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It can be hard to make out the IRS symbol, which depicts an eagle. LPETTET/Getty Images
I've Always Wondered ...

The origins of the IRS logo

Janet Nguyen Apr 5, 2024
It can be hard to make out the IRS symbol, which depicts an eagle. LPETTET/Getty Images

This is just one of the stories from our “I’ve Always Wondered” series, where we tackle all of your questions about the world of business, no matter how big or small. Ever wondered if recycling is worth it? Or how store brands stack up against name brands? Check out more from the series here.

Listener Kristi White from Thousand Oaks, California, asks:

It being tax season, I’ve always wondered what the heck that IRS symbol is.

Tax season is miserable and the IRS has always known it.

Back in the 1960s, the agency wanted to make its tax forms, including the 1040 individual income tax return, more palatable for Americans, which is why it hired a firm that ended up changing their designs and gave the IRS logo a glow-up. 

“About the only thing we can really hope for is to decrease antagonism,” the president of the firm, Walter Margulies, told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette in 1965. “The average person feels like an idiot if he can’t fill the tax forms out properly.” 

The changes included a new logo featuring a blocky looking eagle with a set of scales and an olive branch. 

Source: IRS.gov

The Internal Revenue Service’s website has a straightforward description of what the symbol depicts: 

“The IRS Eagle itself represents the United States. The scales of justice instill the idea that the Service’s operations will be conducted in a fair and honest way. The decorative olive branch fills out the left side of the symbol and represents peace and conciliation. Justice, fairness, honesty, peace, and conciliation may be key messages that are reflected in some designs.” 

The new income tax form, with the new eagle, was released for the 1965 tax year, and the IRS seemed pleased with the makeover. 

The old IRS logo was essentially a copy-and-paste job of the Treasury Department’s seal — there was a key, a balanced scale, a chevron with 13 stars representing the 13 original states. This new logo helped the IRS distinguish itself.

Source: Newspapers.com archives

A spokesperson told the Post-Gazette that the form looked more organized, the type was more readable and the artwork was sharper. The number of federal tax tables dropped from five to three. 

Margulies’ company, Lippincott & Margulies, received $20,000 for undertaking the project, an amount Margulies called “modest” compared to what businesses pay, according to the Post-Gazette. In today’s dollars, that amounts to more than $197,000. 

Margulies, explaining why the government didn’t take up the redesign task itself, said: “I don’t think it has the specialized kind of knowledge you have in business where selling is the object. After all, it does have a captive audience.” 

At the time, the push to redesign the form was fueled by agitated taxpayers, according to the Washington Post.  

“Apparently the appearance of the IRS forms bugged the people almost as much as the content of the forms. There have been many complaints,” wrote Post reporter Phil Casey. 

But just like our listener Kristi, people in the ‘60s were also confused by what the new logo was supposed to represent. “One man to whom the eagle was shown was depressed,” the Post said.

“For 20,000 clams, it should look like an eagle,” the man said.

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