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The Ancient Laws Ruining Your Sunday
So many of the laws and rules governing our lives seem so arbitrary. Where did they come from?
The Internet was buzz in the past week because of “The United States of Crazy Laws,” an Olivet Nazarene study charting the bizarre legislation still in place across the land of the free. Many of these regulations seem bizarre—in Arizona it is illegal to keep your donkey awake near a bathtub and in Connecticut a pickle must bounce in order for it to legally be considered a pickle—but others are just niche concerns. That it is illegal to ride a horse while intoxicated just makes more sense in Colorado, where you’re statistically more likely to ride a horse than in New Jersey. And the prohibition against waking a sleeping bear to take a photo in Alaska is a well-intentioned effort to save tourists and social media hawks from themselves (and a mauling).
What even the most obscure and peculiar sounding laws have in common, though, is a very particular and often forgotten history. Each piece of legislation was conceived because of a particular event. The origins of Connecticut’s pickle law were forgotten until reference library Steve Rice found an article about pickle rustling in a 1948 article. According to the Hartford Courant, pickle packers Sidney Sparer and Moses Dexler were arrested for selling pickles “unfit for human consumption.” The then-Connecticut Food and Drug Commissioner Fredrick Holcomb told reporters that a real pickle “should bounce” when dropped on one foot. Residents of the Nutmeg State should feel assured that regulations governing the production and sale of food have grown more sophisticated in the past 60 years.
At least one of the more peculiar laws on the books has its roots in religious principles. In New York State it is illegal to walk around with an ice cream cone in your pocket on Sundays. To be sure carrying a quickly melting sticky substance in one’s clothing seems inadvisable on any day, but the specific regulation against carrying an iced dessert on a Sunday may be tied to puritanical concerns. From the colonial period onwards “Blue Laws” were enforced in order to promulgate religious behavior on the Sabbath. These laws promoted church attendance but also—in the past—prohibited certain profane activities like “indecent bathing" (Georgia), attending a concert (Connecticut), fishing (Delaware), and the sale of candy (Maryland). And in Evanston, Illinois, the Women’s Temperance Union succeeded in banning the sale of ice cream on Sundays.
It’s not only local governments that have anachronistic laws on the books. At the University of Oxford, where archaic rituals abound, legend maintains that undergraduates are able to request a pint of ale during their final examinations, but only if they are wearing the required ceremonial swords. Other regulations, like wearing “subfusc” (a white shirt, black gown, and black pants/skirt) to certain meals and university events have enduring popularity. Oxford students voted last May to preserve the tradition. Bizarrely restrictive regulations governing the behavior of students are not just a thing of the past, either, in an oddly Orwellian move Oral Roberts University now requires that students wear fitbits.
In the case of state and university regulations the rationale behind these laws is historically grounded. The contingency of legislation is one of the reasons that the law is constantly changing. As advances in technology and science change the world we live in, we need to adapt. It’s for this reason that, in 2011, Tennessee made it illegal to share Netflix passwords.
In the case of most archaic laws we recognize that their justification is firmly in the past. They are revised and eliminated when legislators see fit. With one notable exception: religious rules. The Bible is full of kooky-sounding regulations governing who can be a priest, sexual contact with menstruating women, what you can eat, and even the legitimacy of cotton-polyester blends (spoiler alert: they’re a stone-able offense). While many anachronistic rules—like, ahem, regulations governing sexual access to female slaves—have been put aside by modern Jews and Christians, there are others that still persist.
Up until Vatican II Catholic women wore veils in churches. In fact, some women still do. Veiling is common in the Middle East but for Christians it can be tied to a specific Biblical passage: 1 Corinthians 11:2-16. Here nestled amid the language about shame and women being created from man is the bizarre explanation that women should cover their heads “because of the angels.” Are angels prudish? On the contrary, they have problems controlling themselves. Some New Testament scholars think that this is a reference to the ancient popular tradition that in the murky primeval past angels had been attracted to women on account of their shiny hair and had decided to have sex. This resulted both in the birth of tall people and an increase of sin that led to the Flood. Christian women have been covering their heads in church (and continue to do so in some denominations) in part because angels just can’t resist a good blowout.
In some cases those rules have only gotten stronger. Take for example the Mormon prohibition against consuming alcohol and caffeine, or using tobacco products (technically wine, strong drinks, tobacco and hot drinks). Known as the “Word of Wisdom,” this regulation isn’t found in the Book of Mormon itself, it’s actually part of a separate revelation. The specific impetus for the revelation was the slovenly behavior of LDS men in 19th century Kirtland, Ohio. At the time Joseph Smith ran a training school on the second floor of the Whitney mercantile store. The attendees spent most of the day smoking and using chewing tobacco, which they would spit out onto the floor. Emma, Joseph’s Smith’s wife, was charged with cleaning up the mess and complained to him that the room was left so filthy that she “could not make the place look decent.”
The incident is widely acknowledged by the LDS Church to have prompted the regulations against tobacco, alcohol, and caffeine. Mormons can’t have chemically-induced fun because Emma Smith didn’t want to clean up after them. But, additionally, it was driven by the push for temperance from various 19th century U.S. religious and secular societies, which railed against the dangers of alcohol. Just like other legislation it was very much “of its day,” but as a religious rule it didn’t expire when cultural interest in teetotalism waned. On the contrary, and like most other religious regulations, it persists as a revelation from God. And in the past two centuries it has morphed from a religious suggestion to a prerequisite for full participation in temple activities.