American Blue Laws #1: Donkeys are not allowed to sleep in bathtubs

Have you ever wondered why you don’t see donkeys sleeping in bathtubs?  

Me neither. But supposedly, in Brooklyn, New York, most likely in the 1800s, somebody put this law into effect.

That raises an important question. What in the world happened in Brooklyn that required the making of this law?

Perhaps this would be great dinnertime conversation tonight.

Three donkeys waiting in line for the tub? Courtesy of Visual Hunt
Courtesy of Visual Hunt

Before I continue with suggestions for your dinnertime activities during quarantine, I want to share this article. Hopefully, it will make you laugh, but also free you from trying to achieve ridiculous standards while under quarantine: Your Only Goal Is to Arrive, by Paul Ollinger.

Now back to donkeys in tubs. Blue laws (sometimes known as Sunday laws) were intended to regulate Sunday activities back when most people went to church and observed Sunday as a day of rest.  To this day, some of those laws are still in the books, though considered obsolete. And most seem irrelevant as to which day of the week it pertains to. Generally, these laws governed family activities, spending, and public behavior.

I could only find a bear in the tub. I’m not tech-y enough to swap the bear for a donkey. Courtesy of Visual Hunt

A few examples of American Blue Laws:

  • Donkeys are not allowed to sleep in bathtubs. (Brooklyn, NY)
  • Throwing a snake at anyone is illegal. (Toledo, Ohio)
  • Sleeping in a cheese factory is illegal. (South Dakota)

In my middle school and high school fiction writing classes, I use Blue Laws as a springboard for writing. I ask students to pick from a list of about 20 laws and ask, “What event occurred in this town that instigated the making of this law?”

I put the assignment into the domain of tall tales—like Paul Bunyan or Pecos Bill—so kids could go beyond the realm of possibility.

This gets the creative gears going. Here’s a student sample of a story inspired by the law: “Throwing a snake at anyone is illegal.” The author adopts a townsman’s country dialect to tell the tale.

Why Throwing a Snake at Anyone is Illegal, by KG

In Toledo, where I growed up, there’s a passel o’ strange laws. But one of those laws was my fault. You see, back in the good ole days, I was a roper. Saw one on TV once, he done tied up seven cows in a minute and a half. Picked me up a rope that day, and I’ve never put it down since. 

Well, the next week I saw a snake show on the screen whilst I was a-gettin’ my whiskers shaved off. That biologist feller had me sold on snakes in three shakes of a lamb’s tail. Course, the next day I had to find me a snake, too. You can’t let people with fancy degrees have all the fun in life, now, can you?

I hadn’t had that snake a month afore I’d learned him to do all sorts o’ fancy tricks: slither up my arm, lay around my neck, but most o’ all to not bite people. I figgered it out that this snake was pretty durn intelligent, and it wouldn’t do to give him a regular name, like Sam. So I named that snake Zedekeniah, which is the most original that I ever heard.

After awhile, Zedekeniah and I were ready to learn some new tricks. It had occurred to me that it might be possible to rope with him, although I had never tried it. All the townfolk knew and liked Zedekeniah, because he wouldn’t bite anything that wasn’t in his dish.

However, I had taught him to bare his teeth on command. Unfortunately, I had to give him a different command for him to stop.

Well, one bright and glorious Saterday mornin’, I took Zedekeniah out’n the yard to try snake ropin’. Afore I knowed it, half the town was watchin’ us. So I give Zedekeniah the signal to bare his teeth and slither up my arm. He does. Well, just as he gets to my fingertips, I grabbed his tail and began ropin’, rope tricks like you’ll never see anywhere else.

Unfortunately, just as I was finishin’ my first swing ‘round my head, Zedekeniah slipped from my grasp, fangs still bared. Fortunately for Mrs. Demperpill, Zedekeniah ain’t poisonous. Now I know where the sayin’ “slippery as the devil” comes from. I also know why it’s illegal to throw snakes. If Zedekeniah had been poisonous, Mrs. Demperpill would be worm food right about now.

The next week, the mayor posted a new law: “Throwing a snake at anyone is illegal.”


If you put your mind to it, you could come with a whole different scenario as to why people aren’t allowed to throw snakes at other folks.

Courtesy of Visual Hunt

Sometimes it just takes a few questions to prime the pump. For example, regarding donkeys not being allowed to sleep in bathtubs, this situation must have actually happened and caused a heap of trouble, or else why make such a law?

  • Did somebody lead the donkey inside to the tub?
  • Did the donkey get into the house and find the tub himself?
  • Was someone giving the donkey a bath in the tub?
  • Did the donkey keep people awake at night?
  • Did the donkey keep water from draining and thus flood the room or the house?

Or consider the law “Sleeping in a cheese factory is illegal” (South Dakota).

  • Who slept in the cheese factory and why?
  • What was that guy responsible for?
  • What happened when he fell asleep?
  • How long did he sleep?
  • Did cheese end up all over the factory?
  • Did the guy get covered in cheese?
  • What kind of damages occurred?
  • Did somebody steal the cheese?

My challenge to you

While you’re sitting around the supper table with your family tonight, brainstorm about one or more of these laws to see what you come up with. Or go a step further and write your story down. 

  • Donkeys are not allowed to sleep in bathtubs. (Brooklyn, NY)
  • Throwing a snake at anyone is illegal. (Toledo, Ohio)
  • Sleeping in a cheese factory is illegal. (South Dakota)

I’ll return with more American Blue Laws later!

So what’s the story? How do you think these laws came into being? (Creative fancies only, no facts allowed.)

Please add your comments below. I’d love to hear from you!

Ever musing,


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13 thoughts on “American Blue Laws #1: Donkeys are not allowed to sleep in bathtubs

  1. What a great topic for creative writing! I love it!
    And your student handled the topic with humor and imagination and just the right
    amount of “tall tale speak.”
    Thanks for the fun idea! My little ones are maybe a few years away from this,
    but hopefully I can store it away and remember to pull it out when they are ready.

    1. As a teacher, it’s so much fun to see what students will come up with, isn’t it? They always take things a different direction than I would, which makes it all the more enjoyable.

  2. Blue laws are a hoot! Thanks for the smiles, Laura. And I’m sharing the “Your Only Goal Is to Arrive” article. So. Good. Thank you!

    1. You’re welcome. I’m glad you’re sharing the Paul Ollinger article. That’s worth a smile and some relief–for any reader!

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