A gray-haired man says, “On any Sunday 50 years ago you could stand at one end of Main Street and you wouldn’t see a soul except the town dog.” He, his wife, and I are drinking coffee in a shopping mall restaurant on a Sunday afternoon. We watch shoppers — hundreds of them — crisscross the parking lot. If his mother ran out of sugar, the man says, she sent him to the neighbor’s back door to borrow. Except for an occasional cigar store or ice cream parlor, stores did not open on Sunday. “The day had a placid, tranquil air,” he says. His wife adds that back then Sunday was always the same: church, Sunday dinner, a nap, a drive, a light supper, and Jack Benny on the radio.
History chronicles big news. The past we study in school is epic, heroic, intimidating. Little people and gritty daily life, the man says, don’t make history books. That’s too bad, we agree, finishing our coffee.
The American Sunday of half a century ago, fettered by blue laws and centered on family, was peculiar to this continent. As far back as 321 A.D. Constantine forbade town dwellers to work on Sunday, but by the 1300s Sunday restrictions had loosened. European Roman Catholics’ only Sunday duty was to attend Mass. After that there were street fairs, gaming, theater, dances.
Then in 1618, James I, the king of England who followed Elizabeth’s reign, issued a set of decrees known as the Book of Sports, permitting archery and dancing on Sunday. James’s son, Charles I, reissued the Book in 1633. Its leniency outraged growing ranks of English Puritans and helped spark the religion-inspired English Civil War, a war that cost Charles I his head and gave Puritan Oliver Cromwell an 11-year try at administering England. But the country remained strongly anti-Puritan and pro-Royalist, and in 1660 Charles II was restored to the English throne.
“True blue” described a staunch Presbyterian, the rebellious Protestants having adopted blue as their color in opposition to the Royalist’s red. The laws that Cromwell’s Parliament established were called “blue laws.” Blue laws were sumptuary laws, a class of legislation that on religious principle regulated personal behavior in areas of “sumptuous” dress, food, entertainment, housing. Even the high-living Romans had sumptuary laws that disallowed luxury to the lower classes. In the Middle Ages, one of the many sumptuary laws denied joints of roasted meat to anyone less than a duke.
But it took the austere English Puritans to formulate sumptuary or blue laws the likes of which had never hobbled the Western world. Essentially, no one could leave home on Sunday except to attend church, and at home on Sunday, nothing more worldly than dinner was permitted. Church services three to five hours long were followed at home by family devotions, private prayer, and soul-searching.
During the troubled 1600s, Puritans sailed to the Colonies to establish their version of Christian civilization in North America. Theirs was an obsession that ate up the continent. In the 1700s Connecticut passed a law forbidding a person to leave home on Sunday except to attend worship. In 1810, when Congress voted to open post offices and deliver mail seven days of the week, churchgoers fought the order. On a Sunday afternoon at New York City’s Polo Grounds in 1917, managers of the Giants and Cincinnati Reds were arrested for violating blue laws, and the game was stopped. Not even the Great Depression significantly altered Sunday — although the religious revival that churchmen expected never took fire. The day could be so stultifying that in the ’30s humorist Robert Benchley suggested that others try his method for getting through the day. “I buy a small quantity of veronal at the nearest druggist’s,” he wrote, “put it slyly in my coffee on Saturday night, and then bundle off to bed. When you wake up on Monday morning you may not feel crisp, but Sunday will be over.”
In conversation with men and women past 55, a picture of the Sunday-that-was can be reconstructed. The day started with church and revolved around family. But even before church services, there would be a quick skim of the Sunday paper.
A man who grew up in rural Iowa recalls that before Sunday breakfast, his father sent him to the one store that stayed open on Sunday, the cigar store, to pick up the Chicago Tribune. Behind a black curtain in this particular cigar store, single men and “reprobate” husbands began dealing a Sunday poker game even before morning church bells pealed. The Iowan heard cards snap, slap, and shuffle; he knew, he says, that card playing was taboo on Sundays because where his uncle lived, if the landlord caught tenants at a bridge game on Sunday, he evicted them.
Sunday was also the day when adolescents, if they dared, began to rebel against family mores. One man recalls, wincing, how his father threw him down the stairs when he refused to get up for church. “I was 17,” he says, “and according to my father, ‘too big for my britches.’ He said I could believe what I Goddamn well wanted to, but I was not going to break my mother’s heart.”
Sunday school came before church. It was taught in his town, a Southerner says, by maiden ladies. Even the smallest children memorized Bible verses, and over Sunday breakfast one’s mother might ask one to recite the verse for the day. To illustrate the day’s assignments, teachers used a flannel board to which they stuck flannel cutouts of Moses and the bulrushes, Noah and his ark and animal duos, or Jesus and the disciples. “This was made bearable,” the Southerner says, “by paper cups of juice and graham crackers spread with marshmallow fluff.”
Adults might go to classes also and in many areas were expected to attend. One Methodist, born and raised in Kansas, was shamed, she says, because her father dropped her off for Sunday school and an hour later came back with her mother to attend church. But they never went to Sunday school. Her Sunday school teacher took her aside and insisted they pray together for her parents. Another woman recollects how wonderful her Presbyterian church smelled. On Saturdays the janitor waxed the floors, and women brought garden flowers and arranged them. On Sunday morning the women’s scents were flowery — Midwestern ladies did not wear perfume; they dotted behind ears and in crooks of elbows with toilet waters and colognes — and the men gave off sharp aromas of bay rum and citrus aftershave.