By Scott Troutman
Are you looking for something different to collect? Have you tired of chasing the output of new United States postage stamps? Do you find the stamp market's obsession with gum condition boring? Would you be interested in a collecting area where the stamps are relatively inexpensive, new finds occur all the time and the possibility of owning the only known example of a stamp is in the realm of possibility?
Then state revenue stamp collecting may be for you. So what are state revenue stamps? Well, they include stamps that have been issued by the fifty states, Washington, D.C., and various Indian tribes to generate revenue or to act as receipts for services. Tax stamps issued by cities and counties are also considered to be state revenues.
Some of the items taxed are the same items for which the federal government issued revenue stamps: documentary taxes on legal documents such as wills and deeds (usually paying for recording fees), stock transfer taxes, taxes on beer and wine, and state duck stamps used on hunting licenses.
The first state revenue stamps were handstamps placed on Maryland lottery tickets circa 1848. The first paper stamps were documentaries used in California as early as 1857. An 1857 California $7.50 marine insurance stamp on blue onion skin paper is shown in Figure 1. Louisiana, Oregon and Nevada also made early use of revenue stamps.
The states have been far more creative in the items they tax and the services they provide than the U.S. federal government has been. This is because many states are constrained by constitutions that require a balanced budget, forcing legislators to become more wide ranging in their search for revenue. North Carolina is a notable example, having taxed everything from hat blocking and dry cleaning (which required cleaning tax stamps) to dog food.
In general, state revenue stamps tend to be issued in the following categories: Fish and game — Used on hunting and fishing licenses of all sorts. A 1939 Virginia resident $1 big game hunting stamp is shown in Figure 2.
Documentary — Used on wills, deeds, insurance, business licenses. A 50¢ Minnesota deed meter stamp proof from Steele County dated June 2, 1988, is shown in Figure 3.
Inspection — Items inspected include bedding (those infamous "Do Not Remove Under Penalty of Law tags"), eggs, kerosene, gasoline, feed, seed, seafood and even elevators. A 1912 Missouri gasoline stamp from the oil inspection department, one of the more elaborate types issued, is shown in Figure 4. The 1905 Florida inspection stamp with rampant seahorse shown in Figure 5 paid the state inspection tax on 200 pounds of feed.
Use tax — These tend to include most of the old sin-tax items, such as beer, wine, liquor, cigarettes, cigars, tobacco, drugs and even cosmetics. A Becker's beer bottle neck label with imbedded Utah beer tax stamp is shown in Figure 6.
Sales tax — Ohio used sales tax stamps for years and other states use stamps on vending machines, juke boxes and arcade games to collect sales tax on vended products. Several states have stamps for collection of motor vehicle sales tax, and Oklahoma has special stamps used for farm implement sales tax.
Advertising — Many states had taxes on agricultural products that supported advertising campaigns for such items as Washington apples, Idaho potatoes, Florida citrus fruit and even one for a failed attempt on Washington state hot-house-grown rhubarb.
The variety of items taxed is simply amazing. There have been tax stamps for honey, lime, dog food, insecticide-fungicides, linseed oil, paint and soft drinks. There were stamps on tulip bulbs, stamps for doing Department of Motor Vehicle searches and even stamps for taxes on doing medical lab work in Colorado.
And don't think that the fish and game area offers any less variety. You can find stamps for hunting or catching shellfish, crabs, elk, crow, mountain goat and even whistling swans. There are stamps for training dogs in field trials and running suction dredges in rivers. A 1979 California $1 dog training permit stamp is shown in Figure 7.
With the exception of state duck stamps, gum condition tends to have little effect on pricing of state revenue tax stamps. There are different prices for used versus mint stamps, but in some cases used examples are rarer than mint ones. In many cases the stamps only exist either all mint or all used.
Indian nations within the United States also have won the right through Supreme Court decisions to tax their own people and products sold on their reservations.
