7 Strange Tax Code Quirks

iStock.com/RichVintage
iStock.com/RichVintage

Ah, spring. The birds are singing, the trees are blooming, and all is right with the world. Or all would be right with the world, if not for tax season.

Every year, millions of Americans struggle with finding all their receipts, checking deductions, trying to figure out what exactly a withholding allowance is—and, in some cases, how many of those whaling weapons can be deducted as a charitable contribution. Here are seven curiosities from the history of taxation—some still on the books, some very much not.

1. Twix are food but Snickers are candy in Illinois.

In what is surely one of the few times the merits of Twix versus Snickers have been mentioned in a Supreme Court decision, in his dissent for the 2018 case South Dakota v. Wayfair, Inc., et al., Chief Justice John Roberts noted that “Illinois categorizes Twix and Snickers bars—chocolate- and-caramel confections usually displayed side-by-side in the candy aisle—as food and candy, respectively (Twix have flour; Snickers don’t), and taxes them differently.”

And he was correct. In Illinois, candy by definition “does not include any preparation that contains flour or requires refrigeration” [PDF], which means a Snickers (flourless) has a 6.25 percent tax, and, thanks to the flour, a Twix has a tax of 1 percent. (Even more surprisingly, the Chicago Tribune reports that Twizzlers aren’t considered candy for tax purposes due to their flour content. But Beer Nuts are). So if you're in Illinois, have a hankering for chocolate, and want to save some cash, opt for a Twix.

2. Antiperspirants are over-the-counter drugs in Texas.

Candy wasn't the only topic on Roberts's mind in his South Dakota v. Wayfair, Inc., et al. dissent. As a way of illustrating the challenges that web-based businesses face when navigating quirky state and local tax laws, he cited another state-defined differentiation: “New Jersey knitters pay sales tax on yarn purchased for art projects, but not on yarn earmarked for sweaters,” and “Texas taxes sales of plain deodorant at 6.25 percent but imposes no tax on deodorant with antiperspirant” [PDF]. Why? Antiperspirants are classed as over-the-counter drugs.

3. Engraving something of "no special value" meant no special taxes in the 19th century.

The importance of scouring the tax laws for details is nothing new. According to an 1863 list of decisions of the Commissioner of Internal Revenue, engravers had to have a license and pay a manufacturers tax. But only if they were making “general seals, stamps, or dies, which possess a commercial value.” If, however, the engraver only did work for a “specific purpose, so that it would be of no special value to any one but the owner” they were “not thereby a manufacturer under the law.” So if you were to get a stamp of, say, your cat, which you would only use around your house, the engraver wouldn't have to pay tax.

4. Certified whaling captains get a hefty deduction.

Although it might seem very 19th century, current U.S. tax law allows a deduction for captains of whaling boats. But not just anyone can go out and hunt a whale (or claim the $10,000 deduction). The IRS only allows whaling captains recognized by the Alaska Eskimo Whaling Commission (AEWC) to take the deduction, and the AEWC is granted a quota by the International Whaling Commission because of the importance of whaling for cultural and nutritional reasons (and because, unlike industrial whaling operations, subsistence hunters aren’t motivated by profit). Perhaps most surprising is that it’s deducted as a charitable contribution [PDF].

5. Deer hunters in Maryland can get a tax credit if they're charitable.

It’s much easier to get a license to hunt deer than whales, but hunters in Maryland can still get some tax credits. According to the state, “Individuals who hunt and harvest an antlerless deer in compliance with State hunting laws and regulations” can donate the meat to a program to feed the hungry. To offset the costs of butchering and processing, the state allows a credit of up to $50 of qualified expenses (up to $200).

6. Drinking despite England's "War Tax" on beer was one way to "help your country."

In 1915, future British Prime Minister David Lloyd George is said to have remarked “We are fighting Germans, Austrians and drink, and so far as I can see the greatest of these deadly foes is drink.” In November of 1914, as part of that fight, a “war tax” was implemented on beer, tripling the duties on a barrel of beer. One enterprising brewer advertised, “Order a pint of beer and drive a nail into the Kaiser’s coffin. If you can’t manage a pint order a half-pint and drive a tin-tack. Drink the national beverage and help your country by paying your share in the war-tax.”

According to Robert Duncan, author of Pubs and Patriots: The Drink Crisis in Britain During World War One, the alcohol tax had many positive effects: yearly beer consumption fell from 35.1 million bulk barrels to 21.4, and spirit consumption fell by half. Meanwhile, liver cirrhosis deaths decreased by 64 percent, from 152 per million to 56 per million.

7. The "Chicken Tax" requires a high tariff on light trucks.

Before 1962, the Common Market (a forerunner of the EU) was a rapidly growing market for American chicken producers. But that year, tariffs on poultry increased almost 200 percent, which meant a 66 percent decrease in the export of American chickens.

