Butchers vs. the ‘blue law’ (1916)

A butcher shop photographed for the Springfield Survey in 1914. (The survey characterized conditions in this shop as “poor”.)

Springfield’s Sunday “blue law” was more than 40 years old in 1916. That’s when a group of suburban butchers decided the law should actually be enforced.

As the dispute developed, Springfield police that March hauled in 15 businessmen, including seven theater managers and five owners of candy shops, for being open on Sunday. An anti-blue law lawyer warned that a strict reading of city’s Sunday-closing ordinance could bring even worse consequences.

Attorney (Hal) Patton in his address before the (city) council declared the following may happen if the ordinance is enforced to the letter:

Ministers are subject to fines if they preach the gospel on Sunday.,

Servants are violating the law if they prepare a Sunday meal. Wives, however, will be exempt.

It is an offense for a charity worker to carry a basket of food to a starving family.

Bands will be subject to fines for playing on Sunday, or participating in parades. …

Ambulance owners will be subject to a fine, if they respond to a call.

Physicians and dentists must declare Sunday a day of rest.

Undertakers cannot take care of bodies unless some one declares the act a legal necessity. …

On top of other things, deputy sheriffs cannot work, nor can members of the Springfield police department enforce provisions of the ordinance. …

Springfield’s blue-law ordinance, enacted in 1873, exempted a few types of businesses, among them “hotels, eating houses, drug stores, tobacco stores, and livery stables.” Butcher and barber shops also were allowed to stay open seven days a week (the argument for barbers seems to have been that every man deserved a daily shave).

In 1911, however, under pressure from the butchers’ and barbers’ unions, the city council removed those two exemptions. The unions said a blue law was the only way to guarantee their members a day off each week.

The rewrite kicked off a five-year battle between two groups of butcher shops. Downtown shops apparently followed the law, but many butchers in the rest of the city ignored it. Eighteen butchers were cited for blue-law violations shortly after the ordinance was changed, and William Richter, whose shop was at Ninth and Reynolds streets, became the law’s test case.

The Register reported the dissident butchers’ arguments.

The proprietors claim … that it is a necessity that the shops be kept open on Sunday as the meat is liable to spoil if kept over night. They also contend that many of the poorer people are paid on Saturday night and can pay cash for their meat on Sunday, where if they should buy it early in the afternoon, (the butchers) would be forced to extend credit until the following week, which places them at a disadvantage.

The Illinois Supreme Court disagreed, ruling in 1913 that butchers had to observe the Sunday-closing law. Some of the outlying shops, however, apparently continued to violate the law. The dispute boiled over again in February 1916, when the city cited butcher shops on Peoria Road and North 15th Street for selling meat on Sunday.

In response, the suburban butchers decided to show that many other businesses flagrantly violated the blue law. That led to the citations against theater operators and others, the Register reported.

Evidence on which to base (the arrests) was gathered, Attorney Patton said, by four men who visited many business places in an automobile. Two men took notes on the number of people who were going into theaters, candy stores and other places and the hours during which the various stores were open.

At first, the city council seemed ready to repeal the Sunday-closing ordinance, but commissioners backed off that position after hearing from ministers and union representatives.

“A repeal of this ordinance would be a direct slap in the face of the Christian people of this city,” John Barber, lawyer for the Springfield Ministerial Association, told the council March 9. “We ask you not to let down the bars completely and lay the city wide open on Sunday. We ask you to retain some grip on the conduct of this city on the Sabbath day.”

Com. Roy Reece (findagrave.com)

The council’s final decision was a masterpiece of political balancing: Commissioners decided not to revoke or even amend the Sunday-closing ordinance. Instead, they agreed, the city would simply ignore the blue law when it came to theaters, confectioneries and the like. Meanwhile, the understanding was that butcher shops could be open on Sundays until 10:30 a.m. during the hot-weather months of June, July, August and September.

Health and Safety Com. Roy Reece summarized the council’s reasoning.

My sympathies have been with the outside butchers who want to keep open on Sunday to the extent that I did not want to see persons who cannot afford ice in hot weather deprived of fresh meat on Sunday.

Under the compromise suggested and agreed to by the representatives of the Springfield Federation of Labor and the journeymen butchers this class of customers will be taken care of. The compromise appears to me a capital solution of an involved matter and reflects great credit on the sense of fairness of the representatives of organized labor who devised it.

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