Boomers Knew About Blue Laws

On a recent shopping excursion, Mister Boomer that noticed the song playing in the background in the store was Never On Sunday, from the 1960 movie of the same name, starring Melina Mercouri.

Since the title and song refer to the lead character’s abstaining from her “work” on Sundays, it got Mister B thinking about Blue Laws, which prohibited or otherwise regulated various forms of commerce on Sundays.

Blue Laws go back to the origins of America, with the first known ordinance on Sunday activity enacted in Virginia in 1617. This colonial order required all people to attend church services on Sunday, and gave the local militia the power to force people to comply.

The Puritans in New England were also big on Blue Laws, creating edicts that strictly regulated Sunday activities. Among the banned activities: shaving, cooking, sweeping, cutting hair and, as one might expect from Puritans, sexual intercourse. The Puritans believed that children were born on the same day that they were conceived, so parents whose children were born on Sunday were often punished for violating the edicts.

These Sunday Laws were first called “Blue” in 1775. The word “blue” was used as a disparaging remark toward a person’s morals. Some believe it refers to the book that first mentioned it — General History of Connecticut, by Reverend Samuel Peters — since the book was printed on blue paper. In fact, there is no evidence to support the claim that the book was printed on blue paper.

Blue Laws varied from state to state, and by the time of the Industrial Revolution, mainly restricted what sorts of commerce could be conducted on Sundays. The sale and consumption of liquor was usually part of that equation. People could be arrested for drinking alcohol, opening their shop or even traveling on a Sunday.

By the time Baby Boomers were on the scene, most states had some form of Blue Laws in effect, starting with what could or could not be sold on Sundays, to a total ban on retail activity. Debates about the separation of church and state became commonplace when the subject of Blue Laws was addressed. In 1961, there were four landmark cases brought before the Supreme Court, which ruled that such laws did not interfere with, force religious compliance on the population, or favor one religion over another. Therefore the Court ruled these laws did not violate the Free Exercise Clause or the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment. In one case, the Court maintained that such laws helped “to provide a uniform day of rest for all citizens.”

Mister Boomer recalls that in his pre-teen days, all stores in his area were closed on Sundays. He didn’t think much of it, since that was the way it had been since before he was born. Then one Sunday, the family was in a neighboring state. The reason for the trip is now lost to the ages, though Sunday drives lasting many hours were not uncommon in the Boomer household. When the family stopped at a convenience store, a young Mister B eyed a huge stack of beer cases near the front cash register that was mostly covered with a white sheet. Back in the car, he asked his father about it. He did not understand why the store would cover it up. Mister B’s father explained to him that the store wasn’t allowed to sell alcohol on a Sunday.

By the late sixties, many states began to relax the rules for Sunday, especially when it came to retail shopping. Little by little, more stores began to have Sunday hours, though they were usually shortened to something like noon to 6 p.m. By the beginning of the 1970s, Mister B was working every Sunday at a retail establishment.

Today Blue Laws still vary greatly from state to state, with some having no regulations to others restricting the type of commerce conducted. For example, did you know that you still cannot buy a car on a Sunday in 15 states? Ironically, in most of those states it is the car dealers themselves who have lobbied for the ban. Many other states still ban the sale of alcohol on Sundays, while others restrict the sales to after noon. Some cities and counties have also entered the arena, passing Sunday laws of their own.

Even in our 24/7 age, it seems Blue Laws will be with us for a while. When did you first learn about Blue Laws, boomers?