When hostilities commenced in 1861, the U.S. government believed it would be a short decisive war. But by the end of the year, and with debt mounting and no end in sight, Washington instituted its first round of federal taxes to ease the financial burden by passing it on to its citizens.
The growing photographic industry willingly shared some of the burden in 1861 with the first income tax of 3 percent on annual income of $800 or more ($23,000 today). The Revenue Act of 1862 however, unfairly changed the playing field. A variety of new taxes placed unwelcome pressure on the industry. The cost of glass, sheet metal, paper, glue, chemicals and other raw materials were taxed individually, which impacted retail prices of all photographs. Licenses were further imposed on the artists based on their gross receipts.
For studios with many camera operators, such as establishments operated by Matthew B. Brady and Alexander Gardner, who both had from 11 to 20 in field and studios during the war, this added an even greater burden. Still, businesses managed to flourish and grow. Many major northern cities flush with budding photographers joined the new industry. The Army of the Potomac alone had as many as 300 traveling photographers attached to it during the course of the war.
This growth caught the watchful eye of Congress, and in particular the Treasury Department’s new Bureau of Internal Revenue. David A. Wells, chairman of the U.S. Revenue Commission established at the war’s end, wrote that Congress followed the principle of, “Wherever you find an article, a product, a trade, a profession, or a source of income, tax it!”
In 1864, a new act renewed the taxes and licenses established two years earlier. It also increased percentage rates and, to the horror of a war weary public, created new taxes to feed the coffers. Seen as a golden goose by Congress, the photographic industry soon found itself in the spotlight.
The Revenue Act of 1864 not only reinforced license fees on the image-makers, but also instituted a tax on their product. This new affront, dubbed the “Sun Tax,” specifically designated all photographs as “sun-pictures,” regardless of the process. A tax stamp was required to be purchased, canceled and affixed on each image to prove the tax was paid. Originally falling under another category (proprietary) that had revenue stamps already in print since 1862, Congress decided to split out photographs as a separate item, and create a scale based on retail prices.
The Act exempted images of artwork and photographs too small to place a stamp on, instead charging a monthly 5 percent sales tax. There was no time to have a new stamp printed specifically for photographs when the law went into effect. To make up for the shortcoming, photographers were commanded to purchase whatever tax stamp was available to use.
The Act also prescribed stiff penalties for noncompliance, which included fines and seizure of property. In Detroit, the U.S. court fined one photographer $320 for selling 12 photographs without the proper 24 cents in tax stamps. The judgment was passed in late July 1866.
As the burden increased, photographers across the country contacted their representatives to repeal the tax. They argued that the tax unfairly saddled them with an extraordinarily high portion of the war debt, complicated bookkeeping methods, and caused confusion about how to apply rates to photos sold individually or in packages. Photographers also complained that it was difficult to keep an adequate supply of the appropriate stamps on hand, and that the stamp placement would spoil the image if they followed requirements to the letter.
Another problem with the Act: It taxed a product that could only be produced at the time of the consumer’s demand. This meant paying a revenue tax on a product yet to be made, and added extra steps to the production process. In an effort to streamline the workflows, many photographers pre-canceled stamps as soon as they acquired them, and attached them to card mounts or cases in batches before creating photographs. Cartes de visite presented a special stamping challenge. Usually sold in packs of a dozen, some photographers stamped the wrapper around the pack rather than the individual cards. These shortcuts were technically illegal, if not bending the law.
By early 1866, photographers had had enough.
A revolution against the stamp tax took shape in the form of petitions to Congress. The photographers of Janesville, Wis., issued a call to pray for a modification of the tax. Ohio photographers rallied to the cause with a call for repeal. New York City photographers worked through their district tax assessor to lobby Congress. Missouri photographic artists likewise weighed in.
On February 14, the revolt arrived in the capital city. The Washington correspondent of the New York Herald reported, “The leading photographers of the country are assembling in the city, by agreement, to urge Congress to reduce the rate of taxes on their products. New York, Philadelphia, Boston, Baltimore, and the principal Western cities will be represented.”
The delegation included the industry’s movers and shakers. Brady and Gardner joined forces on behalf of Washington camera operators. The Bendann brothers, David and Daniel, and Palmer L. Perkins represented Baltimore photographers. Two Philadelphia-based lensmen, Edward L. Wilson and Washington L. Germon, likewise stood up for their fellow photographers. Charles D. Fredericks and Benjamin Gurney arrived from New York City to deal with the burden that plagued their community. Boston’s George H. Loomis and Samuel Masury acted on behalf of New England interests.
