On Any Sunday

Loud commercials, antenna balloons and those weird fan-inflated arm wavers.  Indiana County’s forty auto dealerships will do just about anything to get your attention and your business.  So why won’t they sell you a car on Sunday?

Because it’s a crime.

The law that makes it so is called the Act of April 22, 1794, which is short for its real name, “An Act for the Prevention of Vice and Immorality and of Unlawful Gaming, and to Restrain Disorderly Sports and Dissipation.”  You probably know it as the Blue Law.

Like its siblings in most other American states (as well as Canada and several European countries), Pennsylvania’s Blue Law had public observance of the Sabbath as its original purpose.  It takes just three sentences to cover a wide range of activities in surprising detail:  things forbidden and the penalty for doing them, exceptions to the rule, and a statute of limitations.  In a nutshell, it forbids us to “perform any employment or business whatsoever on the Lord’s day, commonly called Sunday (works of necessity and charity only excepted)” or to practice any “game, hunting, shooting, sport or diversion whatsoever on the same day.”  Simple, right?  But those words have been argued over in more detail, for a longer time and with greater passion than any other in our legislative and judicial history.  It’s enough to make a lawyer drool.

The range of things to which the Act has been applied over the years is immense and sometimes quizzical.  From the Penal Code of Pennsylvania, here’s a sample of 19th century rulings that cited the Act in their support.  On Sunday:

* Barbers may shave themselves but not others.

* The trolley driver whose car makes noise shall be subject to arrest.

* Bakers may not sell ice cream without also providing entertainment.

* Steamboat may be operated as ferries but not as excursion boats.

* Killing coyotes and crows is exempt from the ban on hunting.

* Even when otherwise permitted by law, dueling is forbidden.

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Curiously for a state that led the fight for religious freedom in 1776, the Act raised little objection for the first few decades.  Perhaps the reason can be found in its time and place of birth.  The Whiskey Rebellion, centered right here in southwest Pennsylvania, reached its peak the same year the Act was passed; it may be that “high spirits and freethinkers” were not tolerated while those who fought that insurrection still lived.  In any case, the first legal challenges were not about what the Act prohibited or even why, but when.  In Commonwealth v. Wolf  (1817)* and other cases,  Jews and Seventh Day Adventists asserted that the Act’s designation of Sunday as the Lord’s Day amounted to selective proscription of their faiths’ Saturday Sabbath and a five-day limit to their business week.  The relief that was eventually granted came not from the courts but the General Assembly, after several attempts over many decades.

Support for Pennsylvania’s Blue Law ebbed and flowed over time, often reflecting social changes not related to the law itself.  The most intense of these periods was 1890-1915, during the Third Great Awakening and the closing days of the Industrial Revolution.  Interests-in-common made for strange bedfellows: temperance workers saw in the Act an ally against then-rampant alcoholism and domestic violence, while nascent labor unions welcomed its help reducing the 70-80 hour work week and employers’ control over workers’ lives.

During the height of the pro-Sabbath cycle in the early 1900s, Indiana County outdid most of the state in its zeal for enforcement, with the support of churches, citizens’ groups and even the press.  Railing against the McNichol Bill’s proposed dilution of Sabbath laws, the Gazette urged readers to demand their legislators oppose “establishing the wicked ‘Continental’ or European Sunday in Pennsylvania.”  And in December 1907 alone, seventy merchants, miners and railroad employees were arrested for violating the Act in towns from Plumville to Josephine “on information of the Indiana County Sabbath Observance Association.”

The national Sabbath Observance Association chose Pittsburgh as its 1908 convention site because southwest Pennsylvania was ground zero in the battle over U.S. Blue Laws.  The Indiana County chapter had as its field agent one Doctor James Sharp, whose task it was to set up surveillance on suspected violators, collect evidence and witnesses, then “bring information” (press charges) against those caught working or doing business on Sunday.  He was ruthlessly efficient, accounting for hundreds of convictions before his death in 1909; coal companies and railroads that had hitherto ignored the Act stopped requiring seven-day work weeks of their employees, and merchants dreaded running afoul of our county’s Sabbath vigilante.

