The Certainty of Death and Taxes

As of yesterday, another income tax season has come to a close here in the US. CPA’s who haven’t been home in months can finally return to the family dinner table. And at long last city sidewalks are free from the invasion of creepy sign-spinning Statues of Liberty beckoning to us from the side of the road.

The Statue of LIbertry wearing a fur-lined hood is creepy enough. In my town where it's been warm the last few days, one Mr. Liberty has been wearing shorts under his robe. I hope.  photo credit: Income tax of liberty via photopin (license)
Actually it might not be a bad idea to tax Statue of Liberty hats. photopin (license)photo credit: Income tax of liberty via photopin (license)

No matter how we feel about the way our taxes are collected and spent and whether some of us should be paying more or some of us less, I’m guessing none of us particularly enjoys the income tax process. The laws are complicated, and growing more so all the time. The effort expended in calculating it all expands from year to year at an unbelievably stupid rate.

But as Benjamin Franklin famously said, “…in this world nothing can be said to be certain, except for death and taxes.” It’s something we have to deal with. Failure to file will net us fines and legal battles. So any readers out there who are law-abiding US taxpayers, I want to offer a hearty congratulations for successfully slugging through another year and getting it done. You may be tired. A few of you may have even been up past your bedtime so you could sneak in just before the deadline. If so, rub your blurry eyes, grab a cup of coffee, draw a deep breath, and realize it could be worse.

Because in 1798, for Englishman John Collins, it was much worse. Collins was busy at work with a printing plate, producing linen hat labels for anxious customers when he learned just how serious the business of taxation could be. The plate was readied, the linen damp and awaiting its impression, and Collins’s hand was covered in ink. That’s when he was arrested for forgery.

What he had been trying to pull off was a sneak around England’s tax on men’s hats. Introduced by Parliament in 1784, it was designed to be a kind of income tax because in theory, the wealthy would own several expensive hats, while the poor may own one cheap hat, if any at all.

Ladies' hats were tax exempt. Even those made of fruit. [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Ladies’ hats were tax exempt. Even those made of fruit. [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
To sell hats required a license that cost two pounds in London (or five shillings in the countryside) and gave the seller the right to post a sign reading: “Dealer in Hats by Retail.” A hat costing up to four shillings carried a tax bill of three pence and as the cost of the hat increased, so did the tax, with hats greater than twelve shillings demanding a hefty 2-shilling tax. Penalties for hats without a tax labels affixed to the linings fell both to the seller and the wearer.

No hat is worth that. photo credit: The End of the Line via photopin (license)

The hat tax was perhaps better than the window tax, the disastrous effects of which can still be seen in the large number of bricked-up windows gracing English buildings, but it turns out Englishmen were almost as fond of the hat tax as the citizens of the former British colonies in America had been of the English tea tax just a few years earlier. Removal and reuse of stamps was common and punishable. In the early days of the law, retailers attempted to change the language they used to refer to their wares, causing revisions that broadened the definition of a hat. Still the unpopular hat tax was widely ignored, hard to enforce, and was finally repealed in 1811.

Unfortunately that came after John Collins was caught forging tax labels. He got more than a fine or a legal battle. To forge a hat tax label in England in 1798 was a capital crime. Poor John Collins learned that there were certainties he couldn’t escape when he evaded taxes and met with death.

“Throw Away Your Razor” November

In 1895, a young man named King Camp Gillette stood in front of his shaving mirror contemplating some recent advice he’d received from work at the Crown Cork and Seal Company, manufacturers of bottle caps. The advice was this: “Invent something people use and throw away.”

King Camp Gillette sporting an impressive mustache for the month of Movember.
King Camp Gillette sporting an impressive mustache for the month of Movember.

That seemed like a sound idea to Gillette who thought about it so long and so hard, he nicked himself with his razor. He grabbed a towel and cursed as he attempted to stem the bleeding and clean himself up. Then he grabbed the strop he used to sharpen the blade so he could get good clean nicks the next time he shaved too. That’s when it hit him. What he’d really like to do instead is just throw the darn thing away.

And maybe, he thought, just maybe, other men, men who were tired of tearing up their skin for the sake of a fashionably close shave, might feel the same way. He wasn’t wrong, because about a hundred years later, men stood up in great droves to throw their razors away for an entire month in an effort to tell the world that men’s health and well-being matters.

