This month marks 150 years since a legacy of war with France was dropped – the government stopped taxing perfumed powders used to decorate Georgian wigs.
The first tax on hair powder was a stamp duty applied in 1786 and applied to packets of hair powder for wigs and on perfumes and cosmetics. The tax was set at 1d on packets costing up to 8d, rising to 1s on items over 5s.
Over the next few years a range of taxes were introduced, such as carriages (1776), servants (1777), houses (1778), windows (1778), horses (1784), hounds (1796), watches (1797), and coats of arms (1798).
One of the oddest though was introduced in 1795, and that was the need for a license to buy wig powder.
In 1795, desperate to raise more money to fund the war with France, the government essentially doubled the tax on wig powder by adding an annual license fee that anyone using wig powder had to buy. That was on top of the stamp duty paid each time someone bought some wig powder.
The license was also a public declaration, and lists of those who paid the wig powder tax was logged with the local court and copies were often displayed in local parishes.
Not everyone had to buy a license though. Exemptions included: the Royal Family and their servants, clergymen with an income of under £100 a year, various ranks in the military, mariners, engineers. A nobleman could also buy a license for his household servants.
As it happens, while often incomplete, for historians, the records of wig powder license sales are quite useful when researching family history.
But back to the 18th century, and the tax was was set at a charge of £1 1s (one guinea) for licenses to use hair powder on wigs, raising £210,136 in its first year.
That was more than the expected £200,000 that the tax had been expected to raise.
Although the use of hair powder was declining anyway, the new tax was exceptionally unpopular. William Pitt’s opponent, Charles James Fox, claiming that “a fiscal arrangement dependent on a capricious fashion must be regarded as an absurdity”
For more than a quarter of a century it had been customary for men to wear their hair long, tied in a pig-tail and powdered.
The government’s opponents, the reformist Whigs took to calling those who paid the one guinea annual license “guinea-pigs” — a combination of the tax and the pig-tail fashion, and they themselves took to cutting their hair short — in the French fashion, to avoid helping to fund the war with France.
Pitt’s measure gave rise to a number of Crop Clubs.
The Times newspaper for 14th April 1795, contains particulars of one. “A numerous club,” says the paragraph, “has been formed in Lambeth, called the Crop Club, every member of which, on his entrance, is obliged to have his head docked as close as the Duke of Bridgewater’s old bay coach-horses. This assemblage is instituted for the purpose of opposing, or rather evading, the tax on powdered heads.”
In 1799, the army abolished the use of hair powder for wigs, although that was more due to a bad harvest driving up the cost of flour, which was often used as a cheap alternative to wig powder. This in turn had been annoying the poor who suffered food shortages at times when flour was sold as cheap wig powder substitutes.
In 1800, the stamp duty on the sale of packets of wig powder was scrapped, leaving just the annual license.
However, the annual license fee lead to a wealth of false allegations that people weren’t paying the tax, because the tax law also allowed for an informer who reported someone to receive half of any fine imposed.
At a time when the annual income averaged £30, the share from the wig powder tax fine was around £5-£10. So there was considerable incentive to report tax-evaders, and as false reporting didn’t get punished, so lots of people were reported to the tax authorities, in the hope that they would be fined.
In March 1801, one person informed on around 20 other “people of distinction”, most of whom complained that they had paid their taxes and that they were repeatedly having to go court to prove it due to vexatious allegations.
That same year, the MP, Thomas Jones put forward a plan to switch the collection of the tax from the Commissioners of Stamps to the Commissioners for Taxes as he believed they produced less than a tenth of their estimated yield, were not properly collected, and benefited ‘a brood of informers’ rather than the Exchequer.
It took a few attempts, but in June 1801, the collection of the wig powder tax was changed.
In 1812, 46,684 people still paid the tax, but the numbers collapsed and by 1850, probably little more than a thousand people were still buying the annual license, mostly servants working in mansion houses.
In 1853, a debate in Parliament , John Bright MP called for the abolition of these “absurd taxes”, stating that the amount raised must be very small, but the “irritation, annoyance, and vexation were oftentimes considerable.”
By the time it was repealed in June 1869 it yielded an annual revenue of £1,000.
So, this month marks 150 years since people needed to buy a license to powder their wigs.
It’s not that the government hasn’t continued to dabble in taxing appearances though.
In 1955, the government nearly imposed a 90 percent tax on cosmetics, including hair products. As noted in the Parliamentary debate, the tax on wigs would be just 30 percent, which they felt to be a rather peculiar situation.
There was no mention as to what rate of tax might apply if cosmetic powder was applied to a wig.
William Pitt and his Taxes, British Tax Review Issue 4, 2010
At the Sign of the Barber’s Pole Studies In Hirsute History by William Andrews