Americans balked, not just for the honor of our chicken farmers but because of concerns that this was an opening salvo on trade wars with the Common Market. In response, President Johnson implemented tariffs on trucks (to hurt Germany), brandy (to hurt France), and potato starch (to hurt the Netherlands), among other products.

Today, most of the tariffs have been lifted, but the so called “Chicken Tax”—a "25 percent tariff on light trucks," according to Jalopnik—remains on the books.

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6 Amazing Facts About Sally Ride

U.S. National Archives and Records Administration, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons
U.S. National Archives and Records Administration, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

You know Sally Ride as the first American woman to travel into space. But here are six things you might not know about the groundbreaking astronaut, who was born on May 26, 1951.

1. Sally Ride proved there is such thing as a stupid question.

When Sally Ride made her first space flight in 1983, she was both the first American woman and the youngest American to make the journey to the final frontier. Both of those distinctions show just how qualified and devoted Ride was to her career, but they also opened her up to a slew of absurd questions from the media.

Journalist Michael Ryan recounted some of the sillier questions that had been posed to Ride in a June 1983 profile for People. Among the highlights:

Q: “Will the flight affect your reproductive organs?”
A: “There’s no evidence of that.”

Q: “Do you weep when things go wrong on the job?”
A: “How come nobody ever asks (a male fellow astronaut) those questions?"

Forget going into space; Ride’s most impressive achievement might have been maintaining her composure in the face of such offensive questions.

2. Had she taken Billie Jean King's advice, Sally Ride might have been a professional tennis player.

When Ride was growing up near Los Angeles, she played more than a little tennis, and she was seriously good at it. She was a nationally ranked juniors player, and by the time she turned 18 in 1969, she was ranked 18th in the whole country. Tennis legend Billie Jean King personally encouraged Ride to turn pro, but she went to Swarthmore instead before eventually transferring to Stanford to finish her undergrad work, a master’s, and a PhD in physics.

King didn’t forget about the young tennis prodigy she had encouraged, though. In 1984 an interviewer playfully asked the tennis star who she’d take to the moon with her, to which King replied, “Tom Selleck, my family, and Sally Ride to get us all back.”

3. Home economics was not Sally Ride's best subject.

After retiring from space flight, Ride became a vocal advocate for math and science education, particularly for girls. In 2001 she founded Sally Ride Science, a San Diego-based company that creates fun and interesting opportunities for elementary and middle school students to learn about math and science.

Though Ride was an iconic female scientist who earned her doctorate in physics, just like so many other youngsters, she did hit some academic road bumps when she was growing up. In a 2006 interview with USA Today, Ride revealed her weakest subject in school: a seventh-grade home economics class that all girls had to take. As Ride put it, "Can you imagine having to cook and eat tuna casserole at 8 a.m.?"

4. Sally Ride had a strong tie to the Challenger.

Ride’s two space flights were aboard the doomed shuttle Challenger, and she was eight months deep into her training program for a third flight aboard the shuttle when it tragically exploded in 1986. Ride learned of that disaster at the worst possible time: she was on a plane when the pilot announced the news.

Ride later told AARP the Magazine that when she heard the midflight announcement, she got out her NASA badge and went to the cockpit so she could listen to radio reports about the fallen shuttle. The disaster meant that Ride wouldn’t make it back into space, but the personal toll was tough to swallow, too. Four of the lost members of Challenger’s crew had been in Ride’s astronaut training class.

5. Sally Ride had no interest in cashing in on her worldwide fame.

A 2003 profile in The New York Times called Ride one of the most famous women on Earth after her two space flights, and it was hard to argue with that statement. Ride could easily have cashed in on the slew of endorsements, movie deals, and ghostwritten book offers that came her way, but she passed on most opportunities to turn a quick buck.

Ride later made a few forays into publishing and endorsements, though. She wrote or co-wrote more than a half-dozen children’s books on scientific themes, including To Space and Back, and in 2009 she appeared in a print ad for Louis Vuitton. Even appearing in an ad wasn’t an effort to pad her bank account, though; the ad featured an Annie Leibovitz photo of Ride with fellow astronauts Buzz Aldrin and Jim Lovell gazing at the moon and stars. According to a spokesperson, all three astronauts donated a “significant portion” of their modeling fees to Al Gore’s Climate Project.

6. Sally Ride was the first openly LGBTQ astronaut.

Ride passed away on July 23, 2012, at the age of 61, following a long (and very private) battle with pancreatic cancer. While Ride's brief marriage to fellow astronaut Steve Hawley was widely known to the public (they were married from 1982 to 1987), it wasn't until her death that Ride's longtime relationship with Tam O'Shaughnessy—a childhood friend and science writer—was made public. Which meant that even in death, Ride was still changing the world, as she is the world's first openly LGBTQ astronaut.