Vestiges of Blue Laws North and South

April 7th, 2008 by Harrumpher Leave a reply »

In many ways, including marriage and booze laws, Boston and South Carolina have long been kin. While blues laws may actually have originated with a Connecticut minister, both other provincial places ran with them.

They mandated Sunday rest and worship. They heavily regulated drinking and anything else most people consider fun and adult.

There are some other associations that visitors to both notice. For example, a tour of Charleston’s UU church shows a graveyard salted with Boston ministers. After the 1772 church switched to Unitarian in 1817 and got its first Harvard minister two years later, it has a series of Yankee preachers. They settled, traveled to Massachusetts in the summers, and when they died in either place, their bodies ended up there.

On marriages, we had similar laws and customs for many years. They didn’t have our unique anybody-can conduct a marriage system, but otherwise, we both had civil contracts with a wide range of solemnizers.

My wife and I married in South Carolina, when we both worked for the Savannah newspapers. The solemnizer list was one step looser than Massachusetts’. A bank president who was a personal friend and news source to both of us performed the marriage under his power as (ta da) a notary public.

Very recently, we had another big legal split. We went for marriage equality and they went for both a constitutional amendment and a law forbidding same-sex marriage and civil unions. They’ll have a lot of backtracking to do.

On booze, we had similar laws that bifurcated in odd ways. Both states had funky extensions of blue laws that meant drinking ended at midnight between Saturday and that Lord’s day. Eventually we loosened those a bit, although in both, our bars close earlier than those in many states and cities.

With city options on licensing, we still end up with oddly 19th century restrictions. Boston may be the worst. It’s a rare grocery, and a grandfathered one, that allows beer and wine sales.

S.C. liquor storeIn South Carolina, liquor stores and beer/wine stores were different, hard alcohol being the province of state controlled ABC stories.

Comically and mnemonically, they have long been red dot stores to the locals. Until 1997, the law required that they not advertise with signs. They had to have at least one red circle, up to three feet across. They could use the ABC for Alcohol Beverage Control, but everyone did and does know what a red-dot store is about. Even after repeal, this visual shorthand is still in play. Sleazy backroad booze stores have a red dot. Fancy mall parking-lot ones have a few. Big ones in middle-class and poor neighborhoods may be heavily dotted, so no one misses the point.

South Carolina also was one of nine states that had a minibottle law. That may or may not have been a step up from the brown bag days when you could bring a concealed bottle with you to a restaurant and buy mixers. The alternative decades ago was paying a couple of dollars to belong to a restaurant’s “private club.” With that, you got a key to your mini-locker where they kept a bottle or two of your own booze and brought it out when you dined there, again buying overpriced mixers or even just ice.

Both have been repealed, although you can still serve minibottles if you choose. There is tiny irony there, in that minibottles are heavy shots — 1.75 ounces instead of the 1.25 typical in airline minibottles. By restricting it to a full minibottle per drink instead of a shot pour, South Carolina ensured more booze per drink. The stated intention was to protect people from the horrors of free pours out of what are still called large bottles there.

This all came to mind this week as big news hit that South Carolina had repealed its prohibition of beer and wine sales on Sunday. Boston sort of beat them, but not really. Considering that virtually any food store can sell beer and wine down there, we are way behind.

I can remember blue laws down there from many years ago. Friends with babies complained about the absurdity of some — cloth diapers were okay on Sunday, but diaper pins were not. The beer air-curtain coolers and wine shelves had police-style tape across them reading that Sunday sales were prohibited.

WIS, a major TV station in the capital , Columbia, featured interviews with pre-drunk college students. A grocer also noted, “Our first customer at about 7:15 this morning. We have had 200-300 that have made alcohol purchases and it could have been more than that.” The major daily, The State, made it news likewise. It quoted two 24-year-old students who bought a case of beer. “We’d usually have to get up and rush over here before midnight. Now we could relax, finish the game and take our time.”

The change may be bittersweet to some. The rush to buy beer (and usually matching ice) before the stores closed Saturday evening was part of the game, as was estimating, in your diminished capacity, where you had enough beer for Sunday activities. That sport’s gone.

Likewise, I remember an eldery fellow I lived next to in Columbia one year. He grew up. as many mill workers did. familiar with bootleggers. These weren’t moonshiners, just entrepreneurs who stocked up for those who missed the sunrise to sunset red dot hours.

The modernization of the states drinking laws also eliminated the seasonal variance by changing the red dot hours to 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. Before that, in poor neighborhoods, you could see old guys hanging around socializing until the official sunrise time.

My neighbor had trouble walking and used a cane. Still, he didn’t ask me for a ride when the red dot stores were open. He waiting until later for the simple thrill of asking me to drive him to his favorite bootlegger. He paid maybe twice the going rate for a half-pint on Jim Beam. That was not much extra money, but apparently well worth the jolt of knowing he could still do something illegal and by implication vaguely dangerous.

Cross-posted at Marry in Massachusetts.

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