Gerald Tebben, a Coin World columnist for more than 30 years, also contributes to Coin World’s Coin Values and edits the Central States Numismatic Society’s journal, The Centinel. He collects coins that tell stories.
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Peter the Great’s beard tax
This 1705 beard tax token sold for $4,112 at auction in 2013. This side is termed the obverse. Image courtesy of Heritage Auctions.
Taxes serve three purposes: raise money for government functions, encourage activities (such as tax credits for energy efficient furnaces) and discourage activities (think cigarette taxes.)
In 1705, Russian Czar Peter the Great instituted a tax on beards as part of his plan to modernize and westernize his backward country.
Peasants and clerics were exempt, but everyone else who wanted to wear a beard had to pay an annual fee and carry a medal as proof of payment. The first medals were round affairs showing a nose, mustache and beard on one side and the imperial eagle on the reverse. Later issues were diamond shaped and dropped the images but bore the legend, “The beard is an unnecessary burden.”
Randolph Zander, writing in The Numismatist (“Russian Beard Tokens,” December 1948), noted: “The law provided for check-points at the entrance to towns, where officials would deny passage to any bearded person who could not produce a beard token. In addition, law enforcement agencies were enjoined to arrest and fine bewhiskered individuals on sight if they carried no beard license.”
The tax was collected from 1705 to 1772. It was levied according to rank, topping out at 100 rubles for wealthy merchants.
Beard tax tokens are prized by collectors, partly for their novelty and partly for their sheer ridiculousness. They are scarce and often sell for thousands of dollars when they appear at auction.
Next: Tiny tax tokens