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The Tax Stamp Cometh

by Amy Kenneley

Usually, the steps towards school were slow ones for me. I dreaded the agonizing times at the blackboard doing long division, and hated being called upon to answer questions.

But today my steps were winged-I flew into classroom. Today I had something for which Mrs. Ritz, my teacher, would forgive all.

The class was called to order. We stood beside our desks, placed hands over our hearts, and looked at the American Flag hung directly in the center over the blackboard and above the window-shade map of "The United States And Its Territories." We recited the Pledge of Allegiance, and then sat for attendance.

Not only must we say, "Here!" but also raise our hands. I twitched with anticipation. Soon it would come. The attendance done, a teacher's pet was given the task of taking the attendance sheet down to the principal's office.

The time was 9:05. Soon, she must ask. Mrs. Ritz cleared her throat. "Children, does anyone have any tax stamps today?"

I raised my hand, slowly then with a waving motion. "Yes?" She recognized me. I stood up, this time fearlessly. "I have tax stamps, Mrs. Ritz!"

Her eyes gleamed. I had said the magic words. Tax Stamps! Those little green, two-inch-square pieces of paper, ranging from a 1-cent imprint to as much as $15 or more imprints, were the bread and butter of the schools, where they could be collected, counted and redeemed for needed school items.

Our school's goal was to purchase a new film projector. Of course, we were not as interested in seeing science and social studies films-those woozy-sounding, frame-skipping oldies-as we were interested in the tantalizing hint from the principal that a new projector might…MIGHT be used to show films during lunch time--real films.

Would we come back early from our lunch hours at home and come into the gym to see a film instead of playing on the swings and wrestling in the school yard? Of course we would!

And so it was with some degree of smugness that I walked to the front of the classroom and placed tax stamps on the desk of Mrs. Ritz with imprints of $5 and $10 dollars. Everyone was very impressed. We, who counted our tax stamp blessings in one-, two-, and three-cent stamps, had just increased our year's classroom total by half.

My brief moment of importance was because we had recently moved from an apartment to a house, and Grandpa had bought some much-needed furniture. We now had two fancy chartreuse plastic Danish Modern chairs from Sears--no arms. I acquired a real bed instead of a foldaway cot, and I selected a cricket chair for my bedroom as well. Grandpa splurged on a brass ashtray stand with an amber-colored glass insert.

My reward was to be part of the Counting Committee. I sat with three others during recess and counted and bundled the stamps we had accumulated for the month.

We learned our counting skills at the tax stamp table. We would count all the 1's, and when we got to 50, would wrap rubber bands around the bundle. Then we would count all the 2's, and so on.

In the hallway outside the office there was a thermometer with a red paper tongue. The red tongue rose and rose as the school's booty of tax stamps increased. We couldn't wait until the red tongue hit the top--that meant the school could buy the new film projector.

Tax stamps were a part of the early school experience for many children growing up in Cleveland into the early1960s. The first sales tax in Ohio began in 1935.

The tax was 3% of the total purchase. Two thirds of the amount of tax collected was to go to the schools. But how to ensure that retailers would actually charge the unpopular tax to consumers, and if they did, actually send the taxes collected to the state?

The solution was to print tax stamps of many "values" and have the retailers buy the tax stamps up front. Once they had actually paid for the tax stamps themselves, it was up to consumers to make sure they received tax stamps for their purchases.

If an item cost $1.00, then 3 cents would be the tax to add to the dollar purchase. The consumer gave the clerk a dollar bill and a nickel; the clerk gave back 2 cents and a 3 cent tax stamp.

Of course, what was a consumer to do with all those pieces of paper? Stamps could be turned in to schools or to charities. Schools and charities would in turn redeem them back to the state and collect 3 percent of the face value of the stamps. This was the sugar pill concocted to pass off an unpopular tax.

Of course I didn't know that at the time. All it meant to me was that we had lots of opportunities to collect stamps for our school. We were the Contest Generation. Dangle a chance of a prize or reward however large or small, and our eyes automatically sparkled and our fingers twitched with greed.

Our eyes ferreted out every loose stamp around--the ones that floated off counters from careless customers, the crinkled ones at the bottom of grandmother's old black cloth purse, the ones stuck to the wet pavement outside a department store. Every stamp was game.

I gloried in my big tax stamp donation for about a month. Then in came a very proud boy who pluncked down almost $100 in $15 tax stamps. His dad had bought a car that week. Buying a car was the crème-de-la-crème of tax stamp fame. It was the Holy Grail of the Counting Committee. He quickly rose in the ranks of TAX STAR while my own particular star faded.

Eventually Hough School got its film projector. All the classes filed into the auditorium/gym for a film feature. I forget what it was, but it was a let-down after the big build-up.

In 1962 the state of Ohio discontinued giving out tax stamps, but the 3% tax remained. In 1967, the state raised the sales tax to 4%.

Soon afterwards, a state lottery was promoted, a good portion to go "to the schools." Today, the schools are all crying for funds, and the sales tax has gone up, but all without a single tax stamp as reward.

Author's note: Today, while sorting through books to donate, a 3-cents tax stamp floated to the floor. My eyes sparkled and my fingers began to twitch…I wonder what it would fetch on e-Bay?

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