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.