Sunday Has Become a Day of Business-As-Usual (Fifth Monday)

by John Henry  on Monday, Oct. 29, 2001 12:00 am  

(Editor's Note: This is the third in a series of business history feature stories. Suggestions for future "Fifth Monday" articles are welcome. Please contact Gwen Moritz at (501) 372-1443 or by e-mail at

Jesus said to them, 'The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath,'" — Mark 2:27

For most Arkansans, including Christians, Sundays are pretty much business-as-usual. For many stores, Sunday sales are second only to Saturday receipts.

But there was a time, nearly 20 years back, that Arkansans were saddled with Sunday sales prohibitions known universally and inexplicably as "blue laws." As ludicrous as it now seems, business that was perfectly legal Monday through Saturday was illegal on Sunday.

Bob Lyon, who owned Lyon Pharmacy in North Little Rock, opened his drug store on Sunday afternoons for the convenience of his customers, but he had to put signs on the shelves saying that certain items could not be sold on Sundays. Larger stores often grouped banned items and covered them with sheets.

"Some would get mad and leave when they couldn't buy something on Sunday," said Lyon.

Lyon said he sometimes told regular customers that since he couldn't sell them a particular item, they could take it and pay him later.

The Religion of Money

Several attempts to pass a national Sunday law failed, but most states adopted them, at least in some form. Blue laws are generally associated with religion, and some of the early prohibitions were an attempt to force Christian reverence for the first day of the week on society at large.

But the blue laws put on the books in 1965 in Arkansas were brought about by a much baser motive: money.

And it wasn't until 1982 that changing economic conditions caused their undoing.

Arkansas passed its first blue law in 1837, one year after it entered the union. The 1837 Sabbath law banned all sales and labor on Sunday, except for "acts of daily necessity, comfort or charity." The law did allow non-Christians who observed another Sabbath to conduct business on Sunday. However, it's not clear what they could sell since the law said "retail sales of goods, merchandise and alcohol or opening a grocery or store on Sunday are also punishable by fines."

According to Michael Dougan, professor of history at Arkansas State University and author of a comprehensive history of Arkansas, ministers in Little Rock in the 1880s preached about the evils of having a Sunday newspaper. Hunting and fishing on Sunday also were prohibited by the early laws.

With a few modifications and exemptions, that ancient statute lasted until the 1950s. Act 554 of 1953 did away with the prohibition against labor on Sunday, and Act 367 of 1957 did away with the sales proscription section.

For the first time in more than a century, there were no statewide blue laws.

But the reprieve didn't last long.

"Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof..." The First Amendment to the United States Constitution

In the 1960s, national grocery, retail and drug store chains began to move into Arkansas. The state's small, independent merchants feared the competition from the larger chains would force them to open on Sundays whether they wanted to or not. They predicted reduced net profits caused by higher operating costs without any increase in total sales.

And too, many owner-operators didn't want to lose their only day off and felt their employees deserved to be off when most other workers were home. For some of their workers, Sunday hours would be a hardship since buses didn't run and schools and daycare centers were closed.

They lobbied the state Legislature for a simple solution: close all stores on Sunday. Most churches joined in the effort to reinstate the blue laws, but much of their opposition simply echoed what the merchants were saying — that families and workers needed a common day of rest. Although some in the churches truly believed in the sanctity of the Christian Sabbath, religion was not a major part of the campaign to reinstate the blue laws in Arkansas.

Instead of a ban on Sunday sales, the Legislature passed Act 135 of 1965. Its central provision was the sales prohibition section:

"It shall be unlawful for any person to sell, or offer for sale, or to employ others to sell or offer for sale, the following commodities on the first day of the week, commonly known as Sunday: clothing and wearing apparel; clothing accessories; household utensils, glassware and china; home, business or office furniture; mechanical or electrical household or office appliances; hardware, tools and paints; building and lumber supply materials; jewelry, silverware, watches and clocks; luggage and leather goods; musical instruments and recordings; radios and television sets, receivers, record players, recording devices and components and parts therefor; lawn mowers and other manual and power driven outdoor gardening equipment; cameras, projectors and parts and equipment therefor (except film, flash bulbs and batteries); and linens, yard goods, trimmings and sewing supplies."

"But those who fashioned the Constitution decided that if and when God is to be served, His service will not be motivated by coercive measures of government." — Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas

In 1982, the Arkansas Supreme Court struck down Act 135 of 1965, saying the list of goods that could not be sold was too vague to be constitutional. In that case, Handy Dan Improvement Center Inc. v. Adams, the court gave a couple examples of vagueness:

• Does paint, which is prohibited, include fingernail polish?

• Is a slide projector within the category of "cameras, projectors and parts and equipment therefor?"

Trying to sort the tens of thousands of items the stores had in stock would have been daunting, the defendants successfully argued.

The state Legislature could have rewritten the blue laws, and local communities were free to pass their own Sunday sales ordinances. Even those, however, appear doomed to fail, because as consumers become more prosperous, they demand more convenience — 24/7 convenience.

Jerry Gusewelle, who managed the JCPenney store at University Mall in Little Rock when it began to open on Sundays in 1982, said one impetus for doing away with the blue laws came as the South began attracting large industries that ran several shifts. Sunday was the only day some of those workers could take their family out to shop, he said.

Another factor, said Polly Martin, president of the Arkansas Grocers and Retail Merchants Association, was the entrance of more women into the workforce. Faced with hectic and nontraditional schedules, they could no longer do the shopping during the week between 9 a.m. and 5 p.m.

In some of the small towns in the mountains, it was tourism that did in blue laws. As people began to travel more on the weekends, merchants quickly realized that Sunday could be prime time for sales.

Letting store owners set their own hours according to their own reading of market opportunities seems like a truly American way of doing business.

Gusewelle said he remembers that local independent merchants didn't want to open on Sundays because they thought that it would simply spread the same volume of retail sales over a greater number of hours of operation.

"But that wasn't true," he said. "It quickly became a powerful business day. Most stores found that it added to their net profit and didn't take away from other days."

Mayor Bob Reynolds of Harrison, owner of Walter's, a store on the town square, was chairman of the Arkansas Retail Merchants Association when the Supreme Court overturned the blue laws. He recalls that it was Wal-Mart's arrival in 1962 that opened up Sunday shopping in that area.

"You have to do what you have to do to compete," he said.

However, he only opens his store on Sundays during the Christmas season.

Wal-Mart Stores Inc.'s policy is to open its stores on Sundays, although some of its discount stores have limited Sunday hours based on local laws and customer demand.

"As far as blue laws are concerned, some communities limit what you can sell on Sundays ... and obviously we comply with those local ordinances," a company spokesman said.

"Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath of the Lord your God; in it you shall not do any work ..." Exodus 20:8-10

There still are store owners who choose to close on Sundays and proudly proclaim they do so to honor God.

Hobby Lobby Stores Inc., which also owns Mardel's stores, closes all 273 of its stores on Sunday to give workers and customers more time for worship, rest and family. Founder David Green said the policy complies with the company's statement of purpose that includes honoring the Lord in all it does. The Oklahoma City-based chain projects revenue of $1 billion this year.

Chick-Fil-A Inc. of Atlanta, the second-largest chicken restaurant chain in the country with sales of $1.1 billion, closes its 980 stores on Sunday. Founder and owner S. Truett Cathy, a devout Baptist, boasts a high management retention rate.



Please read our comments policy before commenting.