Evidently babies don't participate in No Shave November. photo attribution:
Evidently babies don’t participate in No Shave November. photo attribution:

It was in the late 1990’s that “No Shave” November (or “Movember” if you prefer a mustache to a beard) began to emerge. The idea is that for a whole month, men (and sometimes women) agree not to shave in order to raise awareness and, in some cases, research funds for health issues specific to men.

I should say, I certainly have nothing against the beardless, even in
November, but I do like the event. I think it’s a fun way to talk about some serious stuff, because, though I really don’t care whether the men in my life sport whiskers or don’t, I do care very much whether or not they look after their health needs. And I realize that too often, men don’t. So, please, Gentlemen, visit your doctor occasionally (or get a doctor, if that’s where you’re at) and take care of business.

razor patent
A great November 1904 leap forward for men’s health.

Now, to be fair, Gillette didn’t think the answer to his problem would be to throw away his razor forever and just stop shaving at all. Instead, he got down to business, found himself a knowledgeable partner (William Nickerson), and applied for a patent for his disposable safety razor in 1904 on the 15th of “Throw away your razor” November.

Though not the first encased blade razor on the market, it was the first with a replaceable head and within a few years, men were sold. Gillette had successfully invented something that people use and throw away and had become a well-shaved millionaire in the process. The company that bears his name, though now owned by Proctor & Gamble, continues to move forward behind the mantra, “There is a better way to shave and we will find it.”

This November, millions of men have come together to declare that at least for a couple more weeks, that better way is not to shave at all. But my hope is that long after November has run its course and a lot of menfolk have returned to their regular shaving routines, they will remember how their manly plight was made better by King Camp Gillette. And I’m hoping that every time they throw away their razor blade, the men in my life, and the men in yours, will remember that it’s important to the people they love that they look after themselves and take care of business.

Worth Its Weight in Emeralds

About a month ago, I irreparably broke my favorite pair of sunglasses. So that you might understand the implications of this event in my life, I should explain, I’m not really what you might call a sunglasses person.

Of course I find them useful when driving west during sunset. And if I’m going to be hanging out poolside in the summer sun for a few hours with the kiddos, I would prefer to do so while wearing a pair, but I am not the type of gal who runs out to buy the season’s hottest shades in a variety of colors to match my closetful of sundresses. I’m not really a sundress person either.

I could never pull off this look. I'm also not a sun hat person.   photo credit: via photopin cc
I could never pull off this look. I’m also not a sun hat person. photo credit: via photopin cc

Despite that, I have owned many pairs of sunglasses in my lifetime and because I inevitably lose them, I never spend much money on them. So while I may go through as many pairs as your average Hollywood starlet, they probably don’t match the lone sundress hanging in my closet.

But this broken pair was different. You see after many years of encouragement from eye care professionals, I finally had an optometrist who got through to me. Basically, he told me that if I wanted eye cancer, then by all means, I should keep wearing cheap shades, but that if I preferred to live eye cancer-free I should buy overpriced sunglasses from him.

I bought the sunglasses.

I learned a few things from the experience:

  1. Unless you need prescription lenses, never ever buy sunglasses from an optometrist. Or maybe it’s just that mine was the Darth Vader of optometry, but yikes, that’s a markup!
  2. It’s amazing how easy it is to keep track of a pair of sunglasses when it represents more than a casual $10 investment.
  3. I look much better in a sundress when I’m not squinting.
  4. A good pair of sunglasses is worth its weight in emeralds.
I find your lack of expensive sunglasses disturbing.  photo credit: Scott Smith (SRisonS) via photopin cc
I find your lack of expensive sunglasses disturbing. photo credit: Scott Smith (SRisonS) via photopin cc

This last point was even well-understood by Emperor Nero of first-century Rome who, though not described by his contemporaries as a very nice guy, was, according to Pliny the Elder, the proud owner of a nice pair of emerald shades. Or something like them anyway.

Pliny, who wrote about emeralds (in my favorite translation) that “nothing greens greener,” subscribed to the then commonly held notion that the color green was gentle on the eye and that emeralds in particular might aid in the rehabilitation of eyestrain and poor sight. So it stands to reason, then, that Nero who is known to have been nearsighted, might use emeralds, or as some have suggested, one very large emerald as a sort of looking glass to help him see better at gladiatorial contests.

photo credit: cliff1066™ via photopin cc
And I thought my sunglasses were expensive. photo credit: cliff1066™ via photopin cc

At this point you might be asking, how exactly did that work? Well, I’m not sure it did. First of all, though many sunglass historians (a very narrow field) have claimed Pliny’s reference to Nero’s strange behavior as a part of sunglass history, Pliny seems actually to have suggested that Nero used the emerald as a reflective surface in which to watch the gladiator battles (the first mirrored sunglasses?) rather than as a lens through which to view them.

