The Random History of Blue Laws in the United States
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
Chief Justice Earl Warren’s court upheld blue laws in the United States. Wikimedia

8. Many blue laws presented a degree of secular practicality

The Maryland law which restricted sales of merchandise on Sunday which was upheld by the Supreme Court in 1961 banned many if not most products. In the case, employees of a department store were arrested and subsequently fined for selling products which were banned from Sunday sale. The products included a stapler and floor wax, among other seemingly harmless household items. The sale was a violation of Maryland law, and as mentioned, subsequently the law was upheld by the Supreme Court. Not discussed in the case were the items which were allowed to be sold in Maryland on Sunday.

Essentially, the state law allowed the sale only of items which could be required urgently, such as motor oil and other auto parts and supplies, the same for boats, food and some beverages, and so forth. The sales of tobacco were allowed in all its forms; cigars, cigarettes, chewing tobacco., pipe tobacco, snuff, and leaf. Maryland was at the time the law was enacted a major tobacco growing state. A law restricting the selling and use of the products of one of the state’s leading industries was unthinkable for the legislature. Another major industry was tourism, and the same law which prohibited the sales of staplers on Sunday allowed the sales of souvenirs to residents and tourists alike.

The Random History of Blue Laws in the United States
Puritan laws reflected and shaped their class consciousness. Wikimedia

9. Laws were enacted to protect the status of classes in New England

The Puritans in New England, besides being Bible-conscious, were very much aware of and protective of social classes. The New World presented a serious challenge to ensuring everyone remained in their place. There was too much available land, too many opportunities to advance. Laws were enacted by community elders to ensure individuals did not climb too quickly up the social ladder. They were called sumptuary laws. As with most of the laws advanced in Puritan New England, the sumptuary laws were based on biblical constraints, at least as they were interpreted by the church elders, who were also the community leaders.

The sumptuary laws established social castes of superiors and inferiors. Church elders and civic leaders were superiors, the ruled were inferiors. It was an interpretation of the commandment “Honor thy mother and thy father”. The commandment rendered children inferior to their parents, duty bound to follow their instructions. It also rendered the parent duty bound to both protect and properly instruct their children. The sumptuary laws extended those mutual obligations to the community. The leaders were to be offered respect and obedience to the point of reverence. In return, their inferiors were to receive proper guidance, and when necessary disciplining.

The Random History of Blue Laws in the United States
All aspects of Puritan life were controlled by church elders. Wikimedia

10. The sumptuary laws dictated both manners and dress

Under the sumptuary laws, which were encoded in the mid-17th century in New England, the community elders mandated how people could dress. The dress restrictions were based on class standing. Those considered to be of the lower class, “…of mean condition, educations, and callings” were forbidden to “take upon them the garb of gentlemen, by the wearing of gold or silver lace, or buttons, or points at their knees”. In other words, the poor were to dress as the poor, as it was their rightful place as determined by their status at birth.

Women of the lower class were forbidden to emulate their social superiors by wearing “tiffany hoods or scarves”. The law in Massachusetts was similar to one passed earlier in Connecticut, and carried financial penalties for those found in violation. A person’s social status was determined by the value of property owned. Taxes (which were less affordable by the poor) were enacted on several goods in part to ensure that the less affluent were unable to consume them. Among the goods taxed by the sumptuary laws were lace, sugar, spices, and wine. The Puritan elders considered tobacco to be an idle luxury, and though grown in New England, especially along the Connecticut River, it was taxed as well.

The Random History of Blue Laws in the United States
Puritan leaders weren’t above burning the books of dissenters. Wikimedia

11. New England passed laws to prevent idle time

The Puritan approach to work was simple. Humanity was to rest on the Sabbath. The rest of the week was to be dedicated to labor. Games and amusements which distracted from work, which was itself dedication to God, were sinful. Therefore, it was the responsibility of the community leaders to outlaw other pursuits and to punish the sinners who indulged in them. There was no concept of the elderly retiring, work was to accomplished until such time as one became too weakened by age to serve at labor. The idea of playing at bowls, or indulging in the pastime of shuffleboard, was anathema to the elders who kept a watchful eye on the immortal souls entrusted to their care.

