Prohibited from sitting in a canoe while reading comic books? Banned from using a feather duster to tickle a girl in a canoe?
These laws and more, which have been painstakingly researched by Tennessee historian Robert Pelton, are actual pieces of legislation that have been passed throughout the country over the past 200 years. And although most of them are archaic, many have legitimate safety reasons behind them.
“Nobody really knows how they came about,” says Pelton, whose recently published his first book, Loony Sex Laws. “Laws like these usually surfaced after someone did something the community didn’t like and there wasn’t a law for it. They’re old and unusual, but no one ever bothered to take them off the books.”
Pelton has been collecting funny laws about everything from sports to sex for 30 years by spending eight to 10 weeks a year traveling around the country and poking his nose into newspapers and courthouses. In so doing, he has unearthed some juicy pieces of paddling legislation. “If you ask around, almost everyone knows of a funny law,” he says. “Especially the old timers. But there’s no way you can verify them.”
Keeping this in mind, and perhaps keeping a few grains of salt handy, here are a few of the more ludicrous laws concerning canoeing. In Browns Mills, N.J., a law states, “Any person who shall wear in a canoe any device or thing attached to her head, hair, headgear or hat, which device or thing is capable of lacerating the flesh of any other person with whom it may come in contact and which is not sufficiently guarded against the possibility of so doing, shall be judged a disorderly person.” This might appear superfluous, but when you think about it, it makes sense. After all, who wants to go paddling with someone who has a chainsaw strapped to his head?
There’s also a strange one from Rogersville, Ala.: “No female wearing a nightgown can be found riding in a canoe, and women must be fully dressed before they can legally be taken for a ride.” Most likely, this was enacted to prevent hypothermia. Most nightgowns don’t wick water away from the body easily. As for why men weren’t covered in the legislation, it’s anyone’s guess. If you’re a male and have a yearning to paddle in nighties, Alabama’s your state.
While you’re making your rounds, however, steer clear of Desbiens, Quebec, on Sundays. Here it’s against the law for married men to canoe alone on Sunday. Even if you’re in your nightie. Married women can, but not men. This is a tough one to figure. Probably has to do with making sure men spend enough time with their families. Speaking of Sunday canoeing restrictions, no one, male or female, in Needles, B.C., is allowed to read the Sunday paper while sitting in a canoe while church services are in session. You can sit in a canoe, but you can’t read the paper. If you have time for both, you probably have time for church. On the same line, it’s against the law to read comic books in a canoe in Norwood, N.C. This one might have stemmed from someone going over a waterfall just as Batman was about to apprehend the joker.
If reading comic books puts you to sleep, think twice about doing so in Pine Falls, Manitoba. Here it’s perfectly legal for a person to “sleep in his canoe.” But no person is to be found asleep in a canoe “after the sun rises in the morning.” The sleuthing Pelton even dug up a canoeing law for tobacco chewers in Moran, Wyo. A law here prohibits a woman from chewing tobacco while canoeing without first having permission from her husband. Single ladies, apparently, can dip away to their heart’s content.
But even if they’re not chewing, don’t think about making advances on canoeing gals in Iowa. At least if they’re strangers Here a municipal code states: “It is unlawful for any male person, in a canoe or other vessel on the Des Moines River, within the corporate limits of the city of Ottumwa, to wink at any female person with whom he is unacquainted.” Legislators here were probably looking out for women who would be so taken aback at a stranger’ s wink that they might faint and topple the boat. You can wink at your wife or sister all you want. Chances are they won’t even think twice about it. Just don’t do it at strangers.
Other attention-getting tricks are also taboo. In Ambridge, Pa., it’s against the law to tickle a girl under her chin with a feather duster while she’s riding in your canoe. You can tickle girls with a feather duster in other canoes and you can tickle a girl with a feather duster on other parts of her body. You can even tickle her under the chin with something other than a feather duster. But feather dusters and chins are off limits. This one probably has something to do with not wanting to disrupt the paddler’s vision and concentration.
Speaking of disruption, according to an old Revised Ordinance in Putnam, Ill., “No person shall hallo, shout, bawl, scream, use profane language, dance, sing, whoop, quarrel, or make any unusual noise or sound while riding in a canoe or boat in such manner as to disturb the peace and quiet of others in the area. Other areas also crack down on disruptiveness. In Sterling, Idaho, you can be arrested for making “silly or insulting faces” at anyone cleaning or working on a canoe. By the same token, boisterous paddlers should also steer clear of Sanish, N.D., where laws prohibit “laughing out loud” while riding in a canoe.
There are also several laws concerning canoeing fashion. Men with mustaches should stay away from Crutwell, Saskatchewan, where a local law bans men with hair growing over their upper lip from canoeing with females. If you’re a female with a mustache you’re okay. But you probably won’t be able to find anyone to paddle with anyway. Women have their own fashion regulations. In Ballantine, S.C., every woman in a canoe must “be found to be wearing a corset.” In addition, a physician is required to inspect each female found in a canoe to make sure she is complying with this archaic law. There’s also a rule regulating the heel length of women’s shoes in a canoe in Edgemont, Ark. Heels can measure no longer than 1.5 inches high.
Prejudices aside, there’s also fashion laws affecting both sexes. In Lisco, Neb., it’s unlawful to operate a canoe on the North Platte River with untied shoelaces. In Clinton, Mo., it’s against the law to canoe while wearing a hat which “would scare a timid person.” And here’s a real fashion doozey. If you’re a woman weighing over 200 pounds who likes to wear shorts in a canoe, beware of paddling in Albany, Ga. It’s a strict violation of the law for a woman here over 200 pounds and attired in shorts to ride in a canoe. Finally a law that actually makes sense. And remember if you do wind up canoeing with a woman like this, no winking.
You also have to watch out for kissing. In Mobridge, S.D., is an ordinance against kissing in a canoe for “longer than three minutes.” As a further safety measure, canoe kissers are also required to “pause for breath” between smooches. You’ll fare no better with your 200-lb. mate in Biron, Wis., where a law prohibits kissing a woman in a canoe unless she’s “properly chaperoned.” If you can get your arm around her for a hug, don’t do so in Chepachet, R.I. An old law here says, “No man can place his arm around a woman without a good and lawful reason” while taking her for a ride in a canoe. Another law protects women in Burnsville, W.V. No married woman here is allowed to go canoeing on the Sabbath unless she “is properly looked after.” How? Her mate must always be close behind. And he’s also required to carry a loaded gun “over his left shoulder.”
So the next time you’re out canoeing in your nightie, trying to hold a three-minute kiss with a high-heeled, 200-lb., tobacco-chewing stranger, you might want to pause and think about what state you’re in first—both emotionally and physically.