It’s safe to say the American colonists were pretty upset about the taxes and tariffs imposed on imported goods in the 1760s and 1770s—upset enough to start a war. But at rates like ten shillings or a couple of pounds, the tariffs hardly sound oppressive to modern ears. That is, until you do the math to modernize the prices. Here is just how much 11 everyday items would cost if they were taxed today at the same levels they were in colonial America.
1. An Issue of mental_floss Magazine; $293.56 in taxes
Paper was among the most heavily taxed goods under the Stamp Act of 1765. For a pamphlet or newspaper larger than one whole sheet, the Stamp Act imposed a duty of one shilling per page and two shillings for every advertisement. That means a 35-page (printed on both sides) issue of a magazine with 10 advertisements would cost £186.98 today, or $293.56—on top of the newsstand price.
2. A Diploma; $234.84 in taxes
Nearly $300 for a magazine seems like a bargain considering colonists had to pay the equivalent of $234.84 for a single sheet of diploma paper under the Stamp Act. Any piece of paper, skin, piece of vellum, or parchment used for a certificate of degree taken at a university or academy incurred a stamp duty of two pounds (valued £149.58, or $234.84 today).
3. A Pair of Dice; $58.72 in taxes
Under the Stamp Act, a tariff of ten shillings was added to every pair of dice sold. In today’s economy, that would leave you paying over $58 for a pair of dice. Even more harrowing, the penalty for being caught selling an illegal pair of dice (and therein bypassing the tariff) would cost you ten pounds per die—or 20 for the pair. This penalty is equivalent to over $2300 today.
4. A Deck of Cards; $5.87 in taxes
Each deck of playing cards sold in the colonies was charged an extra shilling (or $5.87 today) under the Stamp Act. While that might not seem like much compared to the exorbitant duties on dice and paper, things are put into perspective when you consider that you can buy a deck of cards today for well under $5.00—that makes the duty in excess of 100 percent of the cards’ value. Also, much like dice, the penalty for selling counterfeit cards was 20 pounds (thousands of dollars).
5. A Calendar; $1.96 in taxes
A stamp duty of four pence (or $1.96—which now seems like a bargain!) was added to one-year calendars and almanacs printed in the colonies.
6. A Pound of Tea; $1.46
Under the Townshend Acts, a duty of three pence (approximately $1.46 today) was added to every pound of tea sold in the colonies. A common misconception is that the colonists protested the tax on tea because it was too high, when if fact, the Boston Tea Party was in response to cheap, rather than expensive, tea. In order to bail out the failing East India Company, England granted the company a monopoly on the sale of tea in the colonies and set a low tax on tea in order to undercut tea smuggling to the colonies. The colonists were angered by Britain’s attempt to restrict their trade as well as impose taxes (of any sort) against their will.
7. Foreign Coffee; $350.80 in taxes
The Sugar Act of 1764 imposed a duty of 2 pounds, 19 shillings, and 9 pence on every hundredweight of foreign coffee sold in the colonies. This is even more egregious when you consider that the tariff on British coffee was a mere 7 shillings ($41.10) per hundredweight. Foreign coffee was more than eight times more expensive than British coffee, nearly ensuring the British a monopoly on colonial coffee sales.
8. Foreign White Sugar; $129.16 in taxes
A hundredweight of foreign white sugar incurred an outrageous duty of 1 pound, 2 shillings—or nearly $130—under the Sugar Act.
9. Wine from Spain or Portugal; $58.72 in taxes
A ton of wine imported from Spain or Portugal was subject to a duty of 10 shillings (approximately $58.72 today). Not so bad, right? The crazy thing about this tariff is just how bonkers it makes the duty on wine imported from other places seem. Take, for instance…
10. Wine from Madeira; $821.94 in taxes
According to the Sugar Act, on “every ton of wine of the growth of the Madeiras, or of any other island or place from whence such wine may be lawfully imported” was placed a tariff of seven pounds. That’s 14 times more than wine from continental Europe!
11. License to Sell Wine; $469.68 in taxes
Under the Stamp Act, the paper on which you printed your license to sell wine—but, significantly, not wine and spirits—was stuck with a stamp duty of 4 pounds (or $469.68 dollars today). Much like the tariff on wine itself, the absurdity of this duty comes into focus when you compare it with other kinds of liquor licenses. The paper on which you printed your license to sell spirits—but not wine—had a duty of only one pound ($117.42). And the paper on which you printed your license to sell both wine and spirits had a duty of 4 pounds—the same as the duty on your license to sell wine alone. These tariffs seem to indicate that the Crown wanted to drive the sale of liquor (which was more often English-made) over wine (which was more often foreign-made).