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By 1929, more than 100 attempts to repeal or amend the original Act had failed…

But times were already changing.  America after World War One was a different place, and the Sabbath Observance Association less Doctor Sharp had a progressively smaller voice in Indiana County.  Both economic hardship and prosperity dealt further setbacks to Blue Law supporters in the decades that followed: with unemployment near 30%, what Depression-era worker could say no to Sundays?  And how many businessmen could afford to reject one-seventh of all opportunities in the postwar boom?  In between, WWII persuaded us that enforceable uniformity was worth fighting against, not for.

In the meantime, non-employment exceptions were slowly added, most notably the 1933 bill leaving Sunday sports to the discretion of local electorates.  (Indiana County voters chose to continue the ban here by a 2-to-1 margin.)  Once 1938’s Fair Labor Standards Act made the forty-hour week national law and state liquor control debuted, the alliance that had supported the Act dissolved for want of common cause.  And in 1959, the first significant modification of the Act was at last signed into law.

Not that the issue is settled, even now!  Failure of subsequent attempts to repeal the Act altogether has demonstrated Pennsylvanians’ support for at least some degree of public Sabbath-keeping, and our Supreme Court has consistently affirmed the Act’s constitutionality.  On the other hand, recent decades have seen moratoria on Blue Law prosecutions; the day after the first of these in 1976, the Gazette carried ads by Indiana County merchants announcing Sunday hours . . . just two years after police had closed Punxsutawney’s Jamesway Department Store for attempting Sunday sales.  Hunting, betting, and yes, even car sales are still limited to Monday through Saturday, and the debate remains a vigorous one on most remaining provisions of the Act.  May it ever be so; may we never forget that both consent and dissent ensure Pennsylvania’s “Virtue, Liberty, and Independence.”

*Commonwealth v. Wolf, 3 Serg. & Rawle 48 (Pa. 1817).

Horseless

The first and only horseless carriage ever shown in Pennsylvania will be on exhibition at the Indiana Fair.  It travels along without any other motor than that which the carriage itself supplies.  It will be worth a day’s visit just to see this unique conveyance!

Thus spoke the Weekly Messenger in 1896.  Alas, the announcement turned out to be premature;  Delos and Dick Hetrick’s one-of-a-kind vehicle would indeed make its public debut at the Fair, but not until the brothers had worked out its transmission problems three years later.  Their gasoline-powered “automobile wagon” wasn’t exactly greased lightning – it couldn’t outrun most humans, let alone a horse – but those who saw it realized that it marked the turning of an age.

The second car hereabouts was seen by few, stopping in Blairsville on its way from Greensburg to Cresson.  But oh, the third…!

J.R. Stumpf’s steam car took Indiana by surprise on a Monday morning in 1901.  The five-horsepower Mobile had travelled from DuBois in just five hours.  Everyone stared in astonishment as it sped down Philadelphia Street; horses tethered along the hitching rail jumped onto the sidewalk, and small boys sprinted after it in a pack.  The elderly Mr. Stumpf would use that attention to his advantage for the next several years by making the steamer his Five & Ten Cent Store’s delivery vehicle and symbol.

The automotive revolution had actually been underway in Pennsylvania since 1893, when Philadelphia’s EMV Company launched its Electrobat.  Duryea Power made our first “gas buggy” in 1895, and the Crouch Company of New Brighton rolled out its steamer two years later.  In all, some 130 models were invented and/or manufactured in our state during those early days – forty of them in 1908 alone.  A Pennsylvanian even bought America’s very first mail-order car.  We couldn’t get enough!  The new century was off to a roaring (and hissing and humming) start.

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Winton was one of several makes with “agents” here.

Cars quickly worked their way into our popular culture and language.  We spoke of “flivvers” and “Tin Lizzies,” and children behind on their chores were said to be “slower than a Morris going uphill in a snowstorm.”  Standard dress for an outing on our unpaved roads included hat, gloves and a “duster” overcoat…which the fashion industry quickly caught on to.  McLaughlin’s Clothing Store in Indiana carried a ladies’ coat called The Automobile, and toiletries like Fel’s Naptha were advertised as “a necessary part of the man’s motoring outfit”.

