A brief history of bad habit prohibition, or, I’ll bet you didn’t know loafing is illegal here!

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Hey you! Yeah, you, the one dozing in the lounge chair by the pool! Get up and go to work! Don’t you know you’re breaking the law?

And you, you lazy slug. Get out of that hammock! This is Manchester and we work for a living around here, buddy.

It’s the law.

Okay, I agree, it’s probably a stupid law, but it’s on the books so hit the bricks because I kid you not, way back in 1918, the Manchester Board of Mayor and Aldermen passed an  “Anti-Loafing Ordinance.”

No, it wasn’t aimed at bakers. This law, coming as it did with The Great War on the wane, was the brainchild of acting Mayor William O. Corbin. Less than a week after filling in for the ailing Moise Verette, he proposed a civic ordinance aimed at men aged 17 to 60 to ”make it imperative that all men who are physically able employ their time usefully.”

Never one to pass up a cheap shot, I might hasten to add that Mayor Corbin – as a politician – was subject to immediate arrest.

Still, there was a real fear and loathing of loafing in those days. Under a headline that read ”May Have Anti-Loafing Law Here,” here’s what the Manchester Leader reported on Aug. 1. 1918:

”In some cities, a thorough combing of all places habitated by loafers has been followed,” the paper reported, ”by idlers having been ordered to register and offered their choice of working or fighting…” with the army.

To cement the deal, Mayor Corbin consulted with the state’s Attorney General, Oscar L. Young. He ruled that such an ordinance was legal. That explains why the city adopted the measure. I think it also explains why no one names their kids Oscar any more.

Not enough people know how hard it is to loaf. Loafing is an art form that should not be confused with idleness, either. Idleness is when you have nothing to do. There is no pleasure in having nothing to do. The fun is in having lots to do and not doing it. Now that’s loafing.

But it’s illegal.

So don’t do it.

By not breaking a sweat, this gentleman relaxing at the Merrimack Common (circa 1936) was actually breaking one of Manchester’s silliest blue laws.
By not breaking a sweat, this gentleman relaxing at the Merrimack Common (circa 1936) was actually breaking one of Manchester’s silliest blue laws.

Down through the years, a lot of odd things have been ruled illegal here in Manch Vegas. Take drinking, for example. I wonder how many people are aware of the clause in the original 1846 City Charter that empowered the City Council ”to forbid the selling or giving away of any ardent spirits or other intoxicating liquors to … any Indian.”

Personally, I find this law highly offensive for a number of reasons, foremost among them the fact that a smidgen of Native American blood courses through my very veins. Plus, I have been known to enjoy the occasional adult beverage.

As I have already illustrated, the City Council was given some extensive – if bizarre – powers. Uprooting civic shrubbery? That was a 10 dollar fine. So was riding your horse on the sidewalk. Same for showing a movie before 6 p.m. on Sunday. Dumping sawdust in Lake Massabesic? A first offense cost you 20 bucks. And can you imagine the anarchy if they hadn’t passed this actual law in 1894:

• ”You must not milk your cow or pasture your sheep on Elm Street.”

I know, I know. Those critters were tame compared to some of the ones you see on Elm Street these days, but since we’re making a list, you should also know that the City Council was authorized:

• ”To regulate the manner of selling pickled fish.”

• ”To prohibit any person from bringing, depositing or having within the limits of said city any dead carcass.”

• ”To restrain and punish vagrants, mendicants, street beggars, strolling musicians or common prostitutes.”

Sheesh. Imagine lumping vagrants, strolling musicians and common prostitutes together? Bet the vagrants were embarrassed something awful. Here are some other highlights:

• ”On the Lord’s day… it shall be unlawful to engage in public dancing, horse racing, boxing, prize-fighting, wrestling, pool, billiards or bowling.”

• ”The transportation of offal, bones or grease through the streets shall only be in closely covered wagons.”

• ”From the first day of April to the first day of November, no person shall wet down any sidewalk in the business section of the city between the hours of eight o’clock in the morning and eleven in the afternoon.”

• ”No showman, tumbler, rope-dancer, ventriloquist, juggler or other person shall exhibit any feats of agility, horsemanship, sleight-of-hand or rope-dancing … without a license from the Board of Mayor and Aldermen.”

• ”No person shall put in any street, lane or alley any house dirt, ashes, shreds, shavings, filth, suds or oyster shells except as the board of health shall prescribe.”

• ”No person shall sing or repeat any lewd, obscene or profane songs.”

• ”No person shall keep any animals or manure in any building unless the said animals and manure are securely screened from flies.”

So how many of these laws have you broken today? None, I’ll bet. I’m certain you’re walking the straight and narrow, just like me, and I’m sure you have no intention of doing any rope dancing, sidewalk wetting, oyster shell dumping or manure keeping anytime soon.

I won’t either, so if you see them taking me away to the Big House, you know they got me on an anti-loafing rap.

Your chance to paint City Hall.
Your chance to paint City Hall.

Shameless plug: Don’t miss these upcoming Manchester Historic Association events (click below for dates and details):

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