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

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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.

Take Advantage of Amazon's Early Black Friday Deals on Tech, Kitchen Appliances, and More

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Even though Black Friday is still a few days away, Amazon is offering early deals on kitchen appliances, tech, video games, and plenty more. We will keep updating this page as sales come in, but for now, here are the best Amazon Black Friday sales to check out.

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Apple/Amazon

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9 Things Invented By Accident

These sugary summer treats were an accidental invention.
These sugary summer treats were an accidental invention.
Daniel Öberg, Unsplash

Not every great invention was created according to plan. Some, in fact, were the result of a happy accident. In November 2020, the pharmaceutical company AstraZeneca announced that the COVID-19 vaccine it had developed in partnership with Oxford University was 90 percent effective when administered in a dosing regimen they had discovered thanks to some “serendipity.” This wasn't the only unintentional discovery in history, of course. From penicillin to artificial sweeteners, all nine of the everyday items below were invented entirely by accident.

1. Penicillin

On September 28, 1928, Scottish scientist Alexander Fleming discovered that a petri dish of staphylococcus bacteria that had been inadvertently left out on the windowsill of his London laboratory had become contaminated by a greenish-colored mold—and encircling the mold was a halo of inhibited bacterial growth. After taking a sample and developing a culture, Fleming discovered that the mold was a member of the Penicillium genus, and the rest, as they say, is history.

2. Corn Flakes

The two Kellogg brothers—Dr. John Harvey Kellogg and his younger brother (and former broom salesman) Will Keith Kellogg—worked at Battle Creek Sanitarium in Michigan, where John was physician-in-chief. Both were strict Seventh-day Adventists, who used their work at the sanitarium to promote the austere dietary and moralist principles of their religion (including strict vegetarianism and a lifelong restraint from excessive sex and alcohol) and to carry out research into nutrition, and the impact of diet on their patients. It was during one of these experiments in 1894 that, while in the process of making dough from boiled wheat, one of the Kelloggs left the mash to dry for too long and when it came time to be rolled out, it splintered into dozens of individual flakes. Curious as to what these flakes tasted like, he baked them in the oven—and in the process, produced a cereal called Granose. Some later tinkering switched out the wheat for corn, and gave us corn flakes.

3. Teflon

Polytetrafluoroethylene—better known as PTFE, or Teflon—was invented by accident at a DuPont laboratory in New Jersey in 1938. Roy Plunkett, an Ohio-born chemist, was attempting to make a new CFC refrigerant when he noticed that a canister of tetrafluoroethylene, despite appearing to be empty, weighed as much as if it were full. Cutting the canister open with a saw, Plunkett found that the gas had reacted with the iron in the canister’s shell and had coated its insides with polymerized polytetrafluoroethylene—a waxy, water-repellent, non-stick substance. Du Pont soon saw the potential of Plunkett’s discovery and began mass producing PTFE, but it wasn’t until 1954, when the wife of French engineer Marc Grégoire asked her husband to use the same substance to coat her cookware to stop food sticking to her pans, that the true usefulness of Plunkett’s discovery was finally realized.

4. Slinky

In 1943, naval engineer Richard T. James was working at a shipyard in Philadelphia when he accidentally knocked a spring (that he had been trying to modify into a stabilizer for sensitive maritime equipment) from a high shelf. To his surprise, the spring neatly uncoiled itself and stepped its way down from the shelf and onto a pile of books, and from there onto a tabletop, and then onto the floor. After two years of development, the first batch of 400 “Slinky” toys sold out in just 90 minutes when they were demonstrated in the toy department of a local Gimbels store in 1945.

5. Silly Putty

At the height of World War II, rubber was rationed across the United States after Japan invaded a number of rubber-producing countries across southeast Asia and hampered production. The race was on to find a suitable replacement—a synthetic rubber that could be produced inside the U.S. without the need of overseas imports, which eventually led to the entirely unexpected invention of Silly Putty. There are at least two rival claims to the invention of Silly Putty (chiefly from chemist Earl L. Warrick and Scottish-born engineer James Wright), both of whom found that mixing boric acid with silicone oil produced a stretchy, bouncy rubber-like substance that also had the unusual ability of leaching newspaper print from a page (an ability that changing technology has now eliminated).

6. Post-It Notes

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In 1968, a 3M chemist named Dr. Spencer Silver was attempting to create a super-strong adhesive when instead he accidentally invented a super-weak adhesive, which could be used to only temporarily stick things together. The seemingly limited application of Silver’s product meant that it sat unused at 3M (then technically known as Minnesota Mining & Manufacturing) for another five years, until, in 1973, a colleague named Art Fry attended one of Silver’s seminars and struck upon the idea that his impermanent glue could be used to stick bookmarks into the pages of his hymnbook. It took another few years for 3M to be convinced both of Fry and Silver’s idea and of the salability of their product, but eventually they came up with a unique design that worked perfectly: a thin film of Spencer’s adhesive was applied along just one edge of a piece of paper. After a failed test-market push in 1977 as Press ’N Peel, the product went national as the Post-It note in 1980.

7. Saccharin

In 1878 or '79 (sources differ), Constantin Fahlberg, a chemist studying the properties of oxidized coal tar at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland, discoveredwhile eating his meal one evening that food he picked up with this fingers tasted sweeter than normal. He traced the sweetening effect back to the chemical he had been working with that day (Ortho-sulfobenzoic Acid Imide, no less) and, noting its potential salability, quickly set up a business mass producing his sweetener under the name Saccharin. Although quickly popular (and equally quickly controversial), it would take the sugar shortages of two World Wars to make the discovery truly universal.

8. Popsicles

The first popsicle was reportedly invented by 11-year-old Frank Epperson in 1905, when he accidentally left a container of powdered soda and water, with its mixing stick still inside, on his porch overnight. One unexpectedly cold night later, and the popsicle—which Epperson originally marketed 20 years later as an Epsicle—was born.

9. Safety glass

Safety glass—or rather, laminated glass—was accidentally discovered by the French chemist Édouard Bénédictus when he knocked a glass beaker from a high shelf in his laboratory and found, to his surprise, that it shattered but did not break. His assistant informed him that the beaker had contained cellulose nitrate, a type of clear natural plastic, that had left a film on the inside of the glass. He filed a patent for his discovery in 1909, and it has been in production (albeit in various different forms) ever since.