By Kevin Binversie
Every state has them — laws on the books so ridiculous you cannot help but laugh out loud when you hear about them.
Once upon a time, these laws came about through lobbying efforts of a special-interest group. Some dealt with how now-antiquated technologies, a perceived threat to a state industry, would hamper Wisconsin business. As time went by, the need for each law abated and enforcement of it went to the wayside, landing in the realm of the ridiculous while remaining on the books.
Most famous of these in Wisconsin is State Statute 98.17, “Oleomargarine regulations," which date back to 1895.
Not only does the law explain what the popular butter alternative is, but it explains how it can be sold and how it must be served in a public facility or restaurant. Only butter can be served at state prisons, hospitals and schools, because margarine is banned. For restaurants, margarine may be served, but only after a patron asks for it. Butter, however, must be present on the table for diners.
At one time, the state even made the sale of “Colored Oleomargarine” illegal, meaning thousands of Wisconsin residents became felons, as they organized “Oleo Runs” to neighboring states to stock up on margarine. Margarine was decriminalized in 1967.
Brookfield Republican Rep. Dale Kooyenga wants to see the rest of the margarine rules repealed, calling them “silly, antiquated and anti-free market.” To do this, he has introduced a bill that has attracted 11 co-sponsors, but its chances are slim of becoming reality because of powerful agriculture groups.
Kooyenga definitely is on to something when calling for removing laws of the odd and strange, but he might be thinking too small. A quick perusing of the Wisconsin statues finds other similarly out-of-date laws on the books.
Here are some examples:
State Statute 175.09 (3) — Any owner of a business operating his hours of business not on Central Time can be fined $25 to $500 and jailed between 10 to 30 days. (Enacted in 1931.)
Yes, because it makes so much sense for a business in Wisconsin to operate on say… Alaskan Standard Time.
State Statute 303.22 — No prisoner incarcerated in a state facility can be compelled to work on a Sunday or legal holiday with the exception of “necessary household work” or “work necessary to maintain the management or discipline of the institution.” (Enacted in 1919.)
My condolences to the convicts who drew Sunday prison laundry duty.
State Statute 134.36 — It is illegal for any person employed by a telegraph or messaging company to divulge the contents of a message to anyone but the recipient of the message. It carries a fine of $500. (Enacted in 1854.)
This law practically duplicates itself in 134.37. (Enacted in 1854.)
State Statute 944.16 — Adultery: Class I Felony. (Enacted in 1849, one year after Wisconsin's statehood.)
You’re not just cheating on your spouse. You’re violating a state law that comes with a $10,000 fine and three and a half years of prison time.
State Statute 346.21 — Drivers of motor vehicles must give the right of way to any livestock being led across or over a road or highway. (Enacted in 1957.)
Don’t know about you, but I was going to give any roaming livestock the right of way all by myself. For some reason, I just don’t have the desire to turn the front end of my car into a makeshift butcher shop.
These out-of-date laws show us many things about the nature of politics. The first is the lengths to which some have gone to ensure compliance with some rule or regulation. The second is apparently, you can indeed try to regulate common sense and morality. How successful it is, is another question. Finally, it shows us technology is the mother’s milk of legislative hijinks. It is regulated to death when it first hits the market, forgotten about when it becomes obsolete.
How else does it explain how it is still illegal to set up camp in your wagon on a public highway? That one's from 1903.
Kevin Binversie is a Wisconsin native who has been blogging on the state’s political culture for more than eight years. He has served in the George W. Bush administration from 2007-2009, worked at the Heritage Foundation and has worked on numerous Wisconsin Republican campaigns in various capacities, most recently as research director for Ron Johnson for Senate. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.