Sunday, April 1, 2012

The Betel Nut Tax

The extremely rare Scott US RB20 overprinted GUAM by the US occupation government in Guam for taxing betel nuts.  This overprint is unlisted by Scott in the Guam section of the US Specialized catalog.  Betel nuts were considered a substitute for chewing gum by revenue authorities.  Fewer than 10 copies of this stamp are known to exist.

After the seizure of Guam from the Spanish as a trophy in its war against Spain, United States government officials were forced to confront the here-to-fore unknown and rather nasty habit of chewing betel nuts for the first time.  The nuts are bitter, and stain gums and teeth.  By World War II, and after years of active US engagement throughout the South Pacific, the practice would become well known, and even popularized by Rodgers and Hammerstein in their musical South Pacific. 

From the song Bloody Mary:

Bloody Mary's chewing betel nuts.
She is always chewing betel nuts.
Bloody Mary's chewing betel nuts.
And she don't use Pepsodent!
Now ain't that too damn bad!

Whole and split betel nuts

The requirement to tax chewing gum and its "substitutes" according to the 1898 war revenue act, bedeviled US revenue agents assigned to Guam in 1898.  Betel nuts, a substitute for chewing gum, were sold everywhere on the island - from traditional village markets to the shops of foreign traders.  But the products were cheap.  In the United States, chewing gum was taxed at rates that required 2 and 4 cent proprietary stamps as specified in the war revenue act.  The low price of Betel nuts relative to chewing gum required a tax far lower than two cents or four cents. 

Naval Governor of Guam, Captain Richard Leary

The US Governor of the island, Captain R. P. Leary, had to find a solution to at least cooperate with the spirit of the law.  So he issued an order to tax each whole betel nut at a rate of 1/8 cent.  Vendors of the nuts were required to procure the 1/8 cent proprietary battleship tax stamps and apply them to each nut sold.  Unfortunately, there are no remaining examples of the stamp on piece.  After two months of use though, Governor Leary chose to have the stamps for this provisional rate overprinted in large serifed letters "GUAM".  As a result, we are left with a collectible legacy of this curious fiscal situation.

Morton Dean Joyce considered a half betel nut with a fragment of the overprinted 1/8 cent proprietary stamp attached to be the highlight of his 1898 material.  Unfortunately, the nut disintegrated with time and the remaining on-piece example no longer exists. 

In a written report, Leary stated that several sheets of RB21, the quarter cent proprietary, were overprinted GUAM for the use of vendors who sold nuts in pairs.  There was little demand, as a local taboo kept vendors from selling their nuts by the pair.  No examples of the quarter cent stamp overprinted GUAM are known to exist. 


A less scarce collectible from the US occupation of Guam can be found in this Spanish coin with a US occupation overstamp.


If you have an unusual 1898 Revenue item in your collection, please consider sending a scan of it to so it can be featured on this site.  For an example of other material of interest, read the story of the stamp below by clicking here.

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