In 1900, the population of Las Vegas was 22 people. Today, more than 39 million people visit the gambling center of America. All of this was thanks to the building of the Hoover Dam, which opened the floodgates of workers and visitors to the desert. In 1931, Nevada also made the pivotal decision to legalize gambling.
What happened over the next forty years was an explosion of casinos and culture that turned Las Vegas from a sleepy frontier town into Sin City. Read on and learn how Vegas went from a desert village to a resort city in just thirty years, and check out some incredible vintage photos from Las Vegas’s early days.
Gambling Was Outlawed For Years But People Still Did It
The city of Las Vegas was founded in 1905 as a frontier town and was simply a halfway point between Salt Lake City and Los Angeles. At the time, the city followed the Nevada state laws that said betting and gambling was criminal, but there was still a strong underground gambling movement.
It wasn’t until 1931 when the state made gambling legal that business began booming. Despite the rest of the country being engulfed by the Great Depression, Las Vegas boomed thanks to the construction of the Hoover Dam.
The Golden Nugget Is One Of The Oldest Casinos
This photo, taken in 1953, shows one of the oldest and iconic casinos in Las Vegas. The Golden Nugget was built in 1946 along Fremont Street. The casino was meant to pay homage to the gold rush that had made the area profitable years beforehand.
Today, the Golden Nugget is still the largest casino in the downtown Las Vegas area. It’s been a fixture in films, television, and video games. It is even home to the largest gold nugget in the world.
Water Shortages Plagued The Early Years
It’s important to remember that Las Vegas is an oasis within a desert. By 1948, so much rapid construction left the city crumbling without water. There were reports of faucets running dry at the Las Vegas Hospitals while tourists partied in pools only a few blocks away.
It wasn’t until the federal government got involved that Las Vegas was able to build enough infrastructure to help accommodate all the partiers coming to the up and coming gambling paradise.
Hotels Came First
Here, showgirls are shown going for a swim in the El Rancho Vegas hotel and casino. It was the first resort-style hotel on the Strip. El Rancho opened in 1941 with only 63 rooms. Still, it was the place to be for any celebrities and showgirls staying in Vegas for almost 20 years.
The El Rancho Vegas was so successful that another resort-style hotel was opened in Las Vegas within a year. The only problem was that the new booming business brought in some shady people.
Mob Bosses Wanted A Piece Of Vegas
The success of resort-style hotels masquerading with legal gambling brought a lot of shady investors to Las Vegas, including notorious mob bosses. New York City gangster Bugsy Siegel was the most infamous of them all. Siegel and his crime friends pumped more than $3 million into the Flamingo hotel and essentially kicked off the mob era of Las Vegas.
Soon, Las Vegas was overrun by the mafia and crime. The hotels may have seemed glamorous but many guests staying at the Tropicana shown here probably had no idea the daily winnings were skimmed by the owner for decades.
The Strip Wasn’t Always All That
It might be the brightest place now, but it felt like a desert in the 1950s. This photo from 1958 shows the Strip long before any of the major hotels and casinos that we know today were ever buil. In the early years, it was seen as a seedy place outside of Las Vegas where you could go to pick up a woman for the night.
After the hotels like the Dunes and the Flamingo went under new, more legitimate ownership, the Strip started attracting better tenants.
Fremont Street Isn’t The Strip
Most of the original casinos in Las Vegas like the Golden Nugget seen here were built on Fremont Street. Fremont Street was the original area in Vegas, but it technically isn’t the “Strip.” The Las Vegas Strip is a stretch of Las Vegas Boulevard that held many hotels run by mob bosses like El Rancho and the Flamingo.
Many of the mob bosses chose to build on the Strip and not Fremont Street because, at the time, the strip was technically outside of Las Vegas city limits and was more flexible for doing crime.
Late-Night Entertainment Went Hand-In-Hand With Gambling
It was the El Rancho hotel that was the first to bring late-night entertainment to Las Vegas. Still, it wasn’t until 1952 that showgirls became a permanent fixture in the Las Vegas nightlife. The Vegas showgirls were initially meant to entertain guests in between, before, and after other headlining acts.
Eventually, they evolved to get their own shows. In 1957, the first topless showgirls’ performance was put on, which led to Las Vegas’ growing reputation as Sin City.
Elvis And Liberace Were Regular Fixtures
Today, Vegas is known as a place where performers can gain a residency. The concept of the residency actually began with Liberace in 1944 at the Las Vegas Riviera Hotel and Casino. After his 1944 debut, other performers like Frank Sinatra and Elvis Presley followed.
Las Vegas residencies went out of style until Celine Dion revived the concept in 2003. Since then, Elton John, Britney Spears, and even non-singing performers like David Copperfield have hel successful show tours.