Retro 1st-Century gladiator viewing emerald lenses. Some things never go out of style.   photo credit: The Bees Knees Daily via photopin cc
Retro 1st-Century gladiator viewing emerald lenses. Some things never go out of style. photo credit: The Bees Knees Daily via photopin cc

And then there’s Dr. David Wood, a classics professor at University College Cork in Ireland who had the audacity a few years back to suggest (fairly convincingly) that Pliny just might have misunderstood the whole bit about Nero’s amazing green goggles. The wording used by other historians of the day could have been interpreted to suggest that Nero watched the games through a slit in a curtain (the precursor of 1980’s shutter glasses) in order to hide the fact that he was too busy tweeting to pay attention.

Apparently Pliny (who didn’t seem to like Nero much) didn’t bother checking the facts. In another time, he would have made a decent practical history blogger, or, perhaps, the world’s most celebrated sunglass historian. We may never know for sure whether Nero rocked a great pair of shades, or a stylish monocle, or a weird concave green mirror type thing, because, of course, history lost them.

What I do know for sure is that over the next few weeks, spring will really be in full bloom here and after that will come summer days filled with sunshine, lazy days at the pool, and maybe even a few sundresses. With that in mind I finally ordered a new pair of sunglasses. They are coming from the same company as the broken ones, a very similar style, at about ¼ of the price I paid in Dr. Darth Vader’s office. Regardless of how much I paid for it, though, I remain convinced that a good pair of sunglasses is worth its weight in emeralds.

A Hairy Tax Scheme: Ridding Society of Superfluous Burdens

As Englishman John Perry walked through the streets of Veronezh, Russia at the tail end of the 17th -century, he encountered a man he had known for some time, but whom he hardly recognized. The man was a carpenter with whom Perry, an engineer who served in the court of Peter the Great, had worked before. For as long as Perry had known him, the carpenter, like most Russian men of the day, had worn a long beard and untrimmed mustache. Fresh from the barber, the carpenter now had a smooth face.

Perry exchanged a few pleasantries with the man and then asked what he had done with his beard. In response, the clean-cut carpenter pulled the beard from his breast pocket and explained that he would keep it someplace safe and that one day it would be placed back upon his face in his coffin. That way, when he reached the pearly gates, St. Nicholas (who as we all know has a beard that’s long and white) would know him.

The carpenter had become the latest victim of the tsar’s beard tax. Peter the Great had recently returned from what Wikipedia calls an “incognito” tour (meaning, I can only assume, that he wore a big bushy fake beard) through Europe in an attempt to drum up international support for his military campaign against the Ottoman Empire. His efforts failed (because obviously 17th-century Europeans hated beards), but Peter had learned his lesson and on September 5, 1698, he issued a beard tax on the men of Russia (thus, essentially outlawing “No shave November.”)

Peter I, Emperor and Autocrat of All the Russi...
Peter the Great sporting a highly fashionable (and completely legal) mustache (portrait by Paul Delaroche, 1838). (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

And it was hefty, too. Wealthier citizens were required to pay 100 rubles per year (that’s something like, well, a lot of rubles, I bet). The rest of the citizens had to pay a Copek (which is also probably a lot of Copeks) for the privilege of sporting a beard. In addition to the right to keep their whiskers (and incur the wrath of the tsar), payment of the tax also bought the unshaven a medallion they had to wear as proof of their legal right to bear registered whiskers. Evidently, concealing a beard inside your breast pocket did not require additional licensure.

English: A beard token, received for paying th...
The beard token contained the roughly translated words: “The beard is a superfluous burden.” (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The only men exempted from the law were the clergy who were allowed to maintain long beards and traditional dress, as the rest of the country embraced modern fashion trends. Even so, the clergymen were pretty hacked off about the whole thing and launched a pamphlet campaign, claiming that Peter (the Great Heretic) had gone much too far.

Like often happens with poorly handled calls to conservative ideals, the young men of Russia thumbed their noses at the outraged clergymen and happily got up early for work so they’d have time to shave every day. The real reason, of course, for the radical support of the misguided policies of the tsar was that the young ladies of Russia responded positively to the change.

I doubt such a tax would ever fly today, though, at least not here in the US where the beard has now taken on social icon status and the men who wear them are far more likely to carry a duck call and a shotgun than to wear a medallion.

