Those of you that read this regular series know that I am from Hackett, Arkansas, just a mile or so from the Oklahoma border, and just about 10 miles south of the Arkansas River. It was a rural sort of place that did not particularly appreciate education, and just zoom onto my previous posts to understand a bit about it.
Back not that long ago there simply were things that could not be purchased on Sunday. In some areas this still exists, but only regarding the sale of alcohol. For example, in some places no alcohol in any manner can be sold on a Sunday, in others restaurants can offer it but not package stores, in still others only beer can be had on a Sunday, and in many there are no restrictions on the sale of alcohol.
In Arkansas, until comparatively recently, there were LOTS of things that could not be offered for sale on Sunday under pain of prosecution. This was not confined to Arkansas, but it seems to have lasted longer there than in many places.
For a long time, it was illegal to operate a movie theater on Sunday. That remained a long time in Fort Smith, then the revenues not realized became greater than the fines, so the theater operators would show motion pictures on Sunday and pay the fine on Monday, the fine being considered just as another cost of doing business.
The authorities finally changed the law to make it legal to open theaters of Sunday, both because the fines were nominal anyway and also because they had the wisdom to realize that keeping laws on the books that people just ignored was not consistent with good governance, causing otherwise law abiding citizens to make a conscious choice to ignore a law. Colorado and Washington made wise decisions last fall to take steps towards legalizing Cannabis, for the same reason.
But this is supposed to be about Sunday sales restrictions when I was growing up, also know as Blue Laws. Some of the prohibitions were downright bizarre, and almost all of them were quite arbitrary. I am working strictly from memory here, and since I was pretty young for much of that time and thus did not do the shopping, I may get it wrong now and then, but I believe that this is pretty accurate.
Newspapers were allowed to be sold on Sunday, but not magazines or books. So you could get a copy of the Southwest American (the morning edition of the paper) or the Fort Smith Times-Record (the afternoon edition) if you could find a place open. In Hackett nothing was open, but at the time we had real paperboys who delivered them. In Fort Smith you could get them at grocery stores and the like.
Food was OK to sell, either at restaurants or at grocery stores. Once again, in Hackett you were just out of luck because, once again, nothing was open. This became sort of problematic at times, though. Cleaning supplies, personal hygiene products, and similar items were OK, too, so you could get things like soap, paper towels and napkins, and the like.
Now here is one of the bizarre situations. Since personal hygiene products were legal to sell, you could buy sanitary napkins on Sunday. But garment sales were forbidden, so if you did not have the belt device to use with the sanitary napkins, you could not buy one. Go figure!
You could buy gasoline and oil on Sunday, but not auto parts. If you blew a tire on Sunday, if you did not have a spare you were out of luck until the next day. In Hackett you could not even buy gasoline because all of the stations (BOTH of them!) were closed. That was not such of a problem in Fort Smith, since more places were open, but you still could not get a battery or a tire or such.
These laws were enforced fairly rigorously through the 1960s, and then, little by little, enforcement began to slack off a bit. Mass merchandisers like K-Mart and later Wal-Mart had a good deal of influence on seeing to that, but only in the larger towns where those stores operated. Most stores were simply closed on Sunday, except for restaurants, grocery stores, and some gasoline outlets.
It was not anything like today, were there seems to be a convenience store on every corner, many of which are open around the clock every day (I disdain the term "24/7"). Hackett literally shut down on Sunday until I was a great big kid, like 16 or so, and Bill Fields (a friend of my father) opened the first real convenience store in Hackett. That would be around 1972 or 1973. Bill sold gasoline, food, and sundries and by that time the Blue Laws were losing their teeth, either from lack of enforcement or repeal.
Even though the laws themselves were not a real factor after that, the traditions that sprang from them stayed with us for a long, long time. I remember in 1978, just after the former Mrs. Translator and I moved to Fayetteville for college, we were in need of a couple of hardware items to do some repair work on our mobile home (OK, it was a trailer). No hardware stores were open, and Wal-Mart was a pretty good drive. I started calling around and found a Coast-to-Coast Hardware store that operated inside of the IGA grocery store not far from us and we went there for our little supplies. As I was talking with the hardware person, he told us that technically they should not be selling hardware on Sunday, but that they had not had any flak from law enforcement about it in several years.
I have not the time to root around and see if the statures were repealed, overturned by the courts, or just are no longer enforced in Arkansas. Maybe betwixt now and next week I shall have a bit of time to look into that aspect a bit more. I got a late start today writing, so and sort of hurrying to finish.
The difference from then and now is like night and day. Now, almost all stores are open on Sunday (here in the Bluegrass Region of Kentucky it is not legal to sell alcohol in any form on Sunday, at least for off premises consumption, and I do not know about restaurant sales because I never drink alcohol when I am going to drive, not even a single beer) except for the few that choose not to be, like Chic-Fil-A and a few local retail outlets.
Back when I was little entire towns would shut down on Sunday, like Hackett did, and even in larger ones most stores were closed. Remember, stores like the big department stores such as Sears and Penney sold things that were not legal on Sunday, so they just stayed closed until the early 1970s. Now Sunday is a prime shopping day because many people are off work then and have the time to shop on Sunday. Personally, I think that it is up to store management to determine the operational hours and the products that are legal to be sold, not any government interaction, provided that the products are legal to be sold at all.
The Blue Laws are, except for alcohol sales (and, oddly, in several states, car sales and hunting, of all things!) are a quaint, distant memory of the days when the United States was dancing with theocracy not all that long ago. On the other hand, I think that it is a human right for workers, with a few exceptions, to have the assurance of at least one day per week off so that they can take care of their own business, worship as they chose to do (or choose NOT to do), partake in recreation, or just plain rest. However, with judicious scheduling is it possible to accommodate those rights and also accommodate the realities of a modern society.
That about does it tonight. I realize that this is sort of rambling, but as I said earlier, I got a late start. I shall be available to answer comments, and they are always welcome, as are tips and recs! I would like to hear from those of you who remember Blue Laws from your childhood (or even later, since the last state to allow department stores to operate on Sunday, Maine, did not repeal that law until 1990), and I know that other readers enjoy to hear what you have to say as well.
As a matter of interest I posit the following question. Would it have been legal to write (or more precisely, post) a blog on Sunday under the old laws? Would a blog be considered more like a newspaper or a magazine or book? I do not intend this as just an amusement, but rather as a tool for us to get our 21st century arms wrapped around the mindset that was almost universal in the US in the middle of the 20th century.
I am going to attempt to be more conscientious in writing my regular posts this new year. The plan is to continue the Popular Culture series this coming Friday with a third installment about The Electric Light Orchestra, this time about their almost forgotten third album, titled interestingly enough, On the Third Day. On Sunday the plan is to complete my Pique the Geek two part series about the chemical element magnesium.
Doc, aka Dr. David W. Smith