When Sunday Was Blue: Where Oh Where Did The Blue Laws Go?

Sunday was once a special day. People were controlled in many states by what were called blue laws. They initially dictated all behavior which could occur on that date slowly loosening to where they controlled little more than the business activities that would be allowed to occur. Those laws are pretty much dead and buried although in some states they are still used to control the sale of demon rum.

I wondered why they call them “blue” laws. Looking at the etymology of the term I went to the Oxford English Dictionary (OED). It said: “The significance of blue in this expression is uncertain.” The OED went on to say it has nothing to do with the laws being written on blue paper or the color of clothing worn by the Puritans. It went on to suggest: “It is in any case unclear whether the term as originally coined was favourable, neutral, or hostile . . . “

The first use of the term I found was associated with New Haven where a community of Puritans set up a base for a colony hoping to establish “a theological community with the government more closely linked to the church than that in Massachusetts.” These Puritans named their community as they did because it was to be a place of safety and refuge for fellows who believed as they did. They were said to be escaping from religious oppression in England which brought about their flight to America where they immediately began to oppress other religions. The New Haven Puritans forbid the establishment of any other churches in their colony.

The original laws governing activities on Sunday governed every activity of a person. “We are strictly to abstain from being outwardly engaged in any worldly thing, either worldly business or recreations, . . .” One early use of the word is found in this history noting: “Even the rigid fanatics of Boston, and the mad zealots of Hertford,..christened them the Blue Laws.”

I was surprised at the inability of the OED and others to determine why the word blue was used to describe the law. I looked for other expressions that included the word blue and the reason for the use of the term was readily apparent. When I checked the etymology of bluenose I found: “The term BLUENOSE or BLUE-NOSE or BLUE NOSE is used to describe an ultraconservative in matters of morality, a person of rigid puritanical habits, a puritan, a prude or prig. The color ‘blue’ has long been associated with conservatism and strictness, though for what reason is not entirely clear'”.  The OED notes: “In extended use. Any excessively moralistic person; one who is priggish or puritanical, a prude.” 

It offers as  examples: “George Bernard Shaw, a Scotch blue-nose disguised as an Irish patriot… Shaw, at bottom, has the ideas of a Presbyterian elder” and “Our bluenoses are doing a grave injury to the men serving overseas, who have got the impression that married women are running wild.”  H.L. Mencken wrote the quote about Shaw but also noted: “once the bluenoses were in power they put down the all strong language with a brutal hand.”

It seems clear to me the blue laws are named such because they came from the Puritans and were intended to be strict moral codes based on their religious beliefs which governed the actions of people on Sundays. The American Sunday School movement of the 19th and early 20th Century helped keep them alive but the passing years watered them down. It was hard to tell the people who on the one day off from work they had to avoid all recreation. It was not until 1922 that the six-day work week for working people was seeing its end.

The blue laws were supported by many Christian religious groups who believed Sunday was the Sabbath and a day of rest following the example of God who rested on the seventh day. Other religions thought the Sabbath to be Saturday or Friday. Labor groups supported the blue laws because they gave the workers a day off.  Slowly, though, the business of America being business, these laws have all but disappeared.

Has this been good for America? An quite interesting study found: “when so-called “blue laws” are repealed in any given state, “religious attendance falls, and that church donations and spending fall as well.”” 

The study further noted: “repealing blue laws leads to an increase in drinking and drug use, and that this increase is found only among the initially religious individuals who were affected by the blue laws. The effect is economically significant; for example, the gap in heavy drinking between religious and non religious individuals falls by about half after the laws are repealed.”

Personally, I liked the idea of Sunday being different. I thought it was all right for the state to restrict the sales of certain goods although I must admit I find it nice that if I need those certain goods I can go out and get them on Sundays.

In any event, had the blue laws not slowly disappeared they were going to be killed in any event by the recently invented monster that was growing ever so quickly that would have spelled their doom by swallowing them up and making them unenforceable. I’m not talking about the NFL. It is the Internet that has made them irrelevant.

6 thoughts on “When Sunday Was Blue: Where Oh Where Did The Blue Laws Go?

  1. True blue.

    On another note, or color, speaking of colorful language, I was thinking of this non-sequitor, but first, I agree, the freedom to pursue happiness and practice religion in America are vibrantly done with shopping malls and bars open on Sunday. In the fifties, many still worked five and one-half days . . .half a day Saturday.

    BLUE TO PURPLE: Blue Skies and Blue Waters have been replaced by Purple-Hazed Glow Boxes affixed to younger generations’ faces. They don’t know real life. They didn’t hang on corners, play down the park with 100 friends without adult supervision and slow dance on Friday nights/Saturday nights and ask girls out for dates. Better off were we without T.V.s, or with 13 inch family T.V.s not on school nights. We lived in a real world, with real people.

    The Internet and Hi-High-Tech is transforming everything . . .younger generations don’t “date”, have lost inter-personal skills, have glowing purple-hazed tubes glued to their faces, even at the ballet and symphony, and think what they see on TV, IPADs, IPODS is real life . . .many can’t hammer, fish, sew, hike, talk, debate, listen, see beyond their face-books and noses. In other words, many are not “living” for many hours a day . . .they’re vegetating, addicted to their hand-held purple-hazed glow boxes, they don’t know a digitized model from flesh-and-blood. Some do, many don’t; some are still interested in becoming nurses, doctors, teachers, etc . . .some still read . .

    RED: My real point, a complete non sequitor, is this. Leakers, like those from Wyshak’s federal prosecutors’ offices, corrupt both the leakers and the press that receives the leaks. Here’s how: When the press gets a leak from Wyshak’s office, let’s say Bill Bulger’s grand jury testimony, the press (the Globe, Cullen, Carr) then will protect their leaking source and will no longer cover objectively Wyshak’s Federal Prosecutors’ Offices, for example. The Press itself is corrupted and compromised by the leaker. It’s a bloody business, an evil conspiracy of silence between the FEDS and the PRESS . . .color it RED . . .for Commie-like . . .for Press as a tool of the State . . .for Press-Pedaling-Propagandists . . .for un-American and anti-American conspirators . .

  2. An interesting way to approach the dialectic between church, and, state. The Bolsheviks were terrible prudes. They criticized Makhno, way too much. He was a bro who knew how to party. It must have been the Cossack in him, driving him to his legendary licentious conduct. Nothing like a victory party. Nestor Makhno, the rads of our time miss you.

  3. “once the bluenoses were in power they put down the all strong language with a brutal hand.” Sounds a lot like today’s Political Correctness prevalent in the MSM. – You have to say this word from this day forward until a new word is decided upon or the old word restored or you are a bad, bad person.

    Never had an issue with the blue laws and, on the whole, believe them to have been beneficial to society. Nothing wrong with giving commerce a rest. Society is healthful for the respite. Of all the gods that men worship, Mammon is the most demanding and the least rewarding.

  4. Ah, blue laws – the living embodiment of the tyranny of the majority.

    “Puritanism: The haunting fear that someone, somewhere, may be happy.”

    ― H.L. Mencken, A Mencken Chrestomathy

  5. It did make the day different–even eerie. My first paying job, washing dishes at Peter Bent Brigham hospital, going down the stairwell as Savin Hill station and hearing the reverberation of my own footsteps, put me in a sort of Twilight Zone. “Where is everybody?” To this day, I avoid servile work on Sunday to make up for those missed days off.

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