Blue York A Look at the City's Odder Laws

In Atlanta, Georgia, it's illegal to tie a giraffe to a telephone pole or street lamp. In Pueblo, Colorado, it is illegal to let a dandelion grow within city limits. In Alabama, it is illegal to wear a fake mustache that causes laughter in church. You may not be arrested and jailed if you're caught pulling any of these stunts, but make no mistake: these rules are on the books, and if you're deemed unruly, publicly intoxicated, or otherwise disagreeable to the authorities while tethering your giraffe, cultivating your dandelions, or wearing your goofy mustache, they may decide to dust off these old laws and arrest you for them, too.

But here in the enlightened tri-state area, we would never dream of letting such antiquated, obscure rules clutter our law books--would we? The answer is--maybe. In addition to such legal oddities as the prohibition against shaking a dust mop out of an upper-story window, or the law against walking around on Sunday with an ice cream cone in your pocket, New York City has its share of unusual laws and ordinances. Some were enacted to address one-time misbehaviors (evidently someone, at some point, did stroll around Manhattan with an ice cream cone in his pocket, causing untold mischief) but most are a little more complicated and fall under the category of "blue laws."

Thou Shalt Not

In the beginning--that being around 1617 or so--the term "blue law" was coined to describe Colonial regulations that made church attendance mandatory and prohibited certain kinds of commerce on Sundays. A longstanding myth has it that the laws were called "blue" because the first such rules--originally passed in Virginia--were either printed on blue paper or bound in books with blue covers. Fact is, however, that the rules were written on regular old parchment. The word "blue" was used in colonial times to refer to rigid moral/social codes and their adherents--hence words like "bluenose" to describe the holier-than-thou moralists of that time (and this).

According to David J. Hanson, Ph.D., a sociology professor at the State University of New York at Potsdam, early blue laws prohibited work, travel, and recreation, as well as activities like cooking, shaving, cutting hair, sweeping, and making beds. It was also illegal to wear lace or precious metals, kiss your spouse, or engage in sex on Sundays. ("The Puritans believed that a child was born on the same day of the week on which it was conceived," says Hanson, "therefore, the parents of children born on a Sunday were punished for violating the blue law nine months earlier.")

According to Barbara and David P. Mikkelson of L.A.'s San Fernando Valley Folklore Society, blue laws also included specified penalties for moral offenses such as lying, swearing, and drunkenness and the playing of games such as cards, dice, and shuffleboard in public.

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2 Comments

  • Though it is a dumb thing to legislate, who would walk around with an ice cream cone in their pocket, on any day of the week?
  • HELP!!! I am in a pre law class and the attorney challanged us to find out what statute the business about tieing up the giraffe is located. HEPL, I could use the extra 5 pts. thnx