The U. S. Federal government placed a new tax on photographs between August 1, 1864 to August 1, 1866. This new tax was named ‘Sun Picture Tax‘. The money raised was used to help fund the American Civil War for the north or known also as a ‘revenue tax’. The tax rate amount shown on each stamp varied based on the cost of the making of that photograph – the CDV type (cartes des visites) which had become very popular in the 1860s. The stamp tax also applied to any daguerreotypes and ambrotypes produced.
The tax rate ranged from one cent to five cents. Actually, the one-cent tax stamp didn’t start until less expensive photos were in big demand from March 1, 1865 to 1 August 1, 1866. When a photo was printed for a customer, the photographer always had his name / business printed on the back. In the corner was where he then placed the stamp after the customer had paid the tax and for the photo. The photographer many times (but not always) dated when the tax was paid and placed his initials. If you see an ‘x’ or numerous lines over the stamp, that was a mark also that the tax was paid but unfortunately no date was marked. So if you do have an exact date on the stamp, you are lucky. All the stamps had the illustration of George Washington.
If a photo from August 1864 to August 1866 didn’t have a stamp then it might never have been paid for by the customer. If there is no stamp but rather a dark spot, then it had been removed by someone over the years. You won’t have an exact date but at least you know it was during the two years of 1864-1866.
Stamp colors and value: Using the tax amount and the color of the stamp you can also get an idea of the cost of that specific photo. There was a 5 cents deep red color stamp for photos costing 51 cents to $1.00 in 1864. The value of a $1.00 in 1864 was equal to $15.31 today. A green 3 cent stamp was for photos costing 25-50 cents each. To compare that cost, 50 cents in 1865 was equal to $7.82. Before March 1, 1865 there was the 2 cent stamps with either orange or blue color. Photos requiring this stamp cost 25 cents or less. Then starting in March 1865 with the newest stamp, one cent in the light color red, that photograph cost 10 cents or less. Ten cents in 1865 was equal to $1.56 today.
Photos: Example of orange 2 cent stamp that is dated 1866, a 1864 stamp in blue color and a photo back with the stamp removed.
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