And I can’t speak for all ladies, but for me personally, I don’t mind so much. Now, I’m not a big fan of long bushy facial hair, but a nicely trimmed beard tells me that while a man cares at least something for personal hygiene, he is also practical and confident enough to forego the daily ritual of shaving. I wouldn’t want to begrudge him that option.

So I asked my husband (a handsome and neatly trimmed bearded fellow) what he thought about a beard tax. His anger at such a concept was as swift and unyielding as was that of the pamphlet-wielding Russian clergymen of old. I have to admit, the tax does seem remarkably unfair because men who wear beards already have to make great sacrifices in order to do so.

For example, this past weekend, when our family cooked out at the grandparents’ house, we made s’mores, which we all enjoyed immensely. All, that is, except for my husband, who when questioned by our boys as to why he wasn’t eating one of the gooey treats, replied by explaining that a bearded man must avoid melted marshmallow when he is far from his own shower.

S’more: well worth a close shave, I’d think. (Photo credit: Christopher S. Penn)

Historians have suggested that the Russian beard tax was a part of Peter the Great’s attempt to modernize (meaning Europeanize) his country, but there may have been a few practical advantages to the law as well.  Regardless of his motive, Peter’s tax was more or less successful. And it wasn’t finally repealed until 1772, by which point John Perry’s carpenter friend had probably long since carried his beard into Heaven.

Stepping in Toxic Waste: A Guide to Fashion after Labor Day

This past Sunday morning I selected from my closet a pretty white dress I recently bought on sale (because it looks awesome on me). My husband looked at me and instead of saying, “You look really nice,” opted for the comment: “Good thing you’re wearing that while you can because next weekend is Labor Day.” Oh, and then he offered the obligatory compliment (because I really did look nice and he’s the kind of man who isn’t going to let that go unsaid).

But wait a minute. Although no one who knows me would accuse me of being a fashionista (which I don’t believe is a real word), I am the member of my family whose fashion sense is most often consulted. My husband rarely wears a new shirt/slacks combination without asking me if it works okay, and I often send my eight-year-old back to his room to change into clothing that at least matches a little. For my stubborn six-year-old (who on this 100° day chose to wear a long-sleeve red and gray Mario Brothers shirt with green and brown plaid shorts) there is no hope.

So, even though I probably wouldn’t have chosen to wear my pretty white dress after Labor Day, (because I was raised with a vague awareness that that is a fashion faux pas), I was stunned to hear my husband make reference to this hard and fast law of fashion.

Of course many suggest that it’s no longer a hard and fast rule, but it’s still out there and is generally followed by a lot of us. The origin of the guideline that suggests you should put away your white wardrobe between Labor Day and Memorial Day is a little unclear, but there are several theories about the social factors that may have contributed to its development.

Gabrielle "Coco" Chanel
Actually Coco Chanel wore white after Labor Day long before it was cool. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

First, summer is hot and industry is dirty. In the late 1800s, the wealthy who could escape the sweltering city summer, retreated to the country where there was significantly less industrial goop in the air and on the streets. There they were free to wear the white they could not wear in the filth of the city, where the working class wore much more practical, dirt and soot-colored clothing. Of course all good things (like summer vacation) must eventually end and so with the return of fall, came the return of drab colors.

Logically it follows that the distinction of wearing white in the summer months became closely associated with the wealthy who wished to differentiate themselves from the working class. But Industrialization brought with it lots of new money and an emerging strong middle class. Much of the population found itself needing to navigate a new social landscape and so rules developed to help. One that’s easy to remember (and enforce) is that of wearing white only between Memorial Day and Labor Day (holidays that were established in the second half of the 19th century and had come to mark the beginning and end of summer in the US).

English: Labor Day Parade, Union Square, New Y...
English: Labor Day Parade, Union Square, New York, 1882 (Lithographie) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

But my favorite theory as to why this simple fashion rule stuck for so long is the most cynical. Since New York has long been the hub of American fashion trends, the experts that drive it opted for practicality (who’d have thought?). Since the region’s rainy fall begins sometime around Labor Day most years, the experts declared that at that date it was no longer acceptable to wear white, a declaration that failed to consider weather patterns elsewhere in the nation.

Whether or not there is any truth to that last theory, most fashion experts now generally agree that you can wear white year-round (and since they carry a fashion police badge, you’d better listen). Of course in the same breath they will advise you to wear “winter whites” after Labor Day, whatever that means (as far as I am concerned, if it isn’t in the Crayola box, it isn’t a color). I guess you have to be a fashionista (which is definitely not a real word, whatever Miriam-Webster has to say on the subject) to understand the subtle nuances of all the rules.

