A Taxing History


No better time than tax day for Ancestry.com to announce it's including access to federal income tax records—dated 1862-1918—for subscribers

The year is 1865. Andrew Carnegie steps out of his carriage sporting a gold watch. At home in Carnegie's Pennsylvania estate, his grandchildren bang on a custom-made piano. Things are quite comfortable for the Carnegie family. And why not? The steel baron and later philanthropist would earn $84,000 that year—the equivalent of about $2 million today.

Those choice details of Carnegie's luxurious lifestyle will soon be included in a monthly Ancestry.com subscription, which runs $12.95. The genealogy Web site, which already offers access to databases covering everything from immigration to military service, is branching out to include income tax records. As part of an agreement in which the company paid $46,000 to the National Archives in Washington, Ancestry.com has digitized and indexed federal income tax records from 1862 through 1918.

The site's IRS Tax Records collection is an alphabetical listing of annual income as well as taxable possessions, such as Carnegie's gold watch and carriage. Another document shows President Abraham Lincoln's $25,000 income (about $566,000 today) for 1864, the year before his assassination. His tax bill: $1,296.

A Collection of Collections

According to Megan Smolenyak, Ancestry.com's chief family historian, the government first imposed a federal income tax in 1862 on affluent families who made at least $600 annually. The money, collected by a commissioner of Internal Revenue, was to help fund the Civil War. Taxes were still modest compared with today, topping out at 10%. But by 1873, William Astor, then the richest man in the U.S., and a few of his old cronies had had enough. They sued the federal government, resulting in the federal tax being declared unconstitutional.

Throughout the Civil War era, the federal tax continued to be imposed and redacted. Also available in the archives are the fortunes of individual companies.

Up to now, those records have been a treasure trove for anyone who's had the time to travel to Washington and view them on microfilm at the Archives. Now, they'll be available online as well. And just in time to offer small comfort to those who have had to fork over 30% of their present-day income to the IRS.

Paula Lehman is an editorial assistant for BusinessWeek in New York.

Best LBO Ever
LIMITED-TIME OFFER SUBSCRIBE NOW
 
blog comments powered by Disqus