Portage Pathways: Sunday 'blue laws' in Ohio divided merchants during holidays in 1962

by ROGER DiPAOLO | RECORD-COURIER EDITOR Published:

There aren't very many activities that are off-limits anymore on Sunday, which used to be the traditional "day of rest." That includes shopping, which has become a seven-day activity.

That wasn't the case 50 years ago, when the 1962 Christmas season found merchants in Kent and Ravenna debating whether to open their doors for Sunday shoppers.

The result turned out to be a split decision.

Ohio's Sunday "blue laws," which dated to the 1830s, banned most retailers from doing business on Sunday unless they could justify their trade as serving travelers, an exemption that enabled restaurants, drug stores, service stations and theaters to operate.

Grocery stores and other establishments were supposed to remain closed under the laws, which were a throwback to the Puritan era.

In November 1962, Lawson Milk Co. mounted a statewide bid to overturn the blue laws by seeking a change in the Ohio Constitution that the convenience store chain dubbed the Sunday Necessities Amendment.

"Don't let anybody tell you milk isn't necessary on Sundays!" was the pitch made to housewives in a full-page ad in the Record-Courier a few days before the election. The amendment was soundly defeated, by a margin of more than 400,000 votes.

Enforcement of blue laws varied statewide, however, and that led some retailers to test the waters on Sunday sales.

As the Christmas shopping season began in earnest in December 1962, Clarkins, a discount department store in Kent's University Plaza, promoted Sunday sales.

THAT LED other stores in the plaza to open their doors as well, albeit reluctantly. "I wish someone would file a warrant against me for operating on Sunday so that we wouldn't have to work on Sunday," one unnamed merchant told the Record-Courier.

With Clarkins and most of University Plaza merchants open on Sunday, McCrory's, a five-and-dime store in downtown Kent, announced plans for Sunday sales, too. Downtown retailers W.T. Grant Co., the Budget Shop and Wright's joined McCrory's a week later.

While Sunday sales were becoming a reality in Kent, merchants in downtown Ravenna dug in their heels, voting 19-1 against them and urging enforcement of the blue laws.

"We have a Sunday closing law and we, the merchants of Ravenna, intend to abide by the law," said Kenneth Newton, chairman of the Ravenna Chamber of Commerce's retail division. "Let's keep Sunday Sunday."

The Ravenna merchants, for the most part, were adamant in their opposition to Sunday sales. "We either have to open on Sunday and buck 'em or appeal to the people to back us and stay closed," said Carl Rupert of the Jack-n-Jill Shoppe, "We can't close our eyes to it."

The lone dissenter among the merchants' ranks was furniture dealer Hy Friedland, who said he would remain open on Sunday and added that he "wanted to be arrested" as a test case.

By mid-December, more merchants in Kent were keeping their doors open on Sunday. A University Plaza merchant reported "better business last Sunday afternoon than during any afternoon on a weekday." The Kent Post Office joined retailers, selling Christmas stamps -- issued for the first time in 1962 -- and handling mail from 2 to 5:30 p.m. Sunday.

SUNDAY sales proved to be a hit with shoppers in Kent, and whatever reluctance retailers might have had regarding seven-day operations quickly vanished.

"If the tinkling of cash registers is an indication of the popularity of Sunday shopping, it would appear that Portage County thinks it much more enjoyable than a TV football game," the R-C reported on Dec. 17 following "one of the biggest shopping days of the year."

"Thousands from the area flocked to the stores to take advantage of the extra shopping hours. They came in families and even bigger groups." The parking lot at University Plaza was overflowing by mid-afternoon and parking spaces in downtown Kent "were as hard to find as they are on a normal Saturday." Several stores had checkout operators on duty.

"We could hardly handle the crowds," said W.T. Grant manager Edward Muth. "I never saw a bunch of shoppers quite like these people. Everybody was so happy. They seemed to be making a family day out of it."

The 1962 Christmas season proved to be a turning point for Sunday sales, with retailers gradually remaining open on a seven-day basis despite the blue laws, which remained on the books in Ohio until 1973, when they formally were repealed. By then, they were virtually ignored by retailers and law enforcement alike.

Today, the final Sunday before Christmas is one of the busiest shopping days of the holiday season. It's a rare retailer whose doors are closed.

Email: rdipaolo@recordpub.com

Phone: 330-541-9400 ext. 4164

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