The state is nothing but a suburb of the two metropolitan cities, New York and Philadelphia.” That’s how the New York Times described New Jersey in an article from February 13, 1898. Depending on who you speak to, that’s still said, although mostly in jest. The Times, though, was likely being serious — because the entire purpose of the article was to demonstrate why another laughable matter was no joke. A few days or weeks earlier, a New Jersey assemblyman placed a bill up for consideration, one which “was regarded somewhat as a joke by some members of the legislature.” But as the article’s sub-headline warned, it was not a joke at all.
The assemblyman wanted to tax bachelors for being bachelors. And he was serious. Two dollars a head — about $55 in today’s dollars, accounting for inflation — for the right to remain unwed.
The reasons for penalizing men of marrying age who, well, weren’t, was to “stimulate matrimony in the interest of a general betterment of the social condition,” a phrase which reflects deeply on the social mores of the time. Fearing the increasing number of “old maids” (women who never married) and “college widows” (local women who date men from nearby colleges, but find themselves single again after those men graduate), the legislator in question wanted to ensure that the state’s young women found husbands, even as the number of eligible mates was decreasing relative to population growth. That would, in his mind, be something quite bad, and at least somewhat fixable via a $2 surcharge to remain unhitched.
Ridiculous? Perhaps — but amazingly, not uncommon. As the Art of Manliness notes, bachelor taxes were originated by the ancient Greeks and seen throughout colonial America, likely as a sin tax of sorts, as young, unmarried men often spent a higher-than-typical portion of their earnings on alcohol, drugs, and things unmentionable in a family publication. But many instances of them in the early days of Europeans in the New World came to a close around the end of the Revolutionary War, and the desire of some New Jersey legislators to revive them a century or so later were for mostly unrelated reasons. Further, while New Jersey wasn’t successful in passing the bachelor tax, they also weren’t alone in trying — and some, incredibly, succeeded. Montana adopted one in 1921 which was short-lived; it was deemed unconstitutional a year later. The German town of Repelen issued such a levy in 1923.
But the most egregious example? Italy. The entire nation had one from 1927 until 1943, apparently. And one Italian village considered reviving it afterward — as recently as 1999.
From the Archives: Beard Dough: A much stranger tax.
Related: Stupid Laws of the Northeast: A $5 book of stupid laws from the New Jersey area.