Vintage Las Vegas: From Humble City To Desert Metropolis

Published January 4, 2015
Updated October 28, 2019

Before towering hotels and brightly lit casinos covered the strip, vintage Las Vegas was a humble gambling town in the middle of the desert.

In 1900, only 22 people lived in Las Vegas. In fact, it wasn’t until 1930 when President Herbert Hoover–in the midst of the Great Depression–commissioned the Boulder Dam (renamed the Hoover Dam), that people began flooding to the city. Though a small but dedicated gambling community had existed for years, the Nevada state legislature only legalized local gambling in 1931.

After the law was passed, casinos and hotels began popping up along Fremont Street, marking the birth of today’s beloved Strip.

These days more than 39 million people visit Las Vegas each year. Check out these vintage Las Vegas pictures to see the modest gambling city take shape over the past 80 years, eventually forming the desert metropolis it is today.

First Las Vegas Gaming License
In 1931, the first Nevada Gaming License was issued to Mayme Stocker and J.H. Morgan. They opened the Northern Club five years later. Source: Las Vegas Sun

Las Vegas In The 1930s
An aerial view of the Las Vegas’s iconic Fremont Street, sometime around the 1930s. Source: Vintage Las Vegas

Vintage Las Vegas 1930s
Fremont Street in the early 1930s. Many of Las Vegas's first establishments were located on this street, including Eldorado Club, Golden Gate Hotel and the Pioneer Club. Source: Vintage Everyday

Vintage Las Vegas Female Gamblers
Women at one of the casinos off Fremont Street in the early 1940s. Source: Vintage Las Vegas

1940 Las Vegas at Night
Even in 1940, Las Vegas was a spectacular evening attraction. Source: UNLV

Vintage Last Frontier
In 1944, the Hotel Last Frontier embodied an old western theme. Eventually the hotel reopened as the New Frontier Hotel, transforming from an old-west theme to a space-age theme. Source: Vintage Las Vegas

Faro Gamblers
A gambler and Faro dealer in 1940. The man standing up was the game’s “lookout,” a person who was charged with making sure that players didn’t cheat. Source: Offbeat Oregon

Vintage Sands Hotel Casino
Sands Hotel and Casino (seen here in the 1950s) was the seventh resort to open on the Las Vegas strip. Source: Vintage Las Vegas

Frontier Club 1940
The Frontier Club at night in the 1940s. Source: Vintage Everyday

Showgirls in Las Vegas
Vegas showgirls pose for a picture circa 1953. Source: Maudelynn's Menagerie

Vintage Las Vegas Thunderbird Hotel
The entrance to the Thunderbird Hotel in the 1950s. The Thunderbird Hotel was the only resort that contained a bowling alley. It was also the first to feature a porte-cochere. Source: UNLV

Vintage Las Vegas Postcard
This vintage Las Vegas postcard (postmarked in 1958) depicts Fremont Street at night. Source: Postcard Roundup

Las Vegas Horse Races
For a few years, horse race results were listed on boards, allowing gamblers to bet on the races at any time. Source: SFGate

Vintage Golden Nugget Casino
The Golden Nugget in 1960. Originally built in 1946, it is one of the oldest casinos in Las Vegas. Source: Gorillas Don't Blog

Gambling in Vegas 1960
Patrons at a Las Vegas casino in 1960. Source: iBytes

Jackie Gaughan Vintage Las Vegas
Jackie Gughan, posing here in front of El Cortez Hotel and Casino, was considered one of the fathers of Las Vegas. He had stake in about a quarter of downtown Las Vegas, and owned multiple casinos and hotels. Source: LA Times

Vintage Las Vegas Billboard
A billboard advertising Jerry’s Nugget in the 1960s. Source: Vintage Las Vegas

Vintage Las Vegas Aerial View
An aerial view of the Las Vegas strip in 1964. Source: Vintage Las Vegas

Las Vegas 1964
Visitors walk through the Las Vegas strip in 1964. Source: Vintage Las Vegas

Jane Fonda Las Vegas Wedding
In 1965, Jane Fonda married Roger Vadim at the Dunes. Source: Las Vegas 360

Vegas Blackjack Dealers
Women in sheer tops work as blackjack dealers in 1966. Source: iBytes

Las Vegas Wedding 1970
In 1970, couples could get married at The Little Chapel of the Flowers for just $15. Source: SFGate

MGM Before the Fire
The old MGM building in the 1970s, before the fire that claimed 85 lives in November of 1980. Source: Vintage Las Vegas

Modern-Day Las Vegas
Las Vegas in 2014. Source: Samsung

In 1950, most hotels and casinos were located on Fremont Street. See the street in action in A Last Frontier: Las Vegas, 1950:

Growth in Las Vegas in the 1960s was unmatched. Check out this brief history of the decade:

Kiri Picone
Kiri Picone holds a B.A. in English and creative writing from Pepperdine University and has been writing for various digital publishers for more than 10 years.
Savannah Cox
Savannah Cox holds a Master's in International Affairs from The New School as well as a PhD from the University of California, Berkeley, and now serves as an Assistant Professor at the University of Sheffield. Her work as a writer has also appeared on DNAinfo.