In the 1970’s, locals knew that the Lower East Side was the only place around that had shops open on Sundays. Why? Because of Blue Laws! Though New York City has since eliminated them, these laws restricting certain commercial activity are older than the country itself–and some remain in effect elsewhere in the U.S. today. We’re thinking about Blue Laws a lot lately as we prepare “Storefront Stories”–a new walking tour exploring the commercial history of Orchard Street.
Blue Laws are technically any law that restricts activity based on religious doctrine; the laws generally refer to the prohibition of selling alcohol on Sundays – the Christian Sabbath, but other “non-religious” activities can be banned as well. Though Blue Laws have been repealed, struck down by courts, or simply ignored into irrelevancy, they had a profound effect on budding nation and its commerce – and the Lower East Side has a long history of evading the laws in order to make a buck and make a living by owning a small business.
The New York Gazette and Weekly Mercury
The first known mention of “Blue Laws” can be found in 1755 in The New York Mercury, a weekly newspaper that ran in the mid-18th century. The article waxed poetically for “our Connecticut’s Old Blue Laws,” in a nostalgic fashion. Some of Connecticut’s Old Blue Laws include some real legal treats like, “No food or lodging shall be afforded to a Quaker, Adamite, or other Heretic,” “To pick an ear of corn growing in a neighbor’s garden, shall be deemed theft,” “No woman shall kiss her child on the Sabbath or fasting day,” and, of course, “Married persons must live together, or be imprisoned” – in the same cell, I can only imagine.
The Fun Police
By the mid-19th century, states mostly in the South and the Midwest had passed laws that mostly closed shops and saloons, but people were also arrested for activities like playing cards or baseball, and even fixing wagon wheels on Sundays. Some of these laws were designed in order to hurt Jews, Seventh Day Adventists, non-religious persons, and saloon owners.
A Nebraska newspaper investigates a scourge on the community... Sunday baseball!
Many of these laws lasted long into the 20th century, including in New York State, New Jersey, and Connecticut where shops must be closed on Sundays. (It was legal to feed a Quaker in Connecticut by then.) But on the Lower East Side, where many Jewish owned businesses still remained, these laws were potentially costly to the owners, who celebrated the Sabbath on Saturday, not Sunday. The businessmen and women in the area came up with a pretty ingenious way to get around the laws… just break them!
Sidney's Undergarments - one of the many Jewish owned business on the Lower East Side that ignored the Blue Laws.
Blue Laws remain even today – for example, in many states it is illegal to trade or buy a car on Sunday, or have car dealerships open two consecutive weekend days. In Texas, it was illegal to buy or sell pots and pans on Sundays until 1985. I grew up in Alabama, and when I moved to New England for college, I was a little shocked to see alcohol being sold on Sundays.
Blue Laws are all around the world – all Blue Laws were struck down in Denmark just last year; in Norway, alcohol sales stop at 6pm on Saturdays and do not resume until Monday; in Saudi Arabia, all businesses except hospitals must close for prayers, which happen five times a day, because Islamic law prohibits trading during prayers, and it is illegal to eat or drink in public during Ramadan, an Islamic holy month that requires fasting during the daylight hours.
A sign hanging in a supermarket in Riyadh, the capital of Saudi Arabia, during Ramadan.
Our “Storefront Stories” tour, launching later this fall, will take visitors on a walk through Orchard Street’s historic shopping district, exploring the experiences of merchants and shoppers through the years. Stay tuned for more details in the weeks to come!