On the Edge of Discovery: The IRS is Watching You

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 Originally posted March 30, 2012  

CDV with tax stamp from the studio of A.A. Anderson

Cartes-de-visite (CDVs or photographic visiting cards) were so profitable during the Civil War period that studios sprang up to support the high demand. In West Chester alone during that time there were  at least 17 studios making CDVs. Their popularity did not go unnoticed by the IRS.  This newly created office was looking for luxury items to tax to fund the defense of the Union.  According to an Act of June 30, 1864 all CDVs, watches, pianos, carriages and silver plate were taxed. 

 Every photographer was required to register with the IRS and pay a $25 license fee. A two cent luxury tax was charged on all CDVs made between August 1, 1864 and August 1, 1866. According to the law, a stamp was to be affixed to the back of each CDV with the photographer’s initials and date cancelling it. Not every photographer added this useful information – many simply marked an “X” or did not inscribe it.  These tax records are extremely useful for researching photographers during that period.

CDV with preprinted space on the back for the tax stamp

 West Chester photographer Eber Woodward’s income made a steady climb during the Civil War years as every soldier and his family needed to exchange CDVs.  Woodward had begun his career as a daguerreotypist and ambrotypist in 1854. He adapted his business to public tastes and made “plain photographs” and the popular CDV in the 1860s.  According to the IRS Assessment list for 1863-64 Woodward’s income was $118.  In 1864-65 his income increased to $538, in 1865-66 to $1082 and in 1866 to $1680!

 In 1865 Woodward, was cited by the IRS for failing to affix the tax stamps on the CDVs that he sold.  West Chester Lawyer Joseph J. Lewis was appointed by Abraham Lincoln as Commissioner of the Office of Internal Revenue in the Treasury Department. Lewis was tipped off by a tax collector that Woodward was not affixing the stamps to his photographs. According to a letter in CCHS library dated May 11, 1865 from Lewis to West Chester tax collector William Baker, Woodward had collected the required taxes from everyone, but believed that affixing the stamps marred his photographs. The arm of the law had no sympathy for aesthetics and ordered him to affix the stamps.

 If you are interested in the IRS tax stamps issued during the Civil War, the CCHS library has a CD made by collector and photo historian Bruce Baryla that gives their whole history or see his website at http://www.pipeline.com/~ciociola/baryla/civilwar.htm

Pamela Powell, Photo Archivist