A blue law is a type of law, typically found in the United States and Canada, designed to enforce religious standards, particularly the observance of Sunday as a day of worship or rest, and a restriction on Sunday shopping. In America the earliest Sunday-closing laws date back to 1610 in the colony of Virginia. They included not simply the mandatory closing of businesses on Sundays, but also mandatory church service participation. Some have reported that in the New Haven colony the list of activities prohibited on Sundays were supposedly written on blue paper, thus giving us the phrase “blue laws.” Historians, however, have concluded that this claim is false. Some have speculated that the use of the word blue came from a connotation that suggested a rigidly moral position, akin to the term bluenose that refers to a prudish, moralistic person. Today most of these laws have been repealed, but let’s now look into the reasons behind them and what they contained.
When Christianity came to America, the earliest settlers included both Sunday-keepers – such as the Puritans who landed at Plymouth, Mass., in 1620 – and Sabbath-observers like the Seventh Day Baptists, whose first church was founded in Newport, R.I., in 1671. Puritan church members in the Massachusetts Bay colony, and later, Congregationalists elsewhere in New England, believed that their contractual relationship with God required them to enforce proper behavior in their communities. This perceived requirement resulted in the enactment of a variety of laws designed to regulate the conduct of all members of society. When the Puritan Christians used the word Sabbath, they would mean Sunday – “the Lord’s Day” – and passed rules enforcing its observance from sunset Saturday to sunset Sunday.
Connecticut’s so-called Blue Laws of the 1650s had strict codes of conduct said to include:
No one shall run on the Sabbath day, or walk in his garden or elsewhere, except reverently to and from meeting.
No one shall travel, cook victuals, make beds, sweep house, cut hair, or shave, on the Sabbath day.
No one shall read Common-Prayer, keep Christmas or saints-days, make minced pies, dance, play cards, or play on any instrument of music, except the drum, trumpet, and the Jews-harp.
Adultery shall be punished by death.
Many states and towns, however, passed laws to forbid merchants and laborers from working on Sunday, to honor what many Christians consider as the Sabbath day. The rise of the Temperance Movement after the Civil War led to the passage of many blue laws that forbade the sale of liquor on Sunday, whether in a bar or in a retail store. These prohibitions sometimes banned the sale of tobacco products and by the late nineteenth century, certain public entertainments were not allowed on Sunday. After the failure of Prohibition and the legalization of alcoholic beverages in 1933, many states and localities used their blue laws to prevent the operation of liquor stores and bars on Sunday.
In her 1909 book, “The Sabbath in Puritan New England,” historian Alice Morse Earle documented “lists of arrests and fines for walking and travelling unnecessarily on the Sabbath,” regarded here from Saturday evening to Sunday evening:
A Maine man who was rebuked and fined for “unseemly walking” on the Lord’s Day protested that he ran to save a man from drowning. The Court made him pay his fine, but ordered that the money should be returned to him when he could prove by witnesses that he had been on that errand of mercy and duty. As late as the year 1831, in Lebanon, Conn., a lady journeying to her father’s home was arrested within sight of her father’s house for unnecessary travelling on the Sabbath; and a long and fiercely contested lawsuit was the result, and damages were finally given for false imprisonment.
During the early twentieth century many blue laws were amended to permit certain exemptions. Though many states and localities have now since abandoned the enforcement of these blue laws, there’s one exception that still remains on the books in some areas with a ban on the sale of alcohol on Sundays, by local liquor stores.