For a long time now, my youngest son has operated a research laboratory in Singapore. Moving there from America was quite the culture shock, but he was clearly impressed with how clean everything was, a result of many laws that we in the US would consider overbearing. He remains very respectful of the culture there and wouldn’t joke about some of their laws, including one reinforced by signs in and near elevators: No Urinating in Lifts. For me, it instantly begs the question: was this common enough to merit a statute?
But before we scoff at the rules in other countries, consider a few of our own from right here in the Adirondacks. A foray into my vault of odd items culled from the pages of old regional newspapers yields a few similar gems.
This first one was merely a case of lawmakers not keeping pace with technology. In 1900, when horses were increasingly sharing the roads of New York with cars, this law remained on the books: “Any person who drives or leads along a public highway a wild and dangerous animal, or a vehicle or engine propelled by steam … a person of mature age shall precede such animal, vehicle, or engine by at least one-eighth of a mile, carrying a red light if in the night time, or a red flag if in the day time….” The intent was to warn the public of what was coming down the road, and not doing so was a misdemeanor, “punishable by a fine of not more than $500, a term of not more than one year’s imprisonment, or both.”
Like Singapore in modern times, Tupper Lake in 1906 (according to the Potsdam Courier) outlawed spitting on “any sidewalk or in any street, or upon any doorstep, bulkhead, or stairway adjacent to the sidewalk, or in any public place or places, or in any public stage, railroad car, ferry boat, or other public conveyance within the village, under a penalty of five dollars for each offense. The offense is also made disorderly conduct, and any person violating the ordinance is made a disorderly person.”
Four years later, as was written in the Watertown Daily Times, the city’s board of health said there should be “a section of the charter or an ordinance prohibiting spitting on the sidewalks,” because in places, they were being used by loiterers as “large cuspidors.” The city clerk noted that such an ordinance was already in place, so the police department was asked to begin enforcing the law.
In 1918, the Adirondack Record reported on a Saranac Lake ordinance said to be “the first of its kind in the United States,” making anyone who coughed or sneezed without covering their nose and mouth subject to a $10 fine. While Tupper Lake and Watertown were concerned about cleanliness (tobacco spit) and healthfulness, Saranac Lake’s law specifically targeted health, noting that colds, flu, whooping cough, tuberculosis, and other diseases were spread through the discharge of germs into the open air.
The last law here, from 1957 (in the Plattsburgh Press-Republican), addressed my current locale. The air force had launched a large base on Plattsburgh’s southern outskirts, and Commander George Von Arb was apparently covering all his bases (pun intended) by precluding any interference with the flight line. He formally requested that the Schuyler Falls Town Board adopt a law preventing the construction of any buildings over 150 feet in height.
Schuyler Falls, at some points less than two miles from the airport runway, was and is mostly rural. The tallest structures were farm silos of perhaps two to three stories in height. How ridiculous did the request sound? It’s doubtful that, back in the 1950s, there were any buildings approaching 15 stories tall between the Albany region and Montreal. Acceding to the commander’s suggestion would have required creating a zoning and appeals board, so the proposal was tabled — but it was a polite way of saying, “You’ve got to be kidding!” Said the town supervisor, “I am of the opinion that there isn’t much chance of anyone building any skyscrapers around the air base.”
Photos: Sign in Singapore (image NOT provided by my son); headlines from the Watertown Daily Times (1910) and Plattsburgh Press-Republican (1957).
A version of this article first appeared in the Adirondack Almanack.