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What is the Raines Law?

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  • Written By: Mary McMahon
  • Edited By: Kristen Osborne
  • Last Modified Date: 02 November 2016
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The Raines Law is a historical act of legislation from New York state, banning sales of alcohol on Sundays except in hotels. While the law was ostensibly about a liquor tax, the real purpose was to curb alcohol consumption, reflecting the wishes of members of the teetotaling movement who wanted to see a ban on all alcohol sales and consumption. History has overshadowed the Raines Law with Prohibition, a sweeping national law limiting access to alcohol, but at the time, it provoked angry responses among many New York residents and attracted substantial media coverage.

Legislators passed this law in 1896, restricting Sunday alcohol sales to hotels serving their guests. To qualify as a “hotel,” a lodging establishment had to have at least 10 rooms, and serve food of some kind along with alcohol. One inevitable consequence of the Raines Law was a flowering of “hotels” established to get around the law. Known as Raines Law Hotels, some didn't even have operational rooms, and used fake food to comply with the letter of the law; the “brick sandwich,” for example, was a spurious menu item — a prop sandwich people were not actually supposed to eat.

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In New York during this period, most people had a six-day work week. Sunday was the only day many members of the working class were able to take a day off for recreation, including drinking, and the Raines Law was supposed to prevent workers from spending the day getting drunk. Instead, workers gravitated towards bars and saloons that figured out ways to flout the law, and one unexpected consequence of the law was an uptick in prostitution. Raines Law Hotels saw no reason not to use the rooms they added to their facilities to circumvent the law, and often rented rooms to prostitutes or unmarried couples by the hour to add to their income.

Bans on Sunday alcohol sales, known as blue laws, are still seen in some regions of the United States, including New York state, where laws bar alcohol sales early on Sunday mornings. Other restrictions on alcohol sales may include limiting legal off-sale liquor transactions to government-run facilities, forcing people who want to buy alcohol to take it home, or elsewhere, to go through these stores to make purchases.

Numerous other states attempted to regulate liquor sales in similar ways in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Some people wanted to ban alcohol altogether, while others were more interested in limiting access. Proponents of liquor bans argued that alcohol posed threats to public and moral safety, suggesting that drinking accounted for brawls and moral lapses and arguing for limits on alcohol consumption. Prohibitionists won out in 1920, but opposition to Prohibition was so strong that the government made a move to repeal only a few years later.

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