Monthly Archives: April 2021

“Get your report in”

Things were simpler back then . . . not.  As we race to conclude the current (though extended) tax filing season, here’s how a member of the Carley family of Georgetown, Kentucky once puzzled through the process of “rendering unto Caesar.”

A native of Ontario, Canada, George Carley took his family to Kentucky via Pennsylvania in the 1870s.  One daughter, Lizzie, remained at home and another, Georgia, married and moved to Arkansas.  As World War I unfolded, the family saw income taxes rise dramatically to accommodate the costs of American involvement in the conflict (a war for which Georgia’s cousin Maggie Fortune, still living in Canada, had some choice words).  In any event, on March 1, 1919, Georgia wrote sister Lizzie of her attempts to understand the Revenue Act of 1918.  The revised law imposed a “normal” tax of 6% on the lowest bracket and 12% on higher incomes, but the real pain came with an additional, graduated surtax: on 1918 incomes over $1 million, it brought the government’s bite to a whopping 77%.  The Act promised some relief for 1919 incomes, but not much: the normal tax would drop by a few percentage points, while the surtax remained intact.

Georgia carefully studied the helpful information provided by her bank, not only to understand her own obligations but to assess what emotions—jealousy, sympathy, or schadenfreude—she should reserve for better-off Americans.  “What we have is bad enough,” she wrote Lizzie, “but aren’t you thankful your income is not a million.”  She had checked the charts and discovered that “those poor unfortunates” would have a normal tax bill of $119,640 and a surtax of $583,510, “leaving the owner of such wealth only $296,850 out of which he must live and pay his state county and city tax.  Well I don’t envy him.” 

Given that $296,850 had the purchasing power that $5.2 million does today, Georgia was probably being sarcastic.  However, at a normal rate of 6% and a surtax rate of zero, the grab on her own income (which we can deduce was less than $4000) was “not so bad”—and the next year, she reported, “it will only be 4% for small people like me.”  She gave a gentle reminder to her sister to “get your report in before March 15”—a date that would remain the deadline for tax filers until changed in 1954 to April.

The Carley family’s letters are part of the Manuscripts & Folklife Archives of WKU’s Department of Library Special Collections.  Click here for a finding aid.  For more collections, search TopScholar and KenCat.

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“Fire it back promptly”

Hal Bryant’s journalism

For almost 44 years, Lexington, Kentucky native Hal Farnsworth Bryant (1888-1975) labored as a statistician for the U.S. Department of Agriculture, first in West Virginia and then in Louisville.  In his youth, however, he spent a rollicking few years as a reporter for the Lexington Leader.  Not content merely to serve the audience in his home town, Bryant partnered with a Leader editor to offer stories and photographs for syndication to newspapers and magazines around the country.

From intrigues in Frankfort to social and political gossip across the state, Bryant and his colleague churned out copy and sent it off with instructions to editors to either “remit at your customary rate” or “fire it back promptly with postage herein.”  Early 20th-century doings in the Bluegrass State provided lots of fodder.  There was horse breeding, railroad construction, tobacco markets, the Night Riders, colorful public figures, and the seemingly endless feuds and violence roiling eastern Kentucky.  Human interest stories abounded:  for example, that of a “greybeard ‘Yank’” and an “old ‘Johnny Reb,’” two former officers on opposite sides of the Civil War, who operated a peach orchard together near Cumberland Gap.  There was the clergyman who served both the Methodist and Presbyterian churches in Clifton, Tennessee, and who wrote Bryant a touching personal letter explaining the arrangement and the difficult life he had led up to that time.

Other stories had more of a tabloid flavor.  There was the legend of Colonel John Bartlett, a Revolutionary War veteran and Nelson County planter who watched his daughter endure the persistent and unwelcome attentions of a fellow officer.  Long story short: the pesky suitor became a gruesome part of the Bartlett agricultural output, having been churned up in a cotton baler and shipped off to a mill in Boston.  And then there was Lexington’s beautiful Mason “Macie” Talbott, engaged to marry a family boarder, a Canadian book salesman who the family found quite unsuitable.  The next anyone knew, the preacher and wedding guests had been sent home, the gifts all returned, and Miss Talbott whisked off by her brother for a lengthy tour of Europe.

Perhaps the strangest story Bryant covered is only hinted at in his papers.  It’s a photograph of a baby, labelled on the back as a Bourbon County infant, “raffled off Paris Opera House.”  Indeed, in September 1910,  a standing-room-only crowd watched as this child of destitute parents was awarded to the winning ticket holder, a local police officer.  “As soon as the necessary adoption papers can be secured,” reported the Bourbon News, “he will come into legal possession of the cherubin.” 

Hal Farnsworth Bryant’s journalism is part of the Manuscripts & Folklife Archives of WKU’s Department of Library Special Collections.  A finding aid can be downloaded here.  For more collections, search TopSCHOLAR and KenCat.

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