There is an old saying that one cannot legislate morality, but the concept behind a blue law comes as close as possible. In the modern sense of the term, a blue law is any ordinance that attempts to control the sale of commerce or limit business hours on Sunday, also known as the Lord's Day or the Christian Sabbath. Many parts of New England and the South still observe a number of blue law restrictions, especially the prohibition of alcohol sales and the limited hours permitted for retail sales on Sundays.
A blue law usually begins as an honest attempt to curtail immoral activities on a day devoted to religious observances. The sponsor of a blue law may feel it would be in the city's best interest to curtail gambling operations, for instance, so an ordinance would ban the opening of pool halls and casinos on Sundays. Another blue law may limit the number of hours a store could operate, allowing employees to attend morning or evening church services. Almost every blue law on the books today can trace its origin back to a religious cause, whether it be temperance against alcohol sales or the enforcement of dress codes.
Many of the more Draconian blue laws are no longer enforced, but a number of cities regulate alcohol sales and retail operating hours whenever possible. A number of local retailers have become accustomed to closing on Sundays or limiting their hours to the afternoon. Sunday sales of alcohol may be allowed in some cities, but not in others. This arbitrary enforcement of blue laws can create unusual problems for the hospitality industry, since a hotel located in a 'dry' town may have to send guests to neighboring 'wet' cities on Sundays for any alcohol purchases. Restaurants may not be allowed to serve alcoholic beverages on Sundays, but a convenience store across the street may not face such restrictions.
The origin of the term blue law is a little murky. Many sources say that the original blue laws in America were first codified by a Colonial Connecticut governor named Theophilus Eaton. Eaton was said to be assisted by a Reverend John Cotton, which should not come as any surprise.
Settlers of the New Haven colony were given a set of laws in 1656 that sought to define proper and moral conduct. These laws contained a great deal of extremist Puritanical thought, such as denying food and lodging to Quakers, Adamites, and other 'heretics'. The bulk of these laws emphasized the importance of keeping the Sabbath day holy by refraining from a number of activities, including kissing a child and walking in a garden.
These laws were not called blue laws by the colonists themselves. The term blue law in reference to this early legal code did not appear until the 18th Century, when a Reverend Samuel Peters paraphrased what he called the Blue Laws of Connecticut. There is not much evidence that any of these rules were actually implemented, but the principle of legislating morality influenced future lawmakers. The modern idea of a blue law really started with temperance movements and other moral causes espoused during the late 1890s.
Even the origin of the name blue law is in dispute. Some sources make the erroneous claim that the original pamphlets were printed on blue paper. Blue paper would have been a luxury item in the 17th Century. Others suggest that the term 'blue' was used as an insult against extreme moralists and politicians, much like our present day description of snobbish people as bluebloods. The term blue law may have also been a corruption of blood law, which would appear appropriate considering the harsh penalties suggested for those who violated any blue law.