The Random History of Blue Laws in the United States

The Random History of Blue Laws in the United States

Larry Holzwarth - January 8, 2020

The Random History of Blue Laws in the United States
A song title which sums up the writers thoughts regarding Prohibition and blue laws. Wikimedia

22. The effect of the repeal of Prohibition on blue laws

Once Prohibition was repealed, states established blue laws to restrict and control the sale of alcohol within their boundaries. Many prohibited the sale of alcohol on Sundays, though for most states the sale of alcohol both for on-premises consumption and packaged was gradually eased. Still, restrictions on Sunday sales remained in effect in many places, as part of state law as well as local laws. Several states in the south had significant portions of them completely dry, while others had restrictions on Sunday sales. Several Georgia communities allowed Sunday sales in the 21st century, though the state mandated none before 12.30 in the afternoon, in deference to church services.

Massachusetts did not allow off-premises alcohol sales on Sunday until the 21st century either. But as a matter of practicality, it offered exemptions to liquor stores which were within ten miles of the New Hampshire and Vermont state lines. The exemptions showed an awareness that the good citizens of the Commonwealth would simply visit their northern neighbors for their Sunday purchases. The tax revenues left the state with them. Depending on how far one wanted to travel, Sunday purchase of alcohol was possible in Massachusetts even while the law said it was not. Massachusetts also required retail workers to be paid time and a half for Sunday labor, which was later repealed.

The Random History of Blue Laws in the United States
The end of national Prohibition did not end in Mississippi for many years. Library of Congress

23. Mississippi’s blue laws were linked to its temperance history

The first state to ratify the 18th Amendment, which imposed Prohibition as the law of the land in the United States, was Mississippi. The state had banned alcohol within its boundaries a full decade earlier, in 1908. After national repeal in 1933, the states had the choice of remaining dry or allowing alcohol to be bought and sold within them, and Mississippi chose the former. It continued to enforce statewide prohibition until 1966. When counties and municipalities were allowed to choose wet or dry within the state, many elected to remain alcohol-free.

Mississippi’s blue laws prohibited the sale of alcohol on Sundays, in all its forms, except for on-premises consumption of beer. Alcohol sales were also banned on Christmas day. Mississippi long enforced Sunday closing laws in numerous communities, despite legal challenges to the laws. It has, along with most of the rest of the nation, gradually yielded to the demands of citizens for more freedom to shop on Sundays.

The Random History of Blue Laws in the United States
New York Tribune commentary on Sunday laws. Wikimedia

24. The Supreme Court found Sunday closing laws constitutional

The 1961 decision by the Supreme Court acknowledged that the blue laws, in Maryland and elsewhere, were based on the religious control of colonial governments. But it nonetheless found them constitutional. The court found, “In light of the evolution of our Sunday Closing Laws through the centuries, and of their more or less recent emphasis upon secular considerations, it is not difficult to discern that as presently written and administered, most of them, at least, are of a secular rather than of a religious character, and that presently they bear no relationship to the establishment of religion”.

By the end of the 20th century, most Sunday closing laws had been eased, though in the Bible Belt local communities continued to enforce them. Most states however continued to enforce liquor laws on Sunday which differed from the other six days of the week, and several continued to ban the sales of automobiles on Sunday (or Saturday, in some cases). Several states continued to restrict hunting on Sundays.

The Random History of Blue Laws in the United States
Horse racing was banned on Sundays in many jurisdictions. Wikimedia

25. Sunday closing laws were not limited to the United States

Until the 1990s in Great Britain, laws restricted the buying and selling of certain items on Sunday, and limited the types of stores and shops which could open for business. In 1994 the law was changed, allowing large stores to open for six hours of trading within the hours of 10 AM and 6 PM. Northern Ireland protected the Sabbath by prohibiting football played on Sunday until 2008 (Irish Football Association). Canada’s Lord’s Day Act (1906) restricted business transacted on Sunday until it was found to be a violation of freedom of conscience in 1985.

Some Canadian communities restricted the availability of leisure activities on Sunday until well into the 1960s. In Toronto, theaters were dark on Sunday, and those wishing to see a play or take in a movie were forced to consider other forms of entertainment. Denmark had strict laws banning trade on Sundays until 2012. In the United States, many states still have blue laws on the books, but simply ignore them. For example, the law in Kentucky making it illegal to work on Sunday (with, of course, certain exemptions) remained in effect in 2018, though it hadn’t been enforced for decades.


Where do we find this stuff? Here are our sources:

“Blue Laws Were Meant to Keep Sunday Holy”. Pernell Watson, Daily Press. September 29, 2002

“Sunday Sport Comes to Pennsylvania”. J. Thomas Jable, Pennsylvania State University. Pdf. Online

“The Old Blue Laws of Maryland”. Anita Beatty-Hoffman, Sheperdstown Chronicle. February 10, 2017

“No driving, liquor, or films: Michigan blue laws prevented secular activities on Sunday”. Stateside Staff, NPR. July 12, 2018. Online

“Blue laws? Blame the Puritans”. Ken Sheldon, Yankee Magazine. October 21, 2016

“The Puritan Experiment with Sumptuary Legislation”. Gary North, Foundation for Economic Education. June 1, 1974. Online

“The Long, Ambiguous History of Connecticut’s Blue Laws”. Patrick J. Mahoney, Connecticut History. January 27, 2015

“John Winthrop: America’s Forgotten Founder”. Francis Bremer. 2003

“Blue Laws: When Puritan Values Were the Law”. Jan Howard, The Newtown Bee. October 5, 2000

“Blue Laws”. Article, Encyclopedia of Arkansas. Online

“Blue laws as old as the South”. Ellen Debenport, UPI. August 6, 1984. Online

“Awash in a Sea of Faith: Christianizing the American People”. Jon Butler. 1990

“The Beer and Whisky League: The Illustrated History of the American Association – Baseball’s Renegade Major League”. David Nemec. 2004

“U.S. Supreme Court Upholds ‘Blue Laws’ Banning Trading on Sundays”. Article, Jewish Telegraphic Agency Archives. May 31, 1961

“ND stores to open Sunday morning after “blue law” ended Thursday”. Report, KFGO Fargo. August 3, 2019. Online

“Sunday, Sabbath, and the Weekend: Managing Time in a Global Culture”. Edward O’Flaherty, Rodney L. Petersen, Timothy A. Norton. 2010

“The Crazy Quilt of Blue Laws”. UPI, The New York Times. August 29, 1984

“Studies relaunch debate on further liberalization of shop opening hours”. Alexandra Scheele, Eurofound. December 27, 1999. Online