Whoever said law books are boring clearly hasn’t read many city and town ordinances from the 1800s or early 1900s. Local governments are closest to the people, so naturally the laws they create often regulate the most mundane, common behavior. You can learn a lot about a community and the challenges it faced in a particular time period by studying its local ordinances. In doing the reading, however, you’re likely to find a few that give you a chuckle. Here are a few gems from cities and towns around Florida:
A War Against the Half-Baked
An ordinance passed in St. Augustine in 1878 required bakers to bake their bread into loaves of uniform weight – either 8, 16, or 32 ounces. The city inspector was supposed to inspect the bread from each bakery daily, and any baker whose bread was underweight would forfeit all such bread to the city’s poor population. Ocala had a similar law in place as of 1894. No doubt the law was put into place to enforce truth in advertising about how much bread you were actually receiving when you purchased a loaf for your family.
Pay Up, Rover!
They say the only sure things in life are death and paying taxes. In some Florida communities, this was once even true for dogs! Jacksonville charged a tax on dog ownership as of 1859, Tallahassee as of 1884, and Pensacola as of 1873. The tax was never more than a few dollars, but that could really add up in the 19th century.
Oh Go Fly a Kite! (Just Not Over There)
As of 1859, Jacksonville had an ordinance on the books prohibiting anyone from flying a kite between Duval and Bay streets, or near any public wharf. Given the vintage of this law, perhaps the town council was concerned about the welfare of sailors in the nearby harbor who might be stricken or at least distracted by flying kites. At any rate, this ordinance gave the Town Marshal the authority to destroy any kite violating the law.
Save the Squirrels!
As of 1884, it was illegal for anyone to use a slingshot within the City of Tallahassee. No doubt these were popular toys for youngsters and maybe even a few adults at the time. We can just imagine a huge collective sigh of relief from all the local squirrels, birds, and window panes when this law was passed.
Do You Have a License?
Business licensing has long been a way for local communities to keep track of who is doing business in town, and regulate their activities. The kinds of businesses being licensed tend to change with the times, so you can imagine there are a number of 19th century businesses we’d be amused to see on a license fee schedule. Here are some of our favorites from the 1907 municipal ordinances of Quincy, Florida:
Annual License Fees
– Lightning rod salesmen, $10.00
– Manager of a merry-go-round, $12.50
– Professional hypnotist, $25.00
You may be surprised to learn that the city council of Tallahassee felt the need sometime in the 1880s to pass a law prohibiting wooden chimneys. Seems awfully self-evident that it would be a bad idea to construct a chimney out of flammable material, right? On the contrary – many chimneys in early Florida homes (especially in the rural areas) used what was called a “stick and dirt” construction. Straight sticks laid in log cabin style made up the frame of the chimney, and then the entire structure was plastered inside and out with clay. This method worked, but for obvious reasons stick and dirt chimneys were more liable to eventually catch fire than chimneys built from stone or brick.
These are just a few of the remarkable local ordinances passed in Florida towns and cities over the years. Visit your local library to find historic codes of ordinances from your Florida community, or visit the State Library of Florida to find a selection of local laws from across the state!