Popular Culture 20100827: Blue Laws

Blue Laws are (well, actually mostly now) were laws that restricted what products and services could be legally traded on Sundays over much of the United States.  They varied from region to region, with some places pretty much shutting down everything except emergency medical treatment, to other places where there was little difference from other days.

In most of the United States, Blue Laws no longer exist for the most, except for the sale of alcohol, and they are vestigial remnants in that area.  When I was a child (only months after the last mass extinction that killed the dinosaurs, LOL!), Blue Laws were common in west central Arkansas, and applied to lots more than alcohol.

Since the Blue Laws were even more strict before I was born, I can only repeat items that my Western Civilization instructor in junior college told us.  She lived that era, and had no reason to be deceptive.  When she was a girl, in the 1920s and 1930s, it was illegal for a motion picture to be screened on Sundays.  For a while the theatre operators kept with the law, but finally realized that the fine was much less than the revenue that they could take in on Sundays, since most folks were off of work on that day, because of the Blue Laws!  This is information specific to Fort Smith, Arkansas during that time period.  The theatre operators finally just showed the movies, paid the fines, and made money.  Obviously there was not much criminal sanction other then the fine, because going to jail would have been more discouraging to the operators.  Finally, the law was changed to allow theatres to screen movies on Sundays, since it was decided that they would show them anyway and to criminalize a large part of the population was not a good idea.

Speaking of the word “Sunday”, the ice cream treat called the Sundae is reputed to be a direct outgrowth of Blue Laws.  During the Prohibition era, sodas, make with ice cream, other ingredients, and seltzer water were very popular.  Some blue noses thought that seltzer was too identified with alcohol, so they prohibited them from being served on Sunday.  Some enterprising person modified the recipe to leave out the seltzer water, and sold the more solid treat on Sundays.  This may me apocryphal, and anyone with a better origin for the term Sundae is welcomed to comment.

In my experience, the Blue Laws worked this way:  arbitrarily.  For example, newspapers were OK to sell, but not books nor magazines.  This carried on until I was around 10 years old or so, as I recall.  That would be around 1967.  Then the line got blurred, and books and magazines were OK to sell, if you could find anyone open to sell them.  By the way, the Post Office (not yet the Postal Service) still stocked post office boxes with mail on Sundays, and you could mail letters on Sundays if you went to a major Post Office.  I remember my father driving to Fort Smith (we lived in Hackett, nine miles south over the very treacherous and curvy state highway 45) on Sunday afternoons to mail his sales reports before the deadline.  He, like I, was a procrastinator.

It was OK to sell food on Sundays, but even it the store were open, you could not buy, for example, shaving cream, deodorant, or razors.  Razor blades were OK, since they were not tools.  Nails were OK, if the store were open, but not a hammer.

Clothing was right out for sale on Sundays.  This put women in the queer position of being able to buy sanitary napkins on Sunday, but not the little harness that held them in place at the time.  Females from that era, please explain about the harness.  They are almost unknown now, and I was too little to know that much about them, since I was only around nine years old or so, thus this information has been told to me from female family members years later.

This started to wane in the late 1960s and early 1970s.  Part of it had to do with the advent of the mall.  Because of pressure to pay high rents, mall merchants wanted to sell more of time.  That did not wipe out the Blue Laws, but weakened them.  Authorities looking the other way did more to lead to the demise of the Blue Laws than anything else.  However, as late at 1979 is was almost impossible to find things like plumbing supplies, building supplies, and the like on Sundays.  Most of the stores that sold “legal” items on Sundays had a much larger “illegal” inventory, so it was not worth their time to be open.

When the former Mrs. Translator and I moved to Fayetteville, Arkansas in 1978 we were in need one Sunday of several home (well, trailer) improvement items, like faucet washers, screws, and other common items.  In those days there was nothing like Home Depot or Lowe’s, at least stores like that open on Sundays.  But there was a grocery store to our west that just “happened” to have a Coast to Coast hardware store franchise inside it.

Let that sink in for a minute.  We had gone to the MOON and back nine years earlier, and yet it was still illegal to sell a darned HAMMER on Sunday!  But that brave little IGA grocery store sold them anyway!  By the way, IGA stands for Independent Grocers’ Association, a network of small, locally owned grocers who use their combined purchasing power to get price breaks.  There are still a few of them, but big box stores are making them obsolete rapidly.

We were able to get the washers that we needed to make the faucets stop dripping, and the screws that we needed to tighten up a few things.  Now, those were legal to sell, but no hardware store was open on Sundays, and if we had needed a screwdriver or wrench (illegal tools) they would have sold them to us as well.  I saw folks buying such contraband.

Folks, this was in the United States in 1978!  Think about it:  it was ILLEGAL to sell a hammer or a sanitary pad harness on Sunday!

Over time, the Blue Laws were either found to be unconstitutional, ignored, or repealed.  That is, except for the laws governing alcohol sales.  Those are still with us in many places.  It turns out that the 21st Amendment to the United States Constitution allowed the Congress and the States to regulate the sale of alcohol pretty much as they chose.

