Sunday Blue Laws, Old Family Memories & U.S. Legislative History

Introduction: Scott Phillips is a genealogical historian and owner of Onward To Our Past® genealogy services. In this guest blog post, Scott explains how “Blue Laws” turned Sundays into very special family days during his childhood.

Sundays always loom large for me each week. I love them now and I really loved them when I was growing up. I am not sure about you, but for me Sunday was a significant family day. I have marvelous memories of our Sundays when I was a youngster. Mom, Dad, grandpa and grandma always said keeping Sundays as family days had a lot to do with what are called “Blue Laws.”

Do you remember these old laws? They are the laws that regulated commerce—and historically other activities—on Sundays. I well remember going to church as a youngster and having everything in town closed up tighter than a drum. Not a single shop was open in my hometown except after twelve noon—and then it was only our one pharmacy and only for a limited number of “essential” items.

So it was that we went right home from church, I fought with my sisters over who got the Sunday newspaper funny pages first, and reveled in the aromas from the kitchen while Mom prepared Sunday supper. If we were lucky the day included a leisurely Sunday Drive and almost always grandparents or other family members over to our house to share in this important meal. Then, if we had been “good” all week, we gathered in the basement around the TV and as a family watched our favorite programs like Disney’s Wonderful World of Color and Bonanza. I remember well my Dad relishing in what he called “do-nothing Sunday afternoons” because all the stores were closed.

While I was working on my family history the other day, I happened across an old article from a 1978 newspaper that explained some of the history of Blue Laws. I was interested to see that, at least according to this newspaper article, the first Blue Law was enacted all the way back in 321 AD by Roman emperor Constantine. Now that is old!

Blue Laws Not New to World, Dallas Morning News newspaper article 18 December 1978

Dallas Morning News (Dallas, Texas), 18 December 1978, page 65

This got me intrigued and it wasn’t long until I came across an article from a 1919 newspaper (published on a Sunday by the way) reporting that the origin of the term Blue Laws came from the fact that they were originally printed on blue paper. However, this “fact” as reported here has been relegated to the category of myth, although this article does highlight the extensive Blue Laws during the 1600s that were some of the most restrictive laws in American history.

The Origin and Nature of the Early Blue Laws Afford Amusing Reading, Sun newspaper article 21 December 1919

Sun (Baltimore, Maryland), 21 December 1919, part 3 page 11

I was enchanted by another historical article in a 1925 newspaper from a regular column that featured “Sunday Drives.” That really took me back, and made me happy to realize that Sunday drives were evidently universal enough to warrant a regular column in such a large newspaper.

Sunday Auto Drive on the Highways of Dallas County, Dallas Morning News newspaper article 17 May 1925

Dallas Morning News (Dallas, Texas), 17 May 1925, page 1

It was also fun to read an article from a 1961 newspaper about Walt Disney’s first color television show. That took me back to our big, old black and white TV, antennas on the roof, adjusting rabbit ears on top of the set, fiddling with the horizontal and vertical knobs, waiting for tubes to warm up, and finally the grand day we got our first color TV. As best I can recall we always had just one TV until the day I came home from college.

Disney Opens Color TV, Omaha World Herald newspaper article 24 September 1961

Omaha World Herald (Omaha, Nebraska), 24 September 1961, page 111

Today, most Blue Laws have been repealed and my Sundays aren’t quite as calm and relaxing as they were in my youth. However, there are still remnants of Blue Laws around us. For instance, in my home state of Indiana you still cannot buy a car on Sunday nor can you purchase alcoholic beverages by the bottle. Sunday drives are a bit shorter now with near $4-a-gallon gas prices, but they still happen. I’m happy to say Sunday Supper still demands full attention in our home—and I always do my best to keep it a family day, especially around Easter.

How about you? Do you remember Blue Laws and do you think they helped make Sundays special and more family oriented? Are there any Blue Laws where you live? I hope you will let me know!

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Written by Scott Phillips

Scott Phillips

Scott Phillips is a genealogical historian and owner of Onward To Our Past® genealogy services. Scott specializes in immigrant ancestry, especially from Bohemia (Czech Republic), Cornwall, the United Kingdom, and Italy. In addition to GenealogyBank.com, Scott has been recently published by Ohio Genealogy Society, National Czech and Slovak Museum and Library, Czechoslovak Genealogical Society International, SaveEllisIsland.com, MyHeritage.com, and Greater Cleveland Genealogical Society. He was a presenter at the 2012 World Congress of the Czechoslovak Society of Arts and Sciences in Slovakia. You can follow Scott on his Facebook page at OnwardToOurPast and on his website/blog at OnwardToOurPast.

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