The Tax Centinels

April 1938: Students at Renselaer Polytechnic Institute managed to acquire almost all the pennies in the town of Troy, New York — around 250,000 pennies in total. They did this by first going around store-to-store claiming they needed pennies for a "penny-ante poker game." Then they went to the banks and purchased their entire supply of pennies. Since each bank was unaware that the same thing was occurring at all the other banks, they happily sold the students all the pennies they had.

As a result, the town of Troy suddenly discovered that it was in the grip of a "penny famine." Shopkeepers found themselves unable to make change. And more significantly, they found it difficult to charge the state sales tax.

This had been the point of the stunt. It had been organized by a group of students calling themselves the "Tax Centinels" in order to "focus public attention on the taxes which they claim account for 25 per cent of the cost of all necessities of life."

Having cornered all the pennies, the students went into the town the next day and began making purchases, using pennies to pay for one-quarter of whatever the cost of the item was. It was a bit like the time-honored stunt of paying fines with pennies.

Philadelphia Inquirer - Apr 6, 1938

The movement quickly spread to other colleges, so that other college towns were soon beset by penny famines. New members of the Tax Centinels were required to take the following pledge:

To help fight the growth of taxes which now consume 25 cents out of every dollar spent by the average person, I hereby endorse the policies of this non-partisan, non-political organization knwon as the Tax CENTinels.

It shall be the purpose of this organization to focus public attention on the evils of the practice of keeping concealed taxes and to awaken in the public consciousness a realization that 70 per cent of all taxes now collected by more than 175,000 separate taxing bodies in the United States are obtained through secret levies tacked on to the price of necessities we all must buy daily—food, clothing, shelter, luxuries, and semi-luxuries.

Since the average man does not realize the inroads made upon his purse by these vicious hidden taxes and that he himself pays the major costs of the government instead of the Rockefellers, Morgans and du Ponts, I hereby pledge myself to pay 25% of the price of all purchases in pennies in order to dramatize the situation to the end that it may be remedied.

Wisconsin State Journal - Apr 11, 1938

As far as I can tell, the Tax Centinel movement lasted a month or two before fizzling out. But it seems to have been symptomatic of a widespread popular discontent at the time over the sales tax. See, for instance, our earlier post about the guy who in 1939 took a case all the way to the supreme court over his indigation at having been, in his mind, unfairly charged one-half cent of sales tax.

More info: "Tax Centinels," Star and Lamp (Pi Kappa Phi newsletter) - May 3, 1938. Page 4.
     Posted By: Alex - Thu Sep 30, 2021
     Category: Money | 1930s | Universities, Colleges, Private Schools and Academia | Pranks

This brings back memories of stories of the Rensselaer Drop Squad, a group which made its claim to fame by dropping various items into the stairwell of a campus building. For those of us who embrace chaos and destruction it makes for fascinating reading. They weren't caught until one of the members ratted them out.

It seems that Rensselaer was a hotbed for all sorts practical jokers.
Posted by KDP on 09/30/21 at 09:48 AM
The funniest thing is that these shenanigans would work only if the taxes are NOT hidden. Nowadays, when the smallest item costs at least five cents apiece, if taxes are included in the sales price, the good people of Troy would simply pay using nickels and dimes.
Posted by Yudith on 10/02/21 at 06:19 AM
FFS, USA, stop getting taxation wrong!

If only you'd include the VAT in the sales price, as every single civilised country does, this wouldn't have been a problem at all.

And no, states setting their own tariffs is not an excuse. Just get it right already.
Posted by Richard Bos on 10/02/21 at 01:16 PM
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