraries, several of which Austen joined. These groups greatly increased the number of readers, and politics were often discussed at the meeting places, likely speeding up efforts at reform.

Most of the taxes remained in place during the war with France, but the ladies got a break. The men’s hat tax was not repealed until 1811, but the perfume tax ended in 1800.

Readers: What do you think—have I missed any other tax-related commentary in Austen’s works?

Were there other unintended negative consequences of these taxes?