History of Casinos in America

The history of casinos in America is a fascinating journey that spans several centuries, involving a mix of cultural, legal, and economic developments.

From humble beginnings in the colonial era to the glitz and glamour of today’s casino resorts, the journey reflects the evolving nature of American society and its complex relationship with gambling. Here is a brief overview:

Colonial Era (1600s-1700s):

Gambling was ingrained in the fabric of early American colonies. Early colonial governments often used lotteries as a means of raising funds for public projects. For instance, lotteries were conducted to finance the construction of roads, bridges, and public buildings.

Despite the use of lotteries for public purposes, concerns about corruption and fraud led to occasional bans or restrictions on lottery activities in some colonies. The perception of lottery operators profiting unfairly or diverting funds for personal gain contributed to these restrictions.

In colonial society, private gaming and social gambling were common forms of entertainment. Colonists engaged in various games of chance, including card games, dice games, and rudimentary forms of betting.

Taverns served as social hubs in colonial America, and many of them facilitated gambling. Dice games, in particular, were common in these establishments.

In certain colonies, particularly those influenced by Puritan values, there was a strong opposition to gambling. Puritans viewed gambling as morally corrupt and inconsistent with their religious beliefs.

Laws were enacted in some Puritan settlements to prohibit or heavily regulate gambling activities. These laws reflected the broader efforts to maintain a morally upright society.

As the colonies evolved, so did attitudes toward