Thursday, October 21, 2010

Living With The Blue Laws

Sunday shopping, in a few hours stores will be opened (some already are) and everyone will rush out to shop on Sunday. WalMart and the Centre at Salisbury, like many retail outlets, is a crowded place on Sunday. It is hard to think that twenty-one years ago the Mall in Salisbury was closed on Sunday and the grocery stores and the lumber yards of the time like Lowes and Moores were also closed, but that was the way life was on Delmarva. Back then Delmarva had what was called “the Blue Laws.”

Blue Laws were laws promulgated to ensure we observed Sunday as a day of worship or rest. They simple said you could not sell anything on Sunday unless it fit a certain narrow classification. As I recall the items you could sell on Sunday were; drugs and medicines, gasoline and oil, tobacco, prepared meals, milk, bread, fruit, confectioneries, newspapers and magazines. It seems strange, today, that tobacco products would be allowed to be sold but not other items like food. Each county could modify these laws to allow the sale of other items or to allow entertainment. I think Wicomico County was one of the more strict counties. The only businesses I remember being open on Sunday were Drug Stores, Restaurants and gas stations.

The general concept of what could be sold on Sunday revolved around Sunday being a day of rest for the family. So items of limited recreational use for a family which might take a Sunday ride into the country and they would need gasoline for the automobile and may wish for a soft drink or fresh fruit or a meal at a restaurant or those who go to the beach may wish ice cream or some other item normally sold there and of course newspapers and drug products should always be available to the public. The Sunday ride was an institution in my family.

Because a Drug Store could sell medicine on Sunday the Blue Laws created the modern Drugstore as we know it in America. The reason they carry all those items beside drugs was because they could stay open on Sunday and they had no competition, now they legally were not allowed to sell most of the items they had in the store but some drugstores did, others didn’t. Reads, Central, Gordy’s, and Salisbury drugs are the main drug stores I can think of in the 1950’s and 1960’s. Later Dart drugs and the rest of the chain drugstores would come to town. I can remember going in to Salisbury Drugs on a Sunday and seeing most of the aisle marked off with rope preventing Sunday sales of those items. Come Monday the ropes were removed and business was normal. Sometimes there was simply a poster that said these are the items we can not sell on Sunday. I read somewhere that the Ice Cream Sunday was created due to the Blue Laws that prevented selling “soda water” on Sunday. I asked Dick Dykes about the drug stores at the time and he said “ I remember the Peoples Drug Store always sold anything on Sunday and then suddenly they weren't allowed to by law! I think the downtown merchants in Salisbury were responsible for this. They were a pretty powerful bunch in town then you know. The Benjamins, The Hess's, The Powells and a few others.”

Maryland has always been known as a corrupt state where favors can be purchased, so it was no surprise that lobby efforts were made to have products moved into one of the exempt from Sunday Blue Laws classes. The medical supply classification was popular as was the the other strange exempt class of novelties and souvenirs . Items such as shampoo, body soaps, tampons, toothpaste ( I have second thoughts on toothpaste, I think toothpaste may have been an item they couldn't sell on Sunday - I just don't remember) etc were available on Sunday. As time moved on into the 1970’s even more exceptions and exemptions were made to the Sunday Blue Laws.

Along a similar line the Blue Laws created today’s convenience store. Since Gasoline Stations could stay open on Sunday they started selling Bread, Milk and newspapers and evolved into today’s convenience store. Certainly in the 1950’s Bank’s Cash Market on College Avenue and Division Street in Salisbury was a busy place because of that. The Banks Market would form the center of a chain of Banks Convenience stores later, and in turn, they would be bought by the Shore Stop Chain of convenience stores. Others market stores of these type were; the Tony Tank Market, Campbell’s Market, Bob’s Cash Market on Baker street and Price’s Pickup Store on Alabama Avenue.

Back in the 1950’s there was a limited number of chain stores. As I have said in previous posts Woolworth, Wards, Sears and Penneys were the main ones in Salisbury with Safeway, Colonial, A&P, and Giant being the chain grocery stores. The rest of the stores were Mom and Pop operations and I think they must have liked the blue laws as they worked six days a week in their store and the only way they could get a day off was by way of the blue laws. They knew if they were closed, the chain grocery stores such as Safeway, Colonial Store, and Giant Food would also have to be closed thusly the chain stores would not have an unfair competitive advantage over them by staying open on Sunday. It was also a time when you were known by your reputation and a store owner had to pretty much be in church on Sunday otherwise he would get a reputation as a heathen who didn’t believe in God and no one would come to his store.

As for entertainment some places (bowling alleys) could be open from 2 P.M. to 7 P.M. it was assumed you would be in Church before that time and after that time. If you lived in Wicomico County and wanted to see a movie you went to Delmar, Delaware because Delaware allowed movies to be shown on Sunday - if they were in the corporate limits of a town. Because of this Blue Law, Delmar Delaware added an odd town limit boundary line. When the Drive In wanted to open in Delmar they requested they be put in the town limits due to the Blue Laws. So Delmar annexed a narrow ten foot wide strip of land by the railroad tracks and ran it North to the Drive-in movie where it was extended to their land creating a hatchet head effect on the town limits. Later Wicomico County relaxed the laws on entertainment and movies etc could be shown after 2 PM until midnight.

Living under the Blue Laws was like everything else - you adjusted to them. You had to plan ahead for what ever items you would need on Sunday. It may have been lumber for a home repair project or food for the Sunday Dinner or car parts for a home car repair project – you had to buy it Saturday. If you did need some item on Sunday and didn’t have it you had to find someone who did have it so you could buy it or borrow it until Monday (dare we say the blackmarket). The image of the housewife running next door to borrow a cup of flour came about in part from the Blue Laws. In the case of alcoholic beverages there was none sold on Sunday but there was always the local bootlegger. In this case bootlegger didn’t mean moonshine but simply pint bottles and half pint bottles of regular liquor that the person sold on Sunday or after liquor store hours. They would also make home deliveries the same as the milk man. I understand there was a bootlegger that hung out at Reuben Holden Pool Hall in Delmar.

So why put up with them? In 1960 a case was bought before the Supreme Court against Maryland Blue Laws. The case was known as McGowan vs Maryland, in it the
“Appellants, employees of a large department store on a highway in Anne Arundel County, Md., were convicted and fined in a Maryland State Court for selling on Sunday a loose-leaf binder, a can of floor wax, a stapler, staples and a toy, in violation of Md.Ann.Code, Art. 27, § 521, which generally prohibits the sale on Sunday of all merchandise except the retail sale of tobacco products, confectioneries, milk, bread, fruit, gasoline, oils, greases, drugs, medicines, newspapers and periodicals.”
The end result of the case, in 1961, was the Supreme Court decided in favor of Maryland and held .

“Art. 27, § 521 does not violate the Equal Protection or Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment or constitute a law respecting an establishment of religion, within the meaning of the First Amendment, which is made applicable to the States by the Fourteenth Amendment.”.
“The present purpose and effect of most of our Sunday Closing Laws is to provide a uniform day of rest for all citizens, and the fact that this day is Sunday, a day of particular significance for the dominant Christian sects, does not bar the State from achieving its secular goals.”

So the courts said the Blue Laws were fine and legal.

The reasons why the Blue Laws went away are many; shopping pressure from the wife in the family taking a job, the divorce rate going up so there was only one adult per family, and the replacement of Mom and Pop Stores with chain stores. I think I can say when the chain stores replaced the small stores, shopping became more convenient but family values eroded. No law can be enforced by government if the majority of the people are not in favor of it. As long as Wicomico County remained isolated, the prevailing powers could enforce the Blue Laws. Once the “outsiders”, in this case, Chain stores, started moving into the county, Wicomico County was no longer able to control the enforcement of Blue Laws. No longer was there a “day of rest” in which all family members were home at the same time. I think in the last election there was some talk of a “Day of Rest” once a week by Obama and Clinton, were they talking about a return to the Blue Laws?

In July of 1987, the State of Maryland repealed the Blue Laws everywhere in the State except Washington, Allegany and Wicomico countries. So on Sunday, July 5th the Malls were open, there was an extra day of shopping and an extra day of work for some people in all of Maryland except for those three countries. As I recall shortly after this, maybe in the fall of 1987, Giant Food told Wicomico County they had had enough of the Blue Laws and starting on Sunday they intended to sell everything in their store the same as they would any other day. There was no legal action taken against Giant Food and the enforcement of the Blue Laws collapsed in Wicomico County which ended most of the Blue Laws.

Today; you can still see the effect of the Blue Laws more in tradition than actual law. Banks, the Post Office, Government offices, Chick-fil-a and other stores, are closed on Sunday or have hours that are after Church. In some cases it is law as in Car Sales, the signing of contracts, the hours and dates you can hunt wildlife, etc. look around you, you can see some Blue Laws and the aftermath of the Blue Laws still.

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