Most of today's Sunday pastimes were illegal in 19th century VT and NH. Read how the area was affected by "blue laws."
VOLUNTARY NOT REQUIRED. Until the 1980s, some businesses in Vermont were required to close on Sunday. Currently that closure is voluntary, with most professional offices and some retail outlets following the voluntary practice
In the mid-19th century Bradford going to church was an expected activity. With a weekly attendance of 165, the Congregational Society of Bradford decided to build a new church in 1875. It was completed in May, 1876 and dedicated that July. The cost was partially covered by the sale of pews. The Old Church can be seem temporarily relocated to the south before being moved to its present location. (Courtesy Bradford Congregational Church)
NOT JUST FOR CHILDREN. Around 1915 this group of young men gathered for Rev. F. A. Woodworth’s Sunday School at the Grace Methodist Church in Bradford. As activities such as baseball were prohibited, Sunday School was one of the few Sabbath social events open to them. (Bradford Historical Society)
NO WAY TO SPEND SUNDAY. In the late 19th century, Sabbath protection groups decried the spead of Sunday newspapers. They charged that these newspapers “were the most potent influence in our midst for the destruction of the Lord’s Day as a day of rest and worship.”
“No person shall do any work, business or labor of his secular calling, to the disturbance of others, on the first day of the week, commonly called the Lord’s Day, except works of necessity and mercy…” 19th Century New Hampshire law
According to the Bible, on the seventh day God rested from His work of creation. The Ten Commandments calls for honoring that day as the Sabbath. Since ancient times this habit of rest from labor one day each week has been encouraged, if not routinely practiced. This article describes this practice in Vermont and New Hampshire beginning with Colonial times.
Puritan New England strictly enforced the Sabbath. Many activities encouraged on other days of the week were punishable if performed on Sunday. There was mandatory attendance at Sabbath services. Well-established rules in Massachusetts and Connecticut were codified in English law in 1676 requiring both piety and a prohibition on “worldly labour” on Sundays throughout the colonies.
These rules were so strict that they were referred to as “blue laws.” The term “blue” had a double meaning of strictness and reproach. It was once thought that the term came from the blue paper upon which the laws were printed, but evidence for this is lacking. An exaggerated and denigrating list of Connecticut “blue laws” published in 1781 by Rev. Samuel Peters, a relative of Bradford’s historic Peters family, was also false.
Local communities enforced laws regulating Sunday activities “for the common good.” Tythingmen were appointed to enforce these laws. Their practice of detaining those who sought to violate the law against traveling on Sunday earned them the title of “grab-men.” Punishments ranged from ostracizing to fines and even whippings.
Most residents did as much work as they could on Friday and Saturday in preparation for the Sabbath. Food was prepared and left warm in the oven. In Newbury, one woman wound her clocks every Saturday to avoid an unnecessary task on Sunday. With attendance enforced, Sunday was filled with one or even two long church services.
In Orford, in 1804, John Mann Jr. was called before the church leaders for “desecrating the Sabbath with profane language.“ A week later he was again cited for “Sabbath-breaking acts” including driving hogs to Boston on Sunday. While Mann was forgiven, the Orford resident who spent a Sunday wandering the local woods rather than attending church was not. Local legend relates that he was torn apart by bears and the mountain where the carnage took place was renamed “Sunday Mountain as a solemn warning against all Sunday roving.”
These are probably not the only examples of people who did not attend Sabbath services. In the face of the hardships of frontier life, there were undoubtedly backsliders and those who broke regulations. But most residents kept the Sabbath to some degree.
Nineteenth century Vermont and New Hampshire experienced the conflict between religious traditions and changes in society. Religious reformers sought to continue to impose strict behavior codes on Sunday activities. The growing temperance movement added bans on alcohol and tobacco at Sunday events.
The practice of having the post office open briefly on Sunday came under attack. In 1829 inhabitants of North Haverhill submitted a petition to Congress calling for an end to Sabbath postal openings so “that the free, enlightened, religious people, may rest from their labors, as the Lord of the Sabbath HATH COMMANDED.”
By the 1840s there was an organized effort to protect the Sabbath against “raucous amusement and gratuitous commerce.” Demands for heightened enforcement led to the passage of tougher laws. As railroads began to permeate the region, there were calls for prohibition on Sunday rail traffic. In 1848, Vermont’s new law prohibiting all work on Sunday other than that of “necessity and mercy.“
That same year, Vermont-born attorney Thaddeus Stevens presented a case for minority rights and for the separation of church and state in an unsuccessful Pennsylvania court case. As the law did not mandate compulsory religious observance, the court viewed it as a “day of rest” rule and not in violation of the church-state prohibition. That ruling set the stage for other court cases nationwide.
Immigration in the period after the Civil War continued to test the dominance of the Protestant establishment. Sunday was the lone break in the six-day work week and many wanted to use it for activities other than attending religious services. Additionally, Jews and Seventh Day Baptists did not recognize Sunday as the true Sabbath.
Sabbath protection groups worked to combat the “notoriously frequent violations” of the Sunday closing laws by saloonkeepers. Opposing them were organizations against Sunday laws including labor unions, immigrant groups and civil rights advocates.
In 1880, Vermont reaffirmed its ban on Sunday activities, with limits ranging from business openings to hunting. Groups threatened a nation-wide boycott of the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair unless it closed on Sundays.
