June 18, 2023

The hair powder tax – the reason why we have short hair

The hair powder tax – the reason why we have short hair

The hair powder tax is a powerful example of the destructive effect of taxation. Not only did it fail to raise significant sums, it actually succeeded in both eliminating the use of hair powder altogether and changing our hair styles. Needless to say this was not the intent of those who introduced the tax, who rather thought they had fixed on a clever way to raise more revenue. Instead they actually managed to bring about the practice of men wearing their hair short – a fashion which persists to this day.

Today it is difficult to grasp the significance of hair powder but in fact it was the most heavily used cosmetic of its day, being employed in large quantities by both men and women. It usually consisted of starch made from wheat and was often scented with perfume such as jasmine or orange-blossom.

Cheaper powders were often combined with flour, ground rice or chalk. Colouring was also frequently used, especially by those with red hair which was viewed as especially unattractive in women. Many of the coloured powders were imported and already attracted customs duties. In addition all hair powder attracted a substantive stamp duty which was imposed in 1786 and varied as proportion of the retail price.

Ornate hair styles required large quantities of powder which was sometimes combined with pomatum – made of vegetable oils or animal fat – in order to permit curling and frizzling. Very ornate hair styles required huge amounts of powder. The lower classes also used powder, although usually from cheaper flour rather than starch, and most commonly when they went to church on Sundays and other special occasions.

At the end of his budget speech of 1795, Prime Minister Pitt proposed the introduction of an annual licence for the use of hair powder at a cost of ‘one guinea a head’. He suggested that the tax was as much one on vanity as on luxury, and would only be paid by the rich, who could afford it. The Government’s estimate was that the tax would raise £210,000, the equivalent of £27m today.

When the bill was published it provided for the taxation of not only hair powder made of starch, but ‘every sort of composition of powder,’ including flour, the powder used by the poor. The penalty for wearing powder without a licence was £20, (£1,940 in today’s money). A stamp duty on hair powder had been introduced in 1786, so this tax on the use of powder was another case of double taxation.

From May 5, 1795 everyone using hair powder had to visit a stamp office to enter their name and pay for an annual certificate costing one guinea. There was a complex process for producing a register of those who paid. Lists of those who had paid would be nailed on the doors of parish churches. A prize of half of the fine was to be awarded to those who informed on unlicensed users.

This encouraged the development of an industry of informers, many of whom made false accusations in the hope of making some money.

Under pressure at the Commons Committee stage, Pitt agreed to exempt some categories of powder users who were obliged to wear powder but might find it difficult to pay for the licence, namely all soldiers from the rank of subaltern downwards, naval officers below the rank of master and clergy with an income of less than £100 a year. After pleas that gentlemen with several daughters would not succeed in marrying them off if they could not afford all the hair powder licences, Pitt agreed that only the first two daughters would be taxed.

The poor and most of the middle classes generally could not afford to pay the annual tax of a guinea, leading those who did pay the tax to be nick-named ‘guinea-pigs’. The number of these naturally declined.

The revenue from the tax reduced very sharply after its introduction. By 1812, only 46,684 people still paid the tax and the numbers continued to collapse. By 1855 only 997 paid it, and almost all of these were servants. When the tax was eventually repealed in 1869 it produced an annual revenue of only £1,000 for the Exchequer.

Hundreds of thousands of powder-based hairdressers lost their jobs.

The primary effect of the act was to discourage the ornate hair styles which relied on hair powder and to start the fashion for short hair in men. Male advocates of high taxes today should look in the mirror and understand the reason why their hair is short.