If it's a color, you will find it in there somewhere.
If it’s a color, you will find it in there somewhere.

But since I am (or at least was until this past Sunday) the closest thing my family has to a fashionista (a word apparently coined when I was in high school; I wasn’t one then, either), it falls on me to take the kiddos shopping. Because they hate it, this is a task I perform only when it absolutely must be done. And as they can no longer wiggle their toes inside their cramped gym shoes, it had to be done this week.

Now I don’t know if you have shopped for tennis shoes in the last month or so, but as we have approached Labor Day, for some reason the tennis shoes have gone from traditional white (or occasionally gray or black, if you’re feeling a little wild) to the color of toxic waste (also known as “winter white”?). So I have to assume that the fashion experts have been lying to us and it is, in fact, a terrible fashion misstep to don white shoes at this time of year.

English: tennis Español: tenis
Call me old fashioned, but I just think this is what tennis shoes should look like, before they turn dingy gray anyway. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I don’t have a problem with bright colors (Crayola lists a few “neons” among its collection) and actually I can’t say that I hate my eight-year-old’s choice of shoes sporting neon carrot or even my 6-year-old’s laser lemon selection (which should pair nicely with his green and brown plaid shorts). The shoes look good on them in that adorable-little-kid-who-likes-to-express-himself sort of way.

My only real complaint is that it so happens I needed new tennis shoes, too. And apparently the experts think I might also look good in toxic waste shoes (in that crazy-lady-who-talks-to-herself-on-the-subway sort of way).

I looked long and hard (on a return trip during school hours because the kiddos have no patience for this sort of thing) and I finally found a pair with an adequate toe box and arch with only a minimal amount of sea serpent blue and wild watermelon. Not really my best colors, I think, but who am I to argue with fashion? Perhaps I’ll wear my new shoes with my pretty white dress. After Memorial Day, of course.

French Fashion Accessories: They’re not just for English Nannies Anymore

Jonas with his brolly
Jonas with his brolly (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In October of 1750, Englishman Jonas Hanway had the nerve to walk through the streets of London carrying an umbrella. To be clear this was well before the umbrella became the preferred mode of transportation for magical English nannies. Though the umbrella had been introduced through much of Europe at the time, it’s most notable use was as a favorite accessory of the more fashionable ladies of France.

Anything that can be referred to as a bumbershoot is probably a little funny anyway. And it certainly doesn’t take much imagination to conclude that an otherwise well-respected Englishman walking down the street sporting the latest in 18th century French ladies’ fashion might draw some attention and (possibly deserved) ridicule.

But why would someone carrying an umbrella in 21st century Oregon deserve a similar reaction? When we relocated to Salem, Oregon a few years ago, we knew that with a 2000 plus mile relocation would come a few small cultural differences. We expected that we might pick up a few new bits of slang in our vocabulary, learn some variations on well-known songs, and maybe stumble on the recipes of some local specialties.

One thing that did surprise me, though, was when I was warned that in this region in which it rains pretty much from November to July, I could expect to be mocked if I used an umbrella. It made a sort of sense, I suppose. Salem rain most often consists of tiny little droplets that swirl around in the air and are more likely to coat than douse and so are difficult to stop with a traditional umbrella.

Still, even when the rain came down harder, more similar to the sheets that fall in the Midwestern springtime, the Oregonians merely pulled their rain jackets tighter, and ran a little faster. Few were willing to take a cue from 18th century French ladies’ fashion. Or common sense.

So now I’m back in St. Louis and it’s April, which means it is storming. The rain comes down in sheets (like rain is supposed to) and when I venture out (and I’m not cowering in my basement under a tornado warning) I carry an umbrella. Because it’s the sensible thing to do. It would have been the sensible thing to do in Oregon as well, but I am sad to say I wasn’t bold enough. When the rain came down in sheets, I pretended to be a native Oregonian and simply pulled my rain jacket a little tighter and ran a little faster.

As for Jonas Hanway, he stayed the course, determined that the umbrella (used by many ancient civilizations) was a sensible and worthwhile idea. Come rain or come shine, he stubbornly carried his favorite and slightly silly-looking accessory through the city streets for nearly thirty years. Eventually the idea caught on and soon enough the men and women of London began carrying umbrellas (for a long time referred to as “hanways”), though it would still be a few years before the bumbershoot would catch on with practically perfect nannies.

Mary Poppins: Umbrella
Mary Poppins: Umbrella (Photo credit: jpellgen)