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A Beard Tax is Being Proposed in England, and It’s Not the First

Shave up or pay up.

An 1884 beard trimming chart. Should men who look like this be taxed? (Image: W. W. Bode/Public Domain)

Beards—once associated strictly with hermits and wizards—have become one of the hottest fashion accessories for men in the past few years, with celebrities, athletes, and style-conscious men around the globe growing, grooming, and styling their facial hair to match the latest trends. But despite their current popularity, beards remain deeply divisive and this week, one British barber and businessman has floated a radical proposal to discourage hirsute faces, or at least make some money off the men who refuse to renounce them.

Anthony Kent is proposing a UK beard tax; surprisingly, he’s not the first person to have the idea.

The proposal, a £100 tax on the bushiest of beards, with a reduced £50 fee for those with more modest growth, has a historical basis. According to the Worcester News, Kent discovered tales of Henry VIII’s 16th-century tax levied on the bearded men of England, and inspiration struck. He explained, “My head started whirring away and I started thinking you might be onto something here. I thought—they need to reduce the deficit, so maybe they can start taxing beards with them being so prevalent at the moment!”

Claims that Henry VIII introduced a beard tax in 1535 (despite possessing his own set of well-groomed whiskers) have found their way into numerous books, blog posts, and (of course) Wikipedia, but the tale seems to be apocryphal. One prolific blogger on the life and times of Henry VIII has noted that while he has found evidence that beard-pulling was a crime punishable by fines, primary sources for the 16th-century beard tax have been difficult to locate. Similarly, Dr. Alun Withey, an academic historian of medicine and the body, told the BBC in April that contemporary documents do not support the existence of Henry VIII’s beard tax.

While the prior existence of an English beard tax is dubious, there is well-documented historical support for the taxation of facial hair; specifically, Russia’s Peter the Great began taxing beards in 1698, a policy that created significant controversy at the time.

Peter developed anti-beard sentiments after his 1697 grand tour of Western Europe. The tour famously convinced the monarch that Russia was desperately behind-the-times — economically, scientifically, and sartorially — and inspired him to undertake substantial efforts towards modernizing his country. As Mental Floss explains, he initiated his grand modernization with quite a “barber-ous” gesture:

After Peter’s triumphant return to Russia at the end of his European voyage in 1698, a joyous reception was thrown in his honor. In attendance were his commander of the army, his frequent second-in-command Fyodor Romodanovsky, and a host of assorted aides and diplomats. Suddenly, the crowd’s mood went from elation to horror as Peter unexpectedly pulled out a massive barber’s razor. As biographer Robert K. Massie writes, “After passing among his [friends] and embracing them… he began shaving off their beards” with his own hands! Given his political stature, none of his associates dared question this stunning turn of events.

An article in Coins Weekly regarding the mass shaving incident adds that only the Patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church was spared. Long, flowing beards were considered a symbol of manhood, integrity, and piety according to Orthodox ideals, with Ivan the Terrible writing, “Shaving the beard is a sin the blood of all martyrs will not wash away. It would mean blemishing the image of man as God created him.”

Given this cultural preference for beards, Peter turned to taxation to incentivize shaving; with an exception for priests, men who refused to shave their beards were taxed 100 roubles a year—a small fortune at the time, according to Russia Today. Peasants were held to a modified version of the tax and only required to shave when entering a city (or pay a fine of one kopek to keep their luxurious facial locks).

A Russian beard token, signifying that the bearer of this coin has paid to look like that. (Photo: US State Department/Public Domain)

To verify that a bearded man had paid his tax and did not need to be forcibly shaved (and yes, noncompliant men were forcibly shavedbeard tokens” were minted and given as proof that the tax had been paid. The token bore an image of the Russian eagle on one side and a bearded face on the other, and were inscribed with the phrases “The tax has been taken” and “The beard is a superfluous burden”.

Peter’s beard tax was abolished in 1772, ending the world’s most ambitious regulation of facial hair. But Kent is not the first person to unearth the concept. In 2014, Dr. Alun Withey discovered evidence that a New Jersey state legislator attempted to introduce a graduated beard tax. Convinced that beards provided a furry mask for the morally unseemly, the legislator suggested a taxation scale that can only be summarized as “strange.” Dr. Withey explains:

For an ‘ordinary beard’ the tax was levied at $1 per year. This was fairly straightforward. But, from then on, things got a bit strange. For those men whose whiskers exceeded six inches long the charge was $2…per inch. A bald man with whiskers was punished to the tune of $5, while goatee beards were clearly high on the undesirable list, coming in at a hefty $10 levy. The final (and rather inexplicable) stipulation was that, if any man sported a ‘red beard’ (i.e. ginger), an extra 20% was chargeable.

As mentioned above, Kent’s proposal is much more modest, but it remains to be seen whether the Chancellor of the Exchequer will take up this attempt to capitalize off fashion trends. But if you’ve been trying to convince a loved one to do away with their beard, you may want to contact your local representative about taxation opportunities.