Earlier this week I came across a small collection of papers concerning a local dog tax. The papers span several decades and list Norristown dog owners and their assessments.
Today in Montgomery County, dogs are licensed by the county for a nominal fee. In the 19th century, we found two reasons for the dog tax.
In a 1955 article “Tax Experiments Make a Bewildering Record,” Norris (aka Edward Hocker) writes about how a national economic crisis, generally called the Panic of 1837, led Pennsylvania and several other states to repudiate their debts and suspend interest payments. In an effort to shore up the state coffers, the legislature sought new taxes. According to Hocker, the state taxed gold watches, pleasure carriages, stocks, cattle, and eventually, dogs.
Now, Hocker may not have seen our tax records, which show dogs being taxed as early as 1834. It could also be the tax was actually started in response to an earlier recession. In any case the tax seems to have expired and restarted. Our collection has assessments for the years 1834 – 1836, 1838, 1852, 1854, 1862, and 1867.
Our records suggest a different reason for the tax on dogs, as shown by this 1829 petition of citizens from several townships, and is couched in patriotic language of developing the United States’ developing wool industry. The tax on dogs in this case, would create a fund to compensate the owners of sheep who were attacked by dogs.
Whatever the reason, the tax records show some interesting things. Most of the people assessed have dogs, that is, males. Only a few, ahem, female dogs are listed. One wonders how the species survived. The tax on dogs in this 1867 list was 75 cents, while females were taxed a full dollar, so that might explain the difference.
In this list, you can see the Bank of Montgomery County had two dogs, perhaps as guard dogs.
Here, you can see the name of General Winfield Scott Hancock’s father, B. F. Hancock, who owned one dog.