Monday, July 12, 2010

Reflections on "Blue Laws," Past and Yet to Be

I was listening to Walton & Johnson (a rather irreverent radio drive-time show) the other morning and a caller brought up "Blue Laws." For the uninitiated (or the very young!), Blue Laws are state statutes that prohibit certain commercial activities on Sunday; sometimes they're known less-colorfully as "Sunday Closing Laws." Today, in many places, the old Puritan-inspired laws are still around, and ban, or limit, the sale or service of alcohol on Sundays and/or on Christmas Day. The caller to W & J expressed relief that at least we've made enough progress as a society to be rid of the bulk of Blue Laws.

I grew up and lived most of my adult life in Arkansas in the heart of the Bible Belt, so I'm more than familiar with Blue Laws. Listening to the lady caller set me to reminiscing about "the olden days," and it occurred to me that as we experienced the demise of Blue Laws, we also witnessed a steep decline in what used to be referred to as "morals."

Even so, I still think I have to agree with the lady caller. We're well rid of 'em -- Blue Laws, that is; not morals!

Even though I was very young, I can vividly remember when all stores were shuttered on Sunday. Viewed in a strictly religious context -- which we, as a nation, used to set as the benchmark -- the Laws were designed to protect a "day of rest" to observe the Sabbath, and commercial activity was, by definition, a violation of that commandment.

Then, as the population grew and became more urbanized, people found they needed gas or other stuff on Sundays, so "exceptions based on necessity" started appearing. And that's where Blue Law enforcement entered the realm of the bizarre.

Groceries and gas stations began to open on Sundays, then drug stores, and even some variety stores. But the litany of what you could and could not buy was crazy and indecipherable. Plus, the poor employees of the stores had to rope off -- literally -- aisles and aisles of non-saleables.

For instance, you could purchase food preservation items like aluminum foil, but not food preparation items, like aluminum foil pie plates. You could buy "necessities" like bread and milk, but not raw foods that required preparation. You could buy Coca Cola, but not teabags or coffee. Canned baby formula was okay (and usually sold out as soon as the doors opened), but not powdered. You could not buy tools of any kind, but you could buy clotheslines.

Clotheslines, yes; clothes, no.

"No clothing sales" meant you could buy a dog collar, but not a belt. And "no clothing sales" is what caused me most of all to despise Blue Laws and lobby for their repeal: you could not buy diapers because they were considered to be clothing!

"No baby formula sales" could be dealt with, but have you ever had an infant or toddler with the runs and you have gone through the disposable diapers and have no cloth diapers on hand? I have. It's not pretty.

I swear, leftover anxiety about how to beg, borrow, or steal diapers for Elder Daughter is the root cause for my elevated blood pressure today. (Well, not literally steal! I was, after all, an officer of the court.)

As with most experience-taught things in this life, I eventually learned to stock up on diapers and formula on Saturday, just in case. I suppose the prevalence of that prophylactic measure by every mom in the state was one of the arguments that led to the Blue Laws' repeal -- we were just time-shifting the "work" of wearing clothing.

Having grown accustomed to the New Orleans attitude about alcohol, I still have to remind myself to stock up on wine and beer when we go back to Arkansas for a weekend visit, though. Maybe someday the prevalence of that prophylactic measure will eventually lead Arkansas's liquor laws into the 21st century. The Legislature is slowly letting go of its attempts to legislate morality -- the recently established lottery has been successful beyond everyone's wildest expectations. But I don't think I'll hold my breath. Some parts of government are beginning to treat us as adults while the Feds seem to be trying to keep us in diapers, Sunday sales or not.

I'm really glad the Sunday Sales law was repealed before Younger Daughter came along.

You younger folks out there had better keep an eye on Washington, or you'll be right back in the spot where government tells you what you may and may not do or consume in every walk of life. Every day.


  1. Moogie, this is a fabulous post. Many that read it will not likely be able to identify with those days as we are.

    As you know, I growed up just souf of you, yet in a different pretty much the same era.

    I grew up Baptist. Southern Baptist. Even as a very young child I remember our preacher (who was a very fine man) preaching about keeping the Sabbath, and making it holy, and how folks ought to not work on Sundays, etc. (Even though as we all know, Sunday is not the Sabbath)

    Amens would be heard occasionally. When the last invitational hymn was sung, and we bugged out, sometimes we'd head on down to the Big Chain Cafeteria to eat lunch...patronizing that place that made all those cooks, line ladies, and the old lady that took the money at the end of the line work on The Lord's Day.

    I remember one Sunday when I was a kid, and I had a project to be done for Monday at school. Mommma (sorry) Mama had to call the mother of one of my friends to see if they had some spare notebook paper, because the Pak-A-Sak couldn't sell it to us on Sunday.

    We could get an ICEE...but not a package of notebook paper.

    It all really did make a big impression on me as a kid. I soaked it all in. As, you did. Obviously.

    Great post. Seriously. It brought back many memories.

  2. Your childhood sounds a WHOLE lot like mine! I wonder how much shoplifting of valuable and coveted stuff like notebook paper happened on the Lord's Day as a result of stoooooopid Blue Laws?

    BTW -- Good catch on the Mama. Thanks!