Remembering the ‘blue law’ debate
One of the greatest traits of Americans is the ability to solve controversial issues and then, over time, forget the problem. Such is the case with “blue laws” or mandatory closing of businesses on Sundays. A half century ago, the very mention of “blue laws” might result in a heated argument.
Beyond closing businesses, there were some states that prohibited any entertainment, including baseball, on Sundays. Now, if you visit the Legends or Oak Park Mall on a typical Sunday afternoon and see the crowds shopping, it is hard to imagine there was a time when it was prohibited.
When we lived in Missouri in the late 1970s, it was illegal for stores to be open for business on Sundays. However, newspapers and TV stations began campaigns showing how many vehicles with Missouri license plates were at Kansas shopping malls. It wasn’t long before the lure of money started changing the laws. It was also argued that “shopping was recreation” for many Missourians. Of course, now Sunday closing laws are relegated to history that most folks have forgotten.
Sunday openings were part of a changing society. When I was young, on Saturdays, stores stayed open until 11 p.m. or until the end of the second showing at the movie theatre. That began to change with the advent of TV and shorter work weeks. According to the information I found, the Kansas Supreme Court struck down Sunday closing laws in 1964.
The term “blue law” was supposedly first used in a story in the New York Mercury newspaper on March 3, 1755. One source said the term came from Puritan colonial law books which had blue covers. However, there are a number of other “legends” about the origin of the term. It is known that Roman Emperor Constantine enacted the first day of rest law.
Several states passed laws which prohibited shopping or any form of recreation on Sundays. Certainly churches of that era strongly supported that prohibition. However, in the 1880s, things began to change, according to many, due to the growing popularity of baseball and simple economics. Those were the days before night baseball games on brightly-lighted fields; games were played in the afternoons. That meant only wealthy Americans could attend, not generating enough revenue to support the growing number of professional teams. However, it was 1932 before the last major league city, Philadelphia, allowed Sunday baseball.
In those “good old days” most Americans worked 60 to 72 hours per week. Unlike today, Saturday was just another work day. To survive, baseball teams and other outdoor entertainment needed big Sunday crowds willing to pay 25 cents or 50 cents for admission. Since most ball teams were owned by breweries, they also wanted to sell alcoholic beverages. It didn’t take long before Sunday afternoon baseball became the standard. Soon movies and other forms of entertainment were also popular on Sunday afternoons.
It was a major issue in the early portion of the 20th century. If you remember the movie “Chariots of Fire,” British Olympic star Eric Liddell would not compete on Sunday. For many, it was a serious issue, and I know my father didn’t want me to play organized baseball on Sundays, although I was allowed to attend games. For some kids, any activity other than those that were church related was prohibited.
Now, of course, that has all changed, and participating in Sunday activities is a personal choice. Yes, there are some businesses that close on Sunday and that is fine. Many churches have multiple worship times, serving a wider segment of the public. Sunday afternoon activities are now part of life.
What is interesting to me is that the once angry debate is now a thing of the past. We Americans have quickly forgotten or accepted change and moved on to the next issue.