Appearance-ism in Chicago: the Anti-Ugliness Ordinance

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Dear Cecil: A while back this item appeared in Playboy’s “After Hours” column: “Better check the mirror before venturing out in Chicago, because, according to a city Ugliness Ordinance, “No 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 public ways or other public places in this city, shall therein or thereon expose himself to public view, under a penalty of not less than one dollar nor more than $50 for each offense.’ Is this for real, and what’s it all about? Josh B., Chicago

Cecil replies:

It’s no joke. The ordinance (it’s since been repealed) dates back to 1881. Originally certain extenuating circumstances were provided for: “On the conviction of any person for a violation of this section, if it shall seem proper and just, the fine provided for may be suspended, and such person detained at the police station, where he shall be well cared for, until he can be committed to the county poor house.” The enlightenment of the twentieth century (which, according to some historians, reached Chicago circa 1930) led to the deletion of this clause.

The alleged purpose of the statute was not, as you might think, to rid the public ways of unsavory characters, but to protect the pitiful creatures from being exploited for profit —in other words, not to punish the deformed, but to protect them. Perfectly clear? An earlier ordinance had given the City Council the power to “regulate, license, suppress, and prohibit…exhibitions of natural or artificial curiosities,” but apparently that legislation was too much to the point to be useful.

Cecil Adams

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