Smoke shops sell tobacco products free of state taxes. Tribes such as the Muscogee (Creek) and Cheyenne-Arapaho tax these products themselves to provide funds for health care or other reservation needs. Other tribes have taxed liquor.
Many tribes produce hunting and fishing stamps for use on tribal lands. Many of these fish and game stamps are produced in very low quantities. A 1993 small game stamp from the Standing Rock Indian reservation in North Dakota is shown in Figure 8.
Cities and counties in some states have the power to tax and use stamps to do so. In Colorado and Missouri constitutional provisions allow municipalities to tax anything the state taxes. Town and county stamps tend to be on tobacco or alcohol, but vending machines have also been taxed in such places as Wichita, Kan., and Arab, Ala.
Collectors tend to collect the stamps one of two ways. The first way is by state. Vermont, with just 22 cigarette stamps, has the fewest issues. Most states have issued hundreds of stamps. States where the municipalities also issue stamps are especially challenging. Alabama, for example, has more than 1,000 known cigarette and tobacco tax stamps issued by counties, cities and towns.
The other way to collect is by commodity: honey stamps, beer stamps, cigarette stamps, only fish and game stamps, only trout fishing stamps or whatever strikes your fancy. One revenuer I know collects stamps on anything he can eat.
In addition to stamps, there are also cardboard tags with the stamps printed on them. This is especially true of feed, seed and fertilizer, but tags are also found for seafood. In the hunting arena, buck tags and deer tags are also collected by some. A 1950 Kentucky feed tag with the bottom portion serving as a revenue tag is shown in Figure 9.
One of the joys of collecting state revenue tax stamps is that they are cheap. The most expensive stamps are some rare Indian reservation hunting stamps that have brought more than $1,000 at auction. Most state revenue stamps sell for less than $25, and many of the cigarette stamps sell for less than $1.
Stamps used on cover tend to bring a premium, whether on a deed, hunting license, inspection tag or on fruit basket lids. Another attraction to collecting state revenue stamps is the thrill of the hunt. State revenue stamps are often hard to find. Electronic auctions such as eBay have proven to be a godsend for state revenuers because many state revenue stamps surface there.
The State Revenue Society auctions are another major source of state revenue stamps. You can usually find some state revenue stamps in most revenue dealer stocks. Otherwise the stamps tend to be well hidden in dealer inventories, with the dealers often not even recognizing for what they are.
For non-fish and game revenue stamps, the two volume USA State Revenue Catalogis the basis for how the material is cataloged and offered. Put together by the late Elbert S.A. Hubbard, Vol. I covers the stamps issued up until 1950, and Vol. II has additions and corrections and the stamps from 1950 up until around 1972. Hubbard's prices are out of date, but they still do give a sense of the relative scarcity of the stamps. Specialized catalogs exist for Kansas, Nebraska, New England and Washington state.
In the area of fish and game stamps, the new Streamside Catalog by Jan Wooton lists and prices more than 6,500 fishing and hunting stamps. This catalog is $45.90 postpaid from Streamside Press, Box 74, Tate, GA 30177. Streamside does not cover state duck stamps. They are covered in catalogs by David Torre and the Sam Houston Duck Company Catalog by Bob Dumaine, available for $3 from Sam Houston Duck Company, Box 820087, Houston, TX 77282-0087. Dumaine also created an album for state duck stamps.
The State Revenue Society publishes a 32-page quarterly journal and has auctions three times a year. Membership is $12, which you can recoup in price discounts on catalogs once you are a member. To join, or for more information, write to SRS secretary Kent Gray, Box 9726, Dyess AFB, TX 79607 or visit the SRS web site at www.hillcity-mall.com/SRS. The SRS also sells the Hubbard and Torre catalogs along with other publications related to state tax stamps.
Scott Troutman is the editor of the State Revenue Newsletter. He collects and exhibits United States and state revenue stamps and North Carolina postal history.