Gambling: The Making of Las Vegas

The tables turned when twentieth-century Californians began to direct their attention to Nevada after the Silver State legalized wide-open casino gambling in 1931.

Residents of the coastal state now had to travel beyond their own borders to partake fully of the kinds of gaming originally cultivated in California.

Las Vegas generated new fashions of betting just as Argonaut San Francisco had during the mid-nineteenth century.

The desert city marked the culmination of Californians' shaping of American gambling culture and demonstrated that Pacific Coast civilization, still being shaped by west-bound migrants, remained an innovative frontier.

By the mid-twentieth century, gambling was just one of many new cultural forms that California and the Far West transmitted to the rest of the country.

Paradoxically, though, this hallmark of a bold new West was first dressed up as a remnant of the old West of the nineteenth century.

No longer interested in imitating eastern styles, Far Westerners looked initially to their own immediate frontier past for clues about the proper packaging of casino gambling.

Few Americans ever made so much of the relationship between gambling and the westward migration as the people of Las Vegas, Nevada, in the middle third of the twentieth century.

In toiling to convert the old railroad town site into a thriving tourist resort, Las Vegans packaged the regional past and marketed it as a commodity essential to the promotion of their town to visitors.

And because the invocation of the last frontier implied defiance of the constraints of modern life, gambling naturally became a part of Las Vegas package after its legalization in 1931.

The activity of gaming at first played a secondary role in the formula for town growth, more or less equivalent to such local attractions as Hoover Dam, dude ranches, and court houses offering convenient divorce.

As gambling assumed an increasingly prominent place during the late 1930s and early 1940s, however, it heightened the community's identification with images of the old West.

In a downtown district designed to duplicate the past, all casino betting reaffirmed the city motto--- 'Las Vegas, Still a Frontier Town!'

The town's career as relic of yesteryear was limited. Even while Las Vegas posed as last frontiersmen during the early 1940s, the resort began to change in directions that foreshadowed the future rather than recalling the past.

New patterns of growth, which exposed the shortcomings of the last frontier theme, resulted primarily from the influx of Southern Californians beginning around 1940.

These newcomers imparted to Las Vegas an inhibited approach to betting that made southern Nevada an important outlet for novel series of life originating in the Los Angeles basin.

By heightening the presence of gambling, Californians liberated the town from the confines of railroad and old West and reclaimed it from the shadows of Hoover Dam.

By 1845, casino gambling had replaced the last frontier as the trademark of Las Vegas.