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lllustrated Backings
1864 luxury tax

By Act of Congress in 1864, a tax was levied on the sale of luxury items to raise wartime revenue for the Union. The act provided that sellers of "photographs, ambrotypes, daguerreotypes, or any sun pictures" affix stamps to the back of such photographs at the time of sale, exempting photographs too small for the stamp. The presence of a revenue stamp can help to precisely date an American photograph made at the end of the civil war. The denomination of the stamp was proportionate to the cost of the photograph, according to the following schedule
(one cent stamps were used only when the appropriate denomination was unavailable):

Luxury Tax Schedule for Photographs

Cost of photograph

Less than $0.25
$0.25 to $0.50
$0.50 to $1.00
Greater than $1.00

Denomination of stamp

2 cents stamp (blue or orange)
3 cents stamp (green)
5 cents stamp (red)
5 cents stamp for each additional dollar or fraction thereof

Tax stamps, required during the period 1 August 1864 to 1 August 1866, were applied to tintypes and ambrotypes as well as the ubiquitous carte de visite. Any photographs bearing tax stamps were produced during this period. The act required that the seller cancel the stamp by initializing and dating it, providing a valuable source of information. By law, the selling establishment was required to cancel the stamp with the photographer's initials and the date, but most photographers simply canceled with a quick stroke of the pen. Stamps properly canceled are valuable because the image can be precisely dated and the photographer accurately attributed. Other kinds of stamps were used besides the regular Internal Revenue Stamp. Stamps specifically for photographs were never produced; it was left up to the photographer to use a stamp of the proper denomination. Tax stamps were also used on other kinds documents that came under the tax, for example, teacher's certificates. Even playing cards used in games were taxed as a luxury. During the summer of 1866, "playing card" stamps were used to make up for a shortage of official stamps as the levy came to an end. These unusual stamps date specifically to the last few months of the summer of 1866. Blue playing card stamps issued in the summer of 1866 are the most common. Very rare, are the one cent red playing card stamps. More frequently seen is the orange two cent playing card stamp. Tax stamps were never required on all photographs sent through the mail as some authors have mistakenly thought. The stamps have nothing to do with mailing the image, as a reading of the act will tell. If the photographs were sent through the mail they still needed to be in an envelope with a postage stamp on it. While this might only be a footnote for the photography historian, it's an important point for the genealogist. If you're wondering if the tax stamps themselves are valuable, they are valued in the $3-$5 range by stamp collectors.


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All photo images, except where noted, copyright© 2001 Michael Wilson