This had led to a plethora of different laws and regulations between different states, and also within individual states.  In 2010, no state completely prohibits the sale of alcohol, but some severely limit it.  Some states, like Alabama, allow only state-owned stores to sell alcohol, although beer is sometimes not included.  Other states, like Oklahoma, allow the sale of weak (the so called 3.2% beer) beer at grocery stores and the like, but only licensed liquor stores can sell beer of higher alcohol content, and not only limited to Sundays.  Oklahoma had a very bizarre law for a few years that allowed the legal drinking age for males to be 21 years, but for females it was 18, for weak beer.  Lots of boyfriends drove their girlfriends over the border in those days to get beer, despite the risk of a $50 PER bottle or can fine if out of state beer was brought in from Oklahoma.

Many states do not allow the package sale of ANY kind of alcohol on Sundays, including Arkansas and Kentucky.  However, parts of these states have the local option of allowing the serving individual drinks at eating establishments on Sundays.  Then there is the concept of the dry county.

A dry county does not allow the sale of any alcoholic beverage, at least in concept.  Many localities have wormed around this by introducing the concept of the private club, in which members can buy liquor legally.  Put forth first by wealthy individuals who liked to congregate and drink without wanting to be bothered by bringing their own liquor, they pushed the concept through in Arkansas, and several other states as well.

Originally, that exception only worked for very exclusive clubs wherein the members could pony up lots and lots of money to bribe the alcohol regulators in their areas.  In Arkansas, private clubs were even approved in dry counties, if the members had enough collective power to make it so.  It did not hurt the effort when one realizes that many of the folks in those clubs were also the folks who dictated laws and regulations.

It was, and still is, a corrupt mess, but folks make money at it, especially in dry counties.  It finally got to the point that one could “join” a private club for one night, usually with a $5 temporary member fee, with a complimentary drink for joining for the night.  This is just corruption on a massive level.

Even in 2010, there are STILL votes on the wet or dry issue.  Most often, the fundamentalist members of society, usually evangelical Christian ministers, lobby for dry.  They rail about how “al-kee-haul” will ruin the character of the community, when all the while the folks who want it are buying it out of region or from bootleggers.  Yes, bootlegging is still an extremely important part of the grey market.

Bootlegging is a term from the old days when illegal alcohol in flat (hip flask) bottles were stuffed into high riding boots and delivered to customers that way.  Often obtained in legally “wet” areas, it was taken to dry areas and sold at quite a profit.  Bootlegging is not the same as moonshining, and I shall discuss moonshining in another installment.  I actually knew a woman who literally bootlegged in her younger days (at least according to my grandmum, who was pretty astute).

In summary, the Blue Laws were the reaction of the established, extremely religious, elements of society to impart their “moral” beliefs onto others.  However, there was a more sinister aspect to it, at least in the south and associated with alcohol.  White people were terrified of black people getting intoxicated and “coming after” them.  My comment on the morality of that school of thought is just one of contempt.  The white folks had all of the liquor that they wanted.  They just wanted to keep it away from the black folks.  Like it or not, that is the historical truth.  People that have not grown up in the south do not realize how deeply racial bigotry still exists.  I have said many times that I am a recovering racist, because it was drilled into my mind from the time that I comprehended the English language that black folks are not only inferior, but inherently evil.

I think that my recovery has gone fairly well, because I voted for our current President, and am still fairly well pleased with he is trying to do.  It is interesting that as much as his agenda has been made so, even with the extreme resistance from the opposition party.  But this is not supposed to be a political post, so I will dissist from this avenue of dissertation.  If anyone would care to talk about it further, the comment section awaits.

My thesis is that the Blue Laws were conceived, written, carried out, and enforced by religious bigots who wanted control.  I focused on alcohol because it the last vestige of Blue Laws, and sort of kind of Constitutionally supported.  That still does not make Blue Laws right, but I hope that this has put them into some historical perspective.

This is a little different from many of my Popular Culture installments, because it is not about personal tastes in one or another form of art.  However, if one lives in a particular culture every day, by definition that is popular culture.

As always, your thoughts are encouraged in the comments.  If you agree, please tell me why.  If you disagree, please tell me why.  If you have other ideas, please express them.  Remember, my posts are always just the beginning of a much better discussion in the comment section.  If you are aware of any blue laws other than those regarding alcohol sales in your area, please post a comment.

Warmest regards,


Crossposted at Docudharma and at Dailykos.com

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  1. recollections about blue laws.

    Warmest regards,


  2. This is Connecticut.

    No booze after 8 pm (which is when the cool parties are just getting started) or at all on Sundays.

    It’s to protect ‘small retailers’ and has nothing to do with religion.

  3. NJ’s Bergen County’s “blue law” that prohibit retail stores being open on Sunday, was when I was driving on Rt 17 through Paramus and Ramsey on Sunday. No traffic.

    I hate traffic.

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