When you think of the past, you probably think about how repressed American culture used to be. Corsets, strict etiquette, and implied, PG-Rated “romantic” scenes that NEVER showed full frontal nudity. Well, here’s a list of five things that used to be legal just to show you that even in a society where certain beloved characters get their heads graphically pulverized on basic cable, there are still limits.

Wearing Masks in Public

5 Illegal Things That Were Legal When You Were Born

Okay, so remember when the media got all clown-crazy in the Fall of 2016? Jerks in clown masks got kicks scaring kids and the nation sang with choruses of “there oughta be a law!” Actually, there are such laws. While there is no outright federal ban, various states limit the use of masks in public, with most such laws passed between the 1920’s and 1950’s to curtail KKK activity. More recent laws specifically targeted the hacktivist group “anonymous” by outlawing the wearing of Guy Fawkes masks.

Minimum Drinking Age

5 Illegal Things That Were Legal When You Were Born

The US federal minimum legal drinking changed to 21 over 30 years ago, but before 1986 the minimum drinking age varied from state to state. As laws changed, some people got caught right in the middle. This means that if you ask around, you might find someone who can remember legally drinking on a first date only to have to abstain from the champagne toast at their wedding (hey, my mom was one). The National Minimum Drinking Age Act of 1984 forced states to raise their minimum ages to 21 by 1986…or else they’d lose 10% of their highway funding.

Unrestrained Children in Cars

5 Illegal Things That Were Legal When You Were Born

Have you ever laughed at social media posts picturing children sliding across a seatbelt-less bench seat in the backseat of a Mad Men-Era “family vehicle”? Might seem like attempted murder now, but this stuff REALLY HAPPENED, and only horrifying accidents coupled with statistics compiled by Ralph Nader et al gave kids a fighting chance. Though advocates began pushing for car safety legislation by the mid-20th century, it was 1985 before child safety laws resembling current legislation were passed.

Smoking in Airplanes

5 Illegal Things That Were Legal When You Were Born

In order to offer broader appeal to a general readership (not just Tweens) only the ban on smoking in planes gets covered today. In 1988 the US went smoke-free on all domestic flights with a duration under two hours (in deference to the hardship of smokers having to wait too long to satisfy that Jones). By the end of the 1990’s, smoking was banned in all US flights.

Drinking and Driving

5 Illegal Things That Were Legal When You Were Born

In the early days of the automobile it was legal to drink and drive, though it didn’t take long before laws regarding the practice popped up state by state. New York made the first law aimed to keep inebriated motorists off the road in 1910 by banning “intoxicated” driving. Other states quickly followed with their own statutes.

Men Could Rape Their Wives

5 Illegal Things That Were Legal When You Were Born

Odds are that before you were born it was legal for a man to rape his wife. One early legal definition seemingly lifted straight out of Deuteronomy describes rape as “a man having carnal knowledge of a woman who was not his wife” implying that wives could not be raped by husbands. a later definition made consent a defining feature of the legality of the act, but still maintains the implication that forcing one’s wife to engage in sex is lawful. Current Federal guidelines employ a broad definition that replaces the word “rape” with “sexual assault” and removes gendered phrasing that excluded male victims of sexual assault while also allowing acts beyond vaginal penetration to fall within the definition.


5 Illegal Things That Were Legal When You Were Born

Perhaps you’ve heard of a German fellow by the name of Sigmund Freud. If not, blame your mother (rim-shot). Once regarded as a panacea by 19th-century physicians, cocaine was used to treat fatigue, body aches, asthma, even tuberculosis. Freud famously prescribed it to an addict friend, with horrifying results. Coca-Cola included cocaine in its original recipe, touting Coke it as a refreshing “tonic” that gave people an invigorating effervescence. In 1903, Coca- Cola removed the ingredient due to public outcry, but cocaine use still grew, fueled by its popularity among social elites. Increased reports of cocaine deleterious effects on health prompted the The Harrison Tax Act of 1914, which used taxes and required registration to confine cocaine and opium use to legitimate medical settings.

Well, there you go, you little rascals! Be grateful (or not?) that you were born in a time resplendent with child safety seats, smoke-free plane rides, and a broad, evolving definition of rape; a nation where we care about that swerving car, and where we no longer try to solve opiate additions with cocaine! Now, scuttle off, before we think up some new laws.


Department of Transportation

C/P/R lawyers

Center for Disease Control and Prevention

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