Ugly law

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Ugly Laws of Eritrea

Ugly Laws of Germany

Ugly Laws of North Korea

Ugly Laws of the United States

From the early 1880s until the 1970s, American cities had unsightly beggar ordinances known colloquially as ugly laws.[1] These laws deemed it illegal for "any person, who is diseased, maimed, mutilated or deformed in any way, so as to be an unsightly or disgusting object, to expose himself to public view."[1]


Ugly laws arose in the late nineteenth century in the United States. During this period, urban spaces underwent an influx of new residents, which placed strain on the existing communities. The new residents were sometimes impoverished. This meant large numbers of people who were strangers to each other now occupied closer quarters than they had in small towns, where such local institutions as schools, families, and churches helped moderate social relations.[2][3] As a reaction to this influx of people who were impoverished, ministers, charitable organizers, city planners, and city officials across the United States worked to create ugly laws for their community.[1]

The first ordinance pertaining to preventing people with disabilities from appearing in public was one passed in 1867 in San Francisco, California.[4] This ordinance had to do with the broader topic of begging.[4] New Orleans, Louisiana had a similar law police were strictly enforcing in 1883.[4] A New Orleans newspaper reported on the City adopting a tough stance on begging as other cities in the United States had.[4]

The Chicago ordinance of 1881 read as follows:

Any person who is diseased, maimed, mutilated, or in any way deformed, so as to be an unsightly or disgusting object, or an improper person to be allowed in or on the streets, highways, thoroughfares, or public places in the city, shall not therein or thereon expose himself to public view, under the penalty of a fine of $1 for each offense (Chicago City Code 1881)[4]

The fine of $1 equates to more than $20 in 2018. In most cities, punishments for violating an ugly law ranged from incarceration to fines of up to $50 for each offense.

In May 1881, the unsightly beggar ordinance went into effect in Chicago, Illinois. It was created by Chicago alderman James Peevey.[4] Peevey is quoted in the Chicago Tribune from May 19, 1881 saying of the ordinance, "Its object is to abolish all street obstructions."[4] Ugly laws identified groups of people as disturbing the flow of public life and banned them from public spaces. Such people, deemed "unsightly" or "unseemly," were usually impoverished and often beggars. Thus ugly laws were methods by which lawmakers attempted to remove the poor from sight.[4]

Laws similar to the one in Chicago followed in Denver, Colorado and Lincoln, Nebraska in 1889. Additionally, ugly laws were sparked by Panic of 1893.[4] These included Columbus, Ohio in 1894, and in 1891 for the entire state of Pennsylvania. An attempt was made at introducing ugly laws in New York, but it failed in 1895. Reno, Nevada instituted an ordinance before 1905.[4] Los Angeles, California attempted to pass an ordinance in 1913.

Historically, ugly laws can be found under the headings of unsightly beggar law or unsightly beggar ordinance.[1]

Americans with Disabilities Act

The recantation of ugly laws preceded the passing of the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 where certain rights were granted to people with disabilities:

Individuals with disabilities are a discrete and insular minority who have been faced with restrictions and limitations, subjected to a history of purposeful unequal treatment, and relegated to a position of political powerlessness in our society, based on characteristics that are beyond the control of such individuals and resulting from stereotypic assumptions not truly indicative of the individual ability of such individuals to participate in, and contribute to, society.[5]


Historian Brad Byrom noted ugly laws have been unevenly and rarely enforced.[1] The first recorded arrest pertaining to ugly laws was Martin Oates in San Francisco, California in July 1867.[4] Oates was a former Union soldier during the American Civil War.[4] The last recorded arrest related to an ugly law was in 1974.[1]


Many ugly laws were not repealed until the mid-1970s.[6] Omaha, Nebraska repealed its ugly law in 1967, yet had an arrest of a person for violating the unsightly beggar ordinance documented in 1974.[1] Columbus, Ohio withdrew its in 1972. Chicago was the last to repeal its ugly law in 1974.[7]


These ugly laws prevented people with physical disabilities from going out in public at all.[4]

In 1975, Marcia Pearce Burgdorf and Robert Burgdorf, Jr. wrote about the unsightly beggar ordinances in their newspaper article, "A History of Unequal Treatment: The Qualifications of Handicapped Persons as a 'Suspect Class' under the Equal Protection Clause".[1][6] In this article, the term "ugly laws" was created. It was an act of advocacy.

See also


  1. ^ a b c d e f g h Albrecht, general ed. Gary L. (2006). Encyclopedia of disability. Thousand Oaks [u.a.]: SAGE Publ. pp. 1575–1576. ISBN 9780761925651. 
  2. ^ Ryan, Mary (1992). Women in Public: Between Banners and Ballots 1825-1880. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press. 
  3. ^ Duis, Perry (Spring 1983). "Whose City? Public and Private Spaces in Nineteenth-Century Chicago". Chicago History: The Manual of the Chicago Historical Society. 
  4. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m Schweik, Susan M. (2009). The ugly laws : disability in public ([Online-Ausg.]. ed.). New York: New York University Press. ISBN 9780814740576. 
  5. ^ Fredman, Sandra (2011). Discrimination Law (2nd ed.). Oxford: Oxford University Press. p. 96. ISBN 0199584427. 
  6. ^ a b Marcia Pearce Burgdorf and Robert Burgdorf, Jr., “A History of Unequal Treatment: The Qualifications of Handicapped Persons as a Suspect Class Under the Equal Protection Clause,” Santa Clara Lawyer 15:4 (1975) 855-910.
  7. ^ "Disability History: Timeline". 1939-07-04. Retrieved 2015-02-13. 
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