POCATELLO — If you ever look up crazy, silly, or just plain odd laws in Idaho — the Pocatello Smile Ordinance always seems to make the list.
Many “Crazy Idaho Laws” lists claim Pocatello has a law on the books that makes it illegal to frown or be gloomy — under threat of arrest.
At first glance it sounds like fake news, but it’s partially true.
The winter of 1947 to 1948 was particularly bad in southeast Idaho (although little did residents know, it wouldn’t even compare with 1949’s Unforgettable Winter). It was very cold, and there was snow everywhere.
Pocatello’s then-mayor George Phillips came up with the idea, according to former Pocatello Mayor Dick Finlayson, who was interviewed by United Press International in 1987.
“Phillips had told Finlayson the city had just endured one of its worst winters ever, snow piled to the top of the stop signs, with frowns, scowls and grimaces being the predominant expressions all winter long,” according to the United Press International.
“So in the spring Phillips said, ‘We had such a bad winter, let’s pass this law,’ “ Finlayson told the news service.
Another story says that council members went along with the proposed law because they went down to the bank for a loan and the bankers scowled at them. “So they said, ‘let’s pass this law and make it illegal,’” Finlayson said.
Whatever the case, in August 1948, the mayor and City Council did create a local law outlawing frowning. Here’s the ordinance’s summary:
“An ordinance prohibiting frowns, grimaces, scowls, threatening and lowering looks, gloomy and depressed facial appearances, generally all of which reflect unfavorably upon the reputation of Pocatello, ‘The Friendly City’; declaring the period of August 9 to 14, 1948, to be known as ‘This Week Pocatello Smiles’; creating special mileage stations and authorizing special mileage policemen; describing punishment and provide a penalty for the violation of this ordinance and repealing all ordinances and part of ordinances in conflict with the ordinance.”
That’s right — according to this ordinance — you could be “arrested” for not turning your frown upside down.
Special mileage stations were to be created and special individuals were deputized to “make arrests for smile failures.”
Those arrested would be required to go to the nearest mileage station and give out a “sufficient number of smiles or broad grins as are commensurate with his or her offense.”
The ordinance was only enforceable for one week in 1948, and it was never officially added to the city code, Pocatello spokesman Logan McDougall said.
However, the ordinance was also never repealed, so although it is unenforceable now, it’s still on the books.
The law was essentially forgotten for several decades until an enterprising reporter discovered the ordinance and published a story in the Idaho State Journal in 1987.
The story was picked up by wire services, and Mayor Finlayson’s office was bombarded with questions after Money Magazine published an advertisement about it.
The ad was published by the American Bankers Association, which used it to emphasizing the theme of outdated laws in order to convince the United States Congress to modernize banking laws.
In response to an invitation from Pocatello’s mayor, representatives from the association visited Pocatello and declared the community the “U.S. Smile Capital,” according to the city website.
Pocatello received a great deal of national media attention for the “Smile Ordinance,” and in the spirit of fun, the event was perpetuated by making “Smile Days” an annual event, which it remains today.
“Join the fun and help us celebrate the universal language of a smile!” the city says on its website.
So next time you’re in the Gate City, remember not to frown.