They also raised questions about the new Sunday newspapers that were circulating. They were called “gaudy and dauby,” and “the most potent influence in our midst for the destruction of the Lord’s Day as a day of rest and worship.”
By 1895, Sunday concerts and newspapers, bicycles and electric trolleys led the New Hampshire Methodist Episcopal group to say “New inventions have changed the methods by which the Sabbath is made a day of recreation.” For many workers who had few days off, Sunday offered a major opportunity to enjoy these new pleasures.
There were other ways to get around the social pressures to observe the Sabbath. Since walking for pleasure on Sunday was frowned upon in some small communities, walks to the local cemetery were considered proper. In Peacham, “there was much study of inscriptions on old stones by the young people.”
Since ice cream shops were shuttered on Sunday and pharmacies were open, the new pharmacy soda fountain ice cream concoction became known as a “sundae.”
Some believed that laws prohibiting activities on Sunday that would be legal any other day of the week were a good example of “societies engaged in the business of killing pleasure.” Others, such as the New England Sabbath Protection League, charged that violations of these laws just “benefit a few financially, create loafing places that will encourage drinking and gambling, influence the youth and fill the coffers of foreigners in fruit and tobacco stores.”
Bradford historian Harold Haskins recalled the prohibition on children’s outdoor games on Sunday. In 1907, a group of Bradford farm youth was playing baseball in a rather remote field. “The town authorities stopped the playing.”
In the 1920’s it was still illegal to open most businesses, hold a dance, engage in many sports or games or “resort to a house of entertainment for amusement or recreation” on a Vermont Sunday.
By the early 1930’s these prohibitions were being seriously questioned.
A series of bills were considered by the Vermont Legislature that would allow towns to set their own standards for Sunday activities. Bellows Falls was the center of this controversy after 28 business men were arrested for “violating the sanctity of the Sabbath.” The legislation would give local town meetings the authority to allow such Sunday activities as the operation of golf courses, gas stations and motion picture theaters, “providing they do not create a nuisance.”
Many small towns opposed these changes in the law. A tongue-in-cheek article appeared in the United Opinion under the title “Peaceful Newbury.” That town was described as “a non-Sabbath breaking community where no ‘Blue Law’ need be enforced. Our postmistress would sooner vote the Democratic ticket than sell on the Sabbath a Sunday paper; our farmers black and polish their shoes on Saturday night, and for fear of getting off that polish do not wear them to church on the day following. Newbury is a model town, and not like Bellows Falls a little bit.”
In 1940 a United Opinion headline announced that plans to have Sunday night movies in Bradford had been cancelled in the face of complaints that they would “interfere with the Sunday evening Church Services.” The article continued “So you movie fans will have to continue to go to Woodsville, Barre or White River Junction instead of staying home and seeing the show here.”
In 1947, Vermont exempted winter sports, tennis and golf from its statute and allowed other Sunday sports at which no admission was charged. That year locals began voting at town meeting on Sunday activities. In Fairlee, Newbury and Bradford, voters approved by wide margins Sunday baseball, movies and lectures. In Bradford, Sunday basketball games were approved by a vote of 206 to 93 but denied jalopy racing in 1952. This annual voting continued until the late 1960s.
The Sunday sale of alcohol was still limited in Vermont and New Hampshire. One could only buy a drink in a Vermont restaurant if a meal was also purchased. When I cooked at the Kettledrum Restaurant in 1958 we would make scores of club sandwiches, the least expensive meal on the menu. Many went uneaten.
It was still expected that Sunday morning was reserved for church attendance. Pews and Sunday Schools were full. Although there might be players on the golf courses or workers in the fields, no school or club would schedule an activity before early afternoon on Sunday. This was a tacit understanding by most, including those who did not attend church. But Sunday as a sacred day was under attack.
In 1961 the U.S. Supreme Court handed down a landmark ruling in a case involving blue laws in Maryland. It concluded these laws did not violate the U.S. Constitution, but rather provided a uniform day of rest to all citizens in a secular basis and promoted secular values. This set the stage for several state court decisions in both Vermont and New Hampshire.
In 1968 an unsuccessful attempt was made to pass a “one day of rest in seven” bill in the Vermont Legislature. Its intent was to “replace widely scattered Sunday closing laws” and remove the laws from religious consideration.
Several Vermont Supreme Court cases in the 1970s affirmed Vermont’s Sunday retail sales laws, allowing small stores to open, but required larger grocery stores to close. By 1981 New Hampshire had changed its Sunday retail sales regulations. The Journal Opinion criticized this discrepancy, suggesting that Vermonters could go for a Sunday drive, “but if they need a loaf of bread that they can’t get in Vermont because supermarkets are closed, they’ll drive across the Connecticut River and get it in New Hampshire.”
By 1982 the Vermont Legislature had added a number of allowed Sunday activities to the law. That year the Vermont Supreme Court struck down retail blue laws because of discriminatory enforcement, failure to provide equal protection and problems with due process. That signaled the end of general Sunday closing laws in Vermont. In 1983 the state repealed the “Common Day of Rest” provisions in the law.
“Not on Sunday” is an idea that is passé. While many local professional offices and some retailers are closed on Sundays, many businesses are eager to sell. attracting customers eager to buy. Recent polls indicate that church attendance in Vermont and New Hampshire is the lowest in the nation. As one observer concluded “Even the descendants of Puritans no longer want the Puritan Sunday. The Puritan Sunday is no fun.”