These men invested their own money and time in the cause, and presented a formal petition to the U.S. House of Representative’s powerful Ways and Means Committee. The document laid out five reasons against the stamp policy:
- On aesthetic grounds, stamps marred photographs and lessened their value.
- Prone to bleeding ink, the stamps caused physical damage to images, especially when stacked.
- Affixed stamps made photographs thicker, which added to postage costs for photographs sent mail order. This affected two large and lucrative revenue sources—mass produced war scenes and views of America.
- Third-party dealers in photographs found it more difficult to separate original photos that required a stamp from copy prints of engravings and paintings that did not.
- The additional handling of photographs to affix stamps caused soiling of the image and made them less attractive to buyers.
The petition proposed repealing the individual tax, and replacing it with a simple flat tax based upon sales income.
Delegate Loomis fanned the flames of discontent in his “Repeal of the Stamp Act.” The statement appeared in the April 1866 number of the Philadelphia Photographer, published by fellow delegate Edward L. Wilson.
Loomis proclaimed, “It is hoped that photographers in all sections of the Union will use every possible opportunity to impress upon their Senators and Representatives in Congress the necessity of this change in the revenue law. Write them earnestly upon the subject, if you cannot get a personal interview, and whenever the matter is brought up for the action, as it soon will be, they will see the justice of our petition and vote accordingly.”
The petition found a friend in the Hon. Leonard Myers of Pennsylvania, a Republican member of the House of Representatives. On May 18, 1866, on the floor of the House, he confronted Vermont’s Justin S. Morrill, author of the noted Morrill Act of 1862 and a staunch defender of the sun tax. Morrill claimed that those who purchased photographs could well afford them, as they were luxury items.
Myers argued, on behalf of his estimate of 20,000 photographers across the country, that taxes on raw materials had increased the production costs of photographs by a whopping 250 percent during the late war.
Myers also addressed the concerns of the photographers articulated in the petition. “These photographs are really works of art and ought to be exempted from taxation,” he insisted, “It is absolutely an advantage that we should do away with stamps upon photographs, both for the protection of the interests of the public and the interests of the photographers. Every gentleman in this House who has had photographs taken, or who has examined them, knows that the cancelling of these stamps also tends to deface the photographs when they are packed together in a case or otherwise.”
He added with feeling, “I will not deny the beauty of my children. But I must say that I do not like to have their photographs defaced by ink marks which have been transferred to the face of the picture, as is the case with a photograph which I have now before me.”
The debate continued into the next day. Myers made his case, and his impassioned plea paved the way to repeal the stamp tax, which occurred on Aug. 1, 1866. The government replaced it with a 5 percent retail sales tax and exempted wholesale revenue. The license fee was repealed four years later during the administration of President Ulysses S. Grant, when Congress dismantled the then no longer needed system of war taxes
The Philadelphia Photographer proclaimed victory and singled out Rep. Myers, the Washington delegation and Loomis for their heroic efforts to kill the “stamp nuisance.”
A group of the delegates gathered together for at least two group portraits to commemorate their service. Prints of the images, featuring Brady, the Bendann brothers, Fredericks, Germon and Gurney, were delivered to the office of the Philadelphia Photographer sometime in April 1866.
These portraits, the only known images to visually document the photographer’s revolution, are currently lost to history.
References: Thirty-Seventh Congress, Session II; Cobb, Josephine, “Photographers of the Civil War,” Military Affairs: Journal of the American Military Institute, Fall, 1962; Fergleger, David A. Wells and the American Revenue System, 1865-1870; New York Daily Herald, May 28, 1864, and Feb. 14, 1866; Thirty-Eighth Congress, Session I; Philadelphia Inquirer, Feb. 15, 1866; New York Times, Feb. 16 and July 22, 1866; Raftsman’s Journal, Feb. 21, 1866; Katz, Witness to an Era: The Life and Photographs of Alexander Gardner, Philadelphia Inquirer, May 28, 1866; Journal of the House of Representatives of the United States: Being the First Session of the Thirty-Ninth Congress; Philadelphia Photographer, Vol III, 1866. Congressional Globe: Containing the Debates and Proceedings of the First Session of the Thirty-Ninth Congress.
Richard Leisenring Jr., a native of Hopkinsville, Ky., has been an avid collector of Civil War memorabilia since 1967. He has worked in the museum field and as an historical consultant for 42 years, and the last 15 as curator of the Glenn H. Curtiss Museum in Hammondsport, N.Y.