Thursday, April 15, 2010

Taxes through Time

Ever find yourself sitting around wondering, "how did the U.S. government finance the Civil War?" Yeah, I didn't think so, but the answer might surprise you--in fact, you may even have evidence of it in some old family scrapbooks.

In "celebration" of today being federal income tax day, I wanted to share something interesting I recently learned while researching photographs for a genealogy project. I was trying to estimate dates from a few photos called cabinet cards or carte-de-visites (a "CDV" in archival jargon). You may be familiar with CDVs without realizing it; they are portraits, usually of a quite stoic-looking ancestor, printed onto what feels like cardboard. A clue on the back gave me a date range that helped significantly.

They were quite popular in the 1860s as they were relatively inexpensive and could be mailed easily or used as calling cards. You could even buy CDVs of famous people, such as Ulysses S. Grant, and studio portraits of entertainers, actors, and actresses, sort of like collecting baseball cards would be later on.
Anyway, on the backs of many CDVs are small adhesive squares of paper that look much like postage stamps, a direct result of the Revenue Act of 1862 (Now that whole Stamp Act thing from social studies is starting to make sense, right? Yep, actual stamps on paper). You can read more here.

Virtually every document was required to carry a tax stamp, as were many proprietary articles such as matches, medicines, playing cards, perfume, and, you guessed it, photographs--but only for a short period of time, thus narrowing down the possible date ranges for this mystery person.

While many of these stamps have been lost over time, the durability of CDVs allowed some to survive. The two I have on my photographs are both blue, 2-cent stamps featuring George Washington's portrait, but there were several varieties printed during the "War Between the States." Start looking at the backs of your pictures and see what you may find!

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