Eloping To Vegas Has Always Been Around
The Little White Chapel is shown here in 1950, a nice reminder that shotgun weddings in Las Vegas aren’t just for Britney Spears. It’s estimated that close to 500 couples get hitched in Vegas every single day. That’s over 100,000 every year. That’s because, in Nevada, it’s notoriously easy to get a marriage license.
All you need is a short form, $75 cash, and a government-issued photo ID. With such ease and convenience, it’s no wonder that Las Vegas is called “The Marriage Capital Of The World.”
Hollywood Marriages Were A Dime A Dozen
Some of the most memorable and iconic celebrity marriages took place in Las Vegas. Here, Rita Hayworth and Dick Haymes cut their wedding cake only 24 hours after Haymes was granted a divorce.
Other unforgettable Vegas weddings included Mickey Rooney, Betty Grable, Zsa Zsa Gabor, Sammy Davis Jr., and of course, Elvis Presley. These weddings were planned and elaborate, unlike when Angelina Jolie wore blue jeans where she married Billy Bob Thorton in Vegas in 2000.
The Rat Pack Dominated The City
Members of the Rat Pack—Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Sammy Davis, Jr., Peter Lawford, and Joey Bishop—pose outside The Sands Hotel in 1962. The five were friends in real life and, while they performed regularly on their own in Vegas, gained popularity by appearing as surprise performers at each other’s shows.
Often times in Vegas, the marquees would read “Dean Martin, Maybe Frank, Maybe Sammy.” Their performances were the highlight of the Vegas vintage years.
A Tiger Is One Of The Main Acts
In a city like Las Vegas, just singing and dancing isn’t enough. That’s why actress Marilyn Maxwell had the grand idea to bring a 250-pound Tiger on stage to spice up her Vegas performance. The wild cat, affectionately known as “Tiger Lil,” was brought out on stage by Maxwell to the screams of audience members.
Thankfully, Tiger Lil had been fed 16 pounds of horsemeat before going on stage to prevent any unexpected and unwanted attacks.
Vegas Showgirls Promote The New Stardust Hotel
Four showgirls sit and pose on a rocket outside of the new Stardust Resort and Casino in 1958. The Stardust Hotel was envisioned by Anthony Cornero, another bootleg mob boss who wanted to get a piece of the Las Vegas pie.
He actually ran floating casinos in Nevada until he was shot and almost died. After recovering, he wanted to get into a “safer” business. Despite opening a “safer” business, Cornero died suspiciously in 1955 three years before his Stardust hotel would actually be built.
The Capital Of Nuclear Test Sites
Just as Las Vegas was starting to grow, the United States government was testing out nuclear bombs. The Nevada Test Site was only 65 miles north of Las Vegas. Scientists set off nuclear tests there from 1951 all the way up until 1992. Residents and tourists of Las Vegas could see mushroom clouds clearly from their windows.
Vegas used the nuclear tests to their advantage and used mushroom clouds in marketing. You might notice even the Flamingo sign is shaped to resemble a nuclear blast cloud.
Frank Sinatra Was A Regular Fixture At The Sands
Legendary singer Frank Sinatra is seen here singing at the Sands Hotel in Las Vegas. Sinatra almost exclusively performed at the Sands and became a regular fixture there whether he was performing or not. He would stay at the hotel and gamble during his breaks from Hollywood.
Sinatra was apparently notorious for never paying his gambling losses but keeping all his winnings. It should have been a problem for the mob bosses who owned the casino, but they let it slide because Sinatra was good for business.
Racial Policy In Casinos Changed Over Time
For most of the early days in Las Vegas, the guests in casinos and hotels looked like what you see here—entirely white. Las Vegas was heavily segregated and the only African Americans allowed in were either performers or labor workers.
The Moulin Rouge was the first integrated hotel and casino in not only Las Vegas but in all of the United States. The Sands was next after Rat Pack member Sammy Davis Jr. complained about the segregation.
What Happens In Vegas Didn’t Always Stay There
The iconic tagline “what happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas” actually wasn’t a phrase until the Las Vegas tourism department cooked it up in 2003. The marketing team wanted to pay tribute to the vintage days of Vegas where the city was related to freedom from regular society.
Today and in the vintage Vegas days, the city represented a place where you could wear, do, and feel different than in your normal, everyday life.
Blonde Hollywood Bombshells Flocked To Vegas
Jayne Mansfield was just one of many Hollywood stars who used Las Vegas as a personal and simultaneously high-profile getaway. It didn’t take long for the sex symbol to land a permanent performance position at one of the Vegas strip hotels. In 1958, The Tropicana hotel launched a striptease starring the blonde beauty.
Mansfield made over $200,000 a week while she put on the show and she’s largely credited with adding a modern, sexual aspect to the Sin City.
