11 Surprising Things That Were Taxed in Colonial America


In the 18th century, Great Britain exerted its control over the American colonies by taxing and adding tariffs to certain goods and services entering North America. The often-surprising items specifically targeted by the Sugar, Stamp, Townshend and other Acts—calendars, molasses, hats—shed light on the priories and motives of the British Parliament. Here are 11 seemingly strange things that fell under repressive colonial taxation rules.

1. Hats

One of the earliest duties levied against the American colonists came in the form of the Hat Act of 1732. In an effort to tamp down competition between American and English milliners, Great Britain outlawed the manufacture and export of hats in the colonies as well as prohibited inter-colonial sale of finished hats. To add insult to injury, the Crown placed heavy taxes on the British hats that were being imported to the colonies.

2. Finished Iron Goods


In the same vein as the Hat Act, Great Britain passed the Iron Act in 1750 to encourage the exportation of raw materials from the colonies to England and quell the colonies’ own creation of finished products. Under the Iron Act, Great Britain was able to import raw pig iron and bar iron from the colonies duty-free. At the same time, the act prohibited colonists from using the iron they mined to create goods of their own, meaning colonists were forced to purchase heavily taxed finished iron goods from Britain.

3. 63 Types of Paper


The Townshend Acts of 1767 didn’t institute a blanket tax on all types of paper and paper goods shipped to the colonies. Instead, they imposed discreet duties on 63 different types of paper. A ream of paper called Atlas Fine came with a duty of 12 shillings, for example, while a ream of Blue Royal had a duty of one shilling and six pence.

4. Legal Papers

Under the Stamp Act of 1765, nearly every kind of legal document you can think of—from a will to a summons to a license—had a distinct stamp duty.

5. Molasses


Molasses may seem like an odd product to be taxed by the British—and to be deemed so important a good as to have its own act named after it (the Molasses Act of 1733), but the colonies’ production of molasses played a key role in the triangular trade between Europe, North America, and the West Indies, as molasses is a key ingredient in the production of rum.

6. Glass


The surprising thing about the tariffs on glass imposed by the Townshend Act was that they varied by color. The more frequently used white glass was taxed at a higher rate of 4 shillings and 8 pence for a hundredweight, while green glass had a tariff of 1 shilling and 2 pence per hundredweight.

7. Paint


Under the Townshend Act, a tariff of two shillings per hundredweight was imposed on paint (called “painters colors”).

8. The Use of a Pen Name


While not technically a tax, the Stamp Act placed a staggering penalty on using a pen name in pamphlets or newspapers. A person found using a pseudonym would be charged a whopping 20 pounds—equivalent to thousands of dollars today.

9. Playing Cards and Dice


In addition to legal papers, the Stamp Act placed a hefty tariff on playing cards and dice. And, much like the penalty for using a pen name, the price of failing to pay said tariffs (by selling illegal dice or manufacturing counterfeit cards) was steep: 20 pounds per offense.

10. Calendars and Almanacs


Calendars and almanacs were not only taxed under the Stamp Act, but were taxed by their length. Calendars and almanacs for one year or less than a year printed on one side of one sheet of paper were given a duty of two pence. Calendars and almanacs of one year longer than one page had a duty of four pence. And calendars or almanacs meant to serve for several years paid four pence for each year covered.

11. Pimento


Pimento is called out specifically by the Sugar Act, with the Crown placing a tariff of one halfpenny on every pound of what modern cooks know as allspice.