A Law with Teeth

vintage photo of a smiling boy

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By RANDOLPH HOBLER

People complain about laws with no teeth—sentences that aren’t tough enough, fines that are too light, enforcement that is weak. But who can complain about Pocatello, Idaho’s Ordinance 1100? It definitely had teeth.

To be more specific, upper and lower incisors, cuspids, and bicuspids…but not molars. Promoted by the local chamber of commerce, it passed on August 5, 1948, by the city council and Mayor George Phillips. The ordinance declared it had been the practice of “too many citizens of Pocatello to scowl, grimace, frown, give out threatening looks and depressed facial appearances. These actions reflect unfavorably upon the reputation of Pocatello ‘the friendly city’ and are hereby declared illegal and will be replaced immediately with happy, beaming, smiling countenances.”

The ordinance went on to declare the week of August 9th to 14th, 1948 as “The Week Pocatello Smiles”. A flurry of smile-related promotional events was crammed into those seven days.

In the Idaho State Journal, Harrison’s jewelry store proudly advertised, “Every Week is Smile Week at Harrison’s.” Other advertisers chimed in. An ad for the Fargo-Wilson-Wells store’s shoe department featured a photo of clerk “Miss Irene Jensen,” smiling in a mirror, with the headline, “Our clerks are smiling.”

One person not smiling was 15-year-old LaNay Flint, who, on August 12th, swallowed an inch-long probe while her dentist was opening an abscess in her six-year molar. Miss Flint, whose first name clearly indicates she was of French extraction, was rushed to the hospital, where an X-ray revealed the instrument stuck in her large intestine. The doctors breezily declared it wouldn’t be necessary to remove it!

While leveraging the law for a business promotion was considered tongue-in-cheek, the smile idea did have the serious intent of promoting a friendly Pocatello.

From a branding standpoint, it was unique. No other U.S. cities used “smile” in their slogans, though many claimed to be “friendly,” and others flaunted highly competitive slogans. For example, Bishop, California, heralded itself as “The Mule Packer Capital of the World,” and Beaver, Oklahoma, boasted of being “The Cow Chip Capital of the World.”

Smiling Revival

After some years of smiling declining, momentum was revivified in Pocatello 39 years later, when the American Bankers Association dredged up ordinance 1100 as an example of old “Ludicrous Laws” in a 1987 advertising campaign. They wanted to lobby congress to modernize banking laws.

On December 9, 1987, ABA Executive Director James Lodge was whisked out to Pocatello for a 75-minute ceremony, featuring speeches by the likes of current mayor Richard Finlayson and ex-Mayor Phillips. Lodge was showered with gifts and made a member of the Pocatello Chiefs, dubbing him “Chief Loan and Grin.” He was then serenaded by the Pocatello High School Jazz Ensemble. The next day’s headline? “Pocatello Breaks Out in Grins.” A city-wide smile and elementary school poster contest followed the event. Among other winners, David Dance won the smile contest for first graders.

To embed this law in history, a large granite sign was constructed just off Exit 67 from Interstate 15 at South Fifth, reading, “Welcome ‘Smile Capital’ U.S.A. Pocatello, Idaho.” Each subsequent August, Smile Days were celebrated but sadly sputtered out by the early 2000s.

Exceptions to the Rules

There are two legal remedies for the flaws in this smile-diminishing law. First, keep in mind, exceptions are baked into most laws, for good reasons. What could possibly be exceptions to a requirement that everyone smile?

Well, what about funeral directors? What about obituary writers? Mug shots? Actors who have to play Lady McBeth, Willy Loman, or Martha in “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” Poker players? What about the victims of disasters like the August, 1959, 7.7 Richter-scale earthquake in Pocatello? Or the February, 1962 flood in Pocatello? What about stone-faced Native American Indian chiefs?

To set the record straight, the only time Chief Pocatello ever smiled was when he learned he’d be buried with 18 of his favorite horses.

Carrots and Sticks

Laws require carrots and sticks. For carrots? Laughing gas dispensers could be hung outside the dozen dentists’ offices in Pocatello. For sticks, how about facial recognition webcams all over Pocatello, to catch people frowning? Citizens would then pay fines commensurate with the seriousness of their frowns. The fees would fund future smile contests and events. And think of the boost to tourism beyond the 2,000 current visitors to Pocatello. A happy way to swell the city’s pride as well as its coffers. ISI

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