Bring In The Blondes
Despite Mansfield’s major success as a nightclub performer in Vegas, many singers and actresses began to see the city as a place where washed-up performers would retreat. New York and Hollywood were still the top-tier performance venues. Many of them, like Mamie Van Doren, seen here, only began their stints in Vegas after their careers slowed down.
The shift worked out well though. By the late 1960s, Van Doren’s film career was practically over, but she performed routinely in Vegas for nearly a decade.
Beatlesmania Hit Las Vegas Hard
Paul McCartney tries his luck here on a fruit slot machine in April 1964. When The Beatles touched down in America, it made complete sense for one of their first stops to be in Las Vegas. The band made waves on their 30-show tour of America because they refused to play in any venues that were segregated.
Thankfully, Las Vegas hotels had begun integrating more than a decade beforehand. Vegas was one of the few cities that were prepared to handle The Beatles.
Being A Vegas Showgirl Isn’t Easy
It wasn’t just good looks that turned you into one of Vegas’s top performers. Vegas showgirls were hired and protected by the mob, so they were a hot commodity on the Strip. A typical Vegas showgirl’s outfit could cost thousands of dollars.
Showgirls had to be at least 5-feet 8-inches and trained for years as a dancer. Their headpieces often weighted more than 25 pounds and their capes and outfits could be covered with more than 50 pounds of crystals.
Elvis Rose To Fame And Revived His Career In Vegas
Elvis Presley rose, fell, and returned to fame in Vegas. Some of Elvis’s first concerts and performances were in Las Vegas in the mid-1950s. Here, he’s pictured in front of a poster for his first ever Vegas performance. He was only 21 years old and critics hated the performance because it wasn’t glamorous enough.
He’d later go on to take the critics’ advice and don the iconic rhinestone-covered white jumpsuit that he wore during his final performances in Las Vegas.
The Strip Is The Brightest Place On Earth
In the 1950s, the glittering headdress of Esther Williams might have been the brightest thing in the room, but outside, Las Vegas was already turning into the brightest place on earth. From outer space, The Las Vegas Strip has officially been touted as the brightest place thanks to its 24/7 businesses and love of neon light.
Today, you can even go and visit the Neon Museum in Las Vegas, where all the vintage hotel and casino signs are held.
The End Of An Era
The 1970s proved to be a time of serious change for Las Vegas. The mob era fell away thanks to multiple FBI investigations into money laundering and casino scams. It was also a time where Las Vegas started turning into a more residential area than just a vacation paradise.
An “urban sprawl” of houses began cropping up all around the main Las Vegas strip and focus turned towards building schools, not casinos. The vintage Vegas era was ending and we wouldn’t see the emergence of the Vegas we know today until the ’90s.
Beware Of The Black Book
The Las Vegas Black Book was first brought into practice in 1960. Also known by its much more boring name of “The List of Excluded Persons,” the book names people who are officially banned from every casino and hotel in the city.
The book was created as a way to stop people with known ties to gambling felonies from corrupting Vegas, but it quickly turned into a rumor-filled book that could have possibly held the names of many Hollywood celebrities.
More Than Just Hotels And Casinos
It wasn’t long until Vegas turned into a bonafide resort town. Many people who didn’t want to get into the hotel or casino business could still make a living in entertainment and sports. The 1950s saw an explosion of golf courses around the Las Vegas areas for tourists to visit during the days.
Drag racing and scenic driving tours outside the city limits were also a popular form of entertainment before returning to the casino to take in a nighttime performance.
The Iconic Sign Was a Gift
The “Welcome To Las Vegas” sign is one of the most iconic city signs in all of America, second only to the Hollywood sign. The design was done by a woman named Betty Willis. She was born and raised in Nevada and worked drawing advertisements for a company called Western Neon.
She designed the sign but waved her copyright because she figured at the time, Las Vegas needed any publicity they could get. She called it her “gift to the city.”
The Folies Bergere Embodied Sin City
The American Folies Bergere, seen here getting ready backstage, was a show based on the original French Folies. The show was one of Las Vegas’s longest-running performances. The flashy outfits and stunning showgirls came to symbolize Vegas entertainment long before Frank Sinatra or Celine Dion.
In 1959, a Follie made only $108 for 15 shows a week at the Tropicana Hotel. By the end of the run, they were making more than $4,000 a week. More than 4 million people saw the show during its original Vegas run.
Not The Best Couples Getaway
Las Vegas has a strange and tired history when it comes to love. We know that it’s the marriage capital of the world, but unsurprisingly, that means it’s also the divorce capital. Despite the notorious reputation the city has, many couples have noted that it’s one of the most romantic cities in the world.
Actor Mickey Rooney is pictured here with his wife, Martha Vickers, but the couple only remained married for two years.