But despite their popularity, the number of autos here increased more slowly than in most other parts of the state.  Our middle class was small; until prices dropped dramatically in 1913, few but the well-to-do could afford to “go horseless.”  Our dirt roads were less suited to autos than to wagons (especially from December through April), and our preference for tradition over innovation may have put on the brakes as well.

Early on, many of our cars were ordered from elsewhere and shipped by train or driven cross-country to the buyer.  The first Indiana County “agents” – dealerships – opened about 1908, typically representing many manufacturers at once.  The two largest were Clymer Motor Car and Indiana Motor Company.  The latter offered everything from the economical Pope (no Popemobile jokes, please!) to a top-of-the-line Buick for five times as much.

Competition between the different engine- and chassis-types continued through the mid-teens.  Three-wheeled autocycles like the Keystone were popular as early delivery vehicles; J.M. Cunningham’s steam-powered Locomobile became our first horseless taxi in 1901, and long before today’s Tesla, quiet electrics like the Owen Magnetic found favor with the county’s horse-owning majority.  But in the end, gasoline engines and the closed touring sedan won out with their greater range and comfort.

Automobiles even popped up in our newspapers’ social columns.  When, where, and by whom most cars were purchased was noted, and the phrase “by automobile” was often added to items about out-of-town visitors.  Accidents, on the other hand, always made Page One.

The first auto accident in Indiana County happened outside Blairsville in the summer of 1900.  Like most during that era’s first decade, it didn’t involve two cars; Roy Gerard and his wife were injured and their buggy shattered when a car spooked their horse.  The Johnstown Toll Pike was closed to autos in 1905 because so many motorists failed to slow down when approaching horses as required.  Newspaper accident-reports came to resemble editorials, with one opining in that “someone will be killed, and then a penitentiary sentence will instill caution in careless drivers.”  Yet by 1920, most papers also featured a weekly section devoted to more positive auto-articles, advice columns and ads.

Blacksmiths and machine shops got our business when the family car broke down.  Liveries and wagonworks soon began adding auto repair to their repertoire.  Among those who failed to adapt was the Indiana Carriage Company, sold at Sheriff’s bankruptcy auction in 1910.  In that same year, our first cars-only repair shop was opened by (appropriately) Delos and Dick Hetrick.

As with the automobile itself, auto-friendly roads were in short supply here at first.  Our relative isolation and railroad-dependence had encouraged a casual attitude about the dirt we drove on well into the new century.  The Automobile Association of Indiana led the push for road improvement; it didn’t hurt that many members were influential citizens!  Starting in 1913, they employed Homer City’s E.B. Griffith to make county-wide inspections, and from his reports created a map of road conditions for use by the county government.  By the late 1920s, many borough streets and most wagon roads had been paved – a boon much appreciated by rural mail carriers, who in those days used their own vehicles.

The old saying “If it moves, tax it!” took on new meaning at Harrisburg in 1906.  Whereas our county had charged a one-time, fifty cent fee for combined license and registration, the new State Department of Highways separated the two, doubled the cost of each and charged them both every year.  The license number (painted onto the body before plates were introduced) functioned as the VIN of its day, staying with your car when you sold it.

The last stand for horse advocates came in the late 1920s.  Citing an increase in tack sales and the economy of horse-drawn delivery vehicles over trucks, the Gazette asserted “Old Dobbin Is Back.”  But few of us yelled “Get a horse!” anymore, and our theaters were showing something closer to the truth – a soundie called First Auto: a Romance of the Last Horse and the First Horseless Carriage.  What was once a novelty had become a generation’s norm.  There was no turning back; by the early 1930s, there was one car for every five of us.  Like the trolley, the horse was history.

What happened to Pennsylvania’s auto industry?  Economies-of-scale made possible by Ford’s introduction of the moving assembly-line in 1913 meant only the most heavily-capitalized manufacturers could compete.  American Austin, our last make still in production as of 1929, closed its plant in Butler a few weeks before Pearl Harbor in 1941.