Idle time spent in taverns and inns was particularly bothersome to the community leaders, though the taverns and inns were allowed to exist. The community leaders, that is to say, the church elders, established authority over them by requiring them to be licensed. Licenses not only cost the innkeeper’s money, it required them to follow the rules established by the elders. They included the enforcement of laws against gaming with dice, cards, and other idle pursuits. Only in Rhode Island (which was not a Puritan colony) were leisure activities such as physical exercise and games encouraged by the leaders of the communities.

The Random History of Blue Laws in the United States
John Winthrop found ornamentation of houses offensive. Wikimedia

12. The Puritans established the first laws respecting the appearance of houses

In 1632 Thomas Dudley, one of the founders of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, used his own money to erect a wooden palisade which enclosed about 1,000 acres across the river from Boston. Within, he erected a home in the new community, which was called Newtowne (present day Cambridge). His home featured exterior walls which were adorned with decorative wooden panels, known as wainscoting. The ostentatious display of wealth offended the sensibilities of the Bay Colony’s governor, John Winthrop. Winthrop cited the sumptuary laws in declaring Dudley’s house in violation, and ordered the panels removed.

Dudley was so offended by the governor’s actions that he abandoned the colony and returned to England. Through the intercession of mutual friends, he and Winthrop were reconciled and Dudley returned to Massachusetts and eventually served as one of the growing colony’s most capable and influential leaders. The wainscoting was not returned, and the Puritan ethic regarding ostentatious displays of affluence became a part of Massachusetts law. The towns of Massachusetts established the precedence of the community dictating fashion and style of residences within their bounds.

The Random History of Blue Laws in the United States
Winthrop’s more ornamented clothes clearly sets him apart from his followers. Wikimedia

13. Massachusetts laws were passed defining acceptable clothing

In Puritan Massachusetts Bay, church elders were concerned with the sin of pride, considering it to be a driving force in ambition, another sin. Excessive ambition, to the Puritans, indicated a rebellious attitude towards God as rejecting the individual’s assigned place in His creation. Pride, which drove ambition, was exhibited in many sinful ways, but not more so than in one’s state of dress. Apparel was the outward expression of pride, and to save their flock from falling into the sin, laws were passed. They were, in effect, a dress code, and they were justified through the interpretation of chapter one of the Book of Zephaniah

The traditional means of identifying the Puritans Рsimple black garb for men and plain, unadorned dresses for women Рis not merely a clich̩. It was how they dressed, as adornments of any sort were considered distasteful, and after laws were passed against them, illegal. Shoe buckles were one exception, and special occasions allowed for more elaborate dress, but not to the point that one transgressed class boundaries. A simple workingman wore buckles of pewter, those of the more wealthy could be of silver.

The Random History of Blue Laws in the United States
Repeat offenders found punishments increase in severity. Alamy

14. The Puritans had a variety of penalties for violating the law

Punishments for violating the various laws enacted in Puritan New England varied in accordance with the class of the transgressor and the nature of the crime. New England magistrates considered the nature of the sin behind the violation. A stint in the stocks and the public humiliation they caused was often sufficient, at least for first time offenders. Recidivists faced more stringent penalties. They could include branding of hand or face, the lopping off of ears, whipping, banishment, and even death for especially hardened offenders. As in Virginia, the death penalty for relatively minor offenses was possible. It was a harsh time.

Gradually, as the colonies matured, laws restricting manner of dress and other community standards were eased, or simply fell into disuse. But laws restricting behavior and activities on the Sabbath remained in force. They too, gradually eased but in the 19th century many concerning commerce on the Sabbath remained in force, not only in New England, but across the country. And laws concerning the purchase and consumption of alcohol on Sundays – as well as throughout the rest of the week – remained, in many cases becoming even more restrictive. The temperance and labor movements gained momentum, and both supported blue laws.

The Random History of Blue Laws in the United States
Playing cards on the Sabbath has long been frowned on by several religious denominations. Wikimedia

15. New states created their own blue laws throughout the 19th century

Arkansas entered the Union in 1836, the 25th state. The following year its legislature passed the state’s first blue law. It prohibited all sales as well as all labor on Sundays. There were a few exceptions, including labor for charity, but for the most part Arkansas was closed on Sunday. Over the years, numerous additional laws were passed against leisure activities on Sunday. Card games on the Sabbath were banned, both public and private. Hunting on the Sabbath was banned, at a time and in a state where game was still a significant portion of the diet. Horse racing followed suit, as did participating in the game of baseball. Travel restrictions were imposed, because saddling a horse or hitching a team was considered labor. An exception to travel to church was allowed.

Most of Arkansas’ blue laws were gradually repealed, with the exception of laws controlling alcohol. Following the repeal of Prohibition, during which the entire state was dry, at least from a legal point of view, numerous counties decided to remain alcohol free. More than half of the counties in the state – 39 out of 75 – remained dry, and of those where the right to purchase and consume alcohol was restored, Sunday sales were restricted. Across the state the sale of alcohol on Christmas Day was banned. Some private facilities in the dry counties were awarded special privileges regarding the sale of alcohol, but they were relatively rare.

The Random History of Blue Laws in the United States
The proper means of observing the Sabbath meant rest and prayer with family (after church). Wikimedia

16. Blue laws were eased in many states, yet still protected the churches

Across the south and in New England, blue laws gradually eased in many states, though local communities often enforced their own. In Maryland, no professional sporting event was allowed to begin before 1.00 PM on Sunday. Other states eased restrictions on stores opening to the same hour, the logic being that most morning church services were over by that time. Some states enacted laws which allowed the purchase of some items, but denied the right to purchase others on Sunday. It was permissible to purchase diapers in one southern state on a Sunday. Safety pins to secure them were considered hardware, their purchase not allowed.

In Louisiana it was permissible to purchase a house on Sunday, but the buyer had to wait for another day of the week to purchase the furnishings for the new residence. Several states, including Maine and Pennsylvania, banned hunting on the Sabbath, though in the latter an exception was made for hunting foxes and coyotes, as well as crows. All three were pestilential for farmers. Some states restricted the consumption of alcohol on premises to being allowed only with the consumption of food. A few states banned the sale of automobiles on Sunday, a law supported by many car dealers, as it allowed them to reduce costs by closing one day out of seven.

The Random History of Blue Laws in the United States
The influence of Puritan laws continued for generations in the United States. Wikimedia

17. Samuel Peters’s General History of Connecticut included some real laws

Reverend Peters listed the blue laws in effect in the New Haven Colony in his 1781 history, though subsequent scholarship determined many of them didn’t exist. They did find supportive documents for some of the laws listed by Peters, including a law which required married couples to live together, “or be imprisoned”. Another law provided the “wife shall be good evidence against her husband”, and still another allowed the community, “on finding children ignorant, may take them away from their parents and put them into better hands, at the expense of their parents”.

Following the adoption of the Constitution of the United States, the thirteen former colonies adopted state constitutions which complied with the new federal law. Nearly all of the colonial blue laws were no longer enforced, but communities and states adopted new laws, nearly all of them aimed at protecting the Sabbath from secular activities. In the lands north and west of the Ohio River, few were in place until the late 19th century, though in the Old South, states adopted blue laws almost immediately. The temperance movement led to communities and counties adopting liquor laws, which first restricted drinking on the Sabbath, and spread to the rest of the week.

The Random History of Blue Laws in the United States
Cincinnati, Ohio, birthplace of the American Association, in the 1880s. Miami University Library

18. The Beer and Whisky League

In 1876 the National League of Professional Base Ball Clubs was formed, with teams representing Chicago, Philadelphia, Boston, Hartford, New York, St. Louis, Cincinnati, and Louisville. The league yielded to temperance pressure and did not allow alcohol consumption by fans attending the games. Nor did it allow games to be scheduled for Sundays. Several teams defected. In 1881 in a Cincinnati Hotel, the owners of several teams formed a new league, which allowed each team to decide whether or not to sell alcohol in their respective ballparks (in accordance with community laws). They also decided to play games on Sunday afternoons.

It was officially known as the American Association, but the league was referred to by supporters of the National League as the “beer and whisky league”. It was also called “river league”, a snide commentary on the perception of the lesser morals present along the riverfronts and docks in several of the participating cities. The annual event of the World Series began when the champions of the competing leagues played each other. Gradually the National League eased its restraints on Sunday play and beer sales and several teams in the AA defected to the older and more established “senior circuit”. The profitability of Major League Baseball led to the easing of Sunday Blue laws in several eastern cities.

The Random History of Blue Laws in the United States
Jewish businesses found Sunday laws particularly costly. Wikimedia

19. American Jews long opposed mandatory closing on Sundays

Blue laws which required the closing of businesses on Sundays were particularly hard on American Jews who observed the Sabbath on Saturdays, closing their businesses and suspending work. Blue laws, in nearly all cases, forced them to comply with the mandated Sunday closure as well. By the 1950s 46 of the 48 states had blue laws which controlled commerce on Sunday, and only a few allowed some businesses to choose between closing on Saturday or Sunday. Christian owned businesses generally opposed the choice, since they could permanently lose customers by closing on Sunday when Jewish-owned businesses were opened.

California twice passed Sunday closing laws, in 1858 and in 1861. The first was found unconstitutional just five months after it was enacted. It was used to convict and imprison a Jewish clothing merchant who closed his business on Saturday, and opened it on Sunday. The case was argued before the California Supreme Court (Ex Parte Newman), which overturned the sentence of the merchant and the law. The second law remained in effect until 1883. California’s blue laws gradually faded from disuse, as did the corresponding laws in many states, while others moved to enforce them more stringently.

The Random History of Blue Laws in the United States
North Dakota lawmakers argued that women should be home cooking for their families on Sunday, rather than shopping, NPR

20. North Dakota’s blue laws remained in effect until 2019

North Dakota became a state in 1889, and when it did nearly all businesses were required by law to remain closed on Sunday. Eventually it changed to require retailers to remain closed until noon on Sunday, and then restricted what items could be sold. The requirement to remain closed until noon was based on the desire to prevent commerce from competing with church attendance. Twice the North Dakota law was challenged in the state’s Supreme Court, and twice the law was upheld. In 1985 groceries were allowed to open on Sunday, but not until noon. A few years later most businesses could open on the Sabbath, again not before noon.

The law was finally rescinded in the 21st century, allowing stores to be open all day Sunday (including some 24-hour stores) throughout the state, at the discretion of the business owner. Unless that business was a car dealership or dispenser of alcohol. The ban on Sunday automobile sales was continued, and alcohol sales were not allowed before noon on Sunday (though they could continue until 2.00 AM). The law also continued the ban on the sale of alcohol on Thanksgiving Day and Christmas Day, as well as establishing 6 PM as the latest hour alcohol could be sold on Christmas Eve.

The Random History of Blue Laws in the United States
Many states blue laws did not allow the purchase of appliances on Sunday. Pinterest

21. Blue laws restricted the sale of all sorts of items on Sunday

The blue laws across the country created a hodge-podge of what could or could not be bought by consumers on Sunday. In several states electronics such as computers, calculators, radios, and televisions were banned. Some items of clothing could be purchased while others could not. States and in some cases counties banned the sale of housewares, appliances, decorations, tools, linens, and many other items. In several states one could purchase eggs, but not a pan in which to cook them. Most communities required merchants to rope off, barricade with signage, or otherwise signify items which were forbidden on Sunday.

Resistance to repeal of most blue laws came primarily from the clergy, though before Sunday shopping became commonplace throughout most of the country many businessmen agreed with the religious leaders. Some argued that the same amount of spending would take place each week, stretched over seven days rather than six, but there would be an increase in operating costs by paying workers for an additional day. The argument from the clergy was that shopping was in danger of becoming a national obsession. The argued that the day of rest represented by the Sabbath would become a stressful day, ignoring the fact that many people considered shopping a recreational activity.

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 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 were 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 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 it 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 in 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 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

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