It’s weird to think about it now, when everything is open 24-7, when you can buy things off the Internet without even leaving your bed, and when people are hollering about letting store employees stay home on Thanksgiving, but once upon a time, Americans were spun up because you couldn’t buy things on Sundays. Nowadays, just about the only things you can’t get on Sundays are booze (depending on where you live) and your junk mail—and even mail carriers are now trucking for Amazon. (The story of Sunday mail delivery is the topic of an article my husband wrote that I really hope he turns into a book someday. I can’t wait to read it.)
Sunday laws (or “blue” laws), which made it illegal to work on Sundays, have a long and sprawling history, and I can’t begin to wrap my arms around the topic in a blog post. The first one was enacted in Virginia in 1699. Largely grounded in religion, they varied in severity and scope over the years. By 1872, the law allowed for certain vocational exceptions and allowed counties or cities to opt out by holding referenda to override it.
The Alexandria papers were howling about the law that year because the city was poised to vote on it. Some (a majority, as it turned out) backed the law’s selling points of rest and respect (what’s wrong with rest and worship?), while others seemed understandably baffled by the law’s uneven application and lack of common sense (drug stores that sold cigars and soda water could remain open, but cigar shops and ice cream saloons had to close). There were also the sorts of protests you’d see today: the law’s fundamentally un-democratic nature (capitalism ain’t a modern invention; people wanted to make money on Sundays back then, too), opposition to it as violating the First Amendment, and its general ineffectiveness (since you just had to head over to the next town to get wasted if you chose).
Among those for whom warrants were sworn out, in addition to retailers of liquor, are the proprietor of a news store, the keeper of an ice cream saloon, the proprietor of a brewery and an ice merchant—these being reported by the members of the Anti-Sunday Law Association who say they want the law carried out according to its strict letter.
Wait, what? Why would the ANTI-law group want the law carried out? Well, because full enforcement—no ice, dairy, or poultry sales, no public transportation, among others—would inconvenience more people, thus spurring another vote on the issue and possible repeal.
In consequence to the difficulty experienced in procuring liquor in the city, the drinking places at West End and at other points outside of the Corporation limits were visited by numbers of persons who imagined they required stimulation, may of whom having found what they desired concluded to spend the rest of the day where their appetites could be indulged. During the morning a large quantity of cherry bounce was surreptitiously taken from a restaurant on the corner of King and Union streets and distributed gratuitously to persons on the wharf nearby. The bar of the Railroad Shades, kept by Mr. Henry Herbner, one of the parties fined last week with violating the law, was hung with crape during the day.
(“Cherry bounce” just sounds amazing, doesn’t it? Apparently it’s 10 lbs of cherries, 4 cups of brandy, 3 cups of sugar, and a generous pinch of pumpkin pie spice. I’ve never found a place where I could order a glass. I may have to try making it myself. If I do, I’ll let y’all know how it turns out.)
Though based in religion, the Virginia law as of 1872 at least had a veneer of secular sanctimony: “a Sunday law enacted under the police powers of the state for the purpose of providing a day of rest for persons, to prevent the physical and moral debasement which comes from uninterrupted labor does not infringe upon the constitutional guarantee of religious freedom.”
Other statutes dealing with a day of rest gave a break to shellfish, making it illegal to harvest oysters (except by hand) or load them on a vessel, to take clams at all, or to catch crabs for commercial purposes. Hunting on Sunday was also verboten.
These days, Sunday laws in Virginia mostly focus on hunting restrictions. You can’t kill bears or deer with a firearm on Sundays. You can’t hunt on public lands. You can, however, shoot other things on private property as long as you have written permission and are more than 200 yards from a church.
As you might imagine, the current Sunday laws generate just as wide a range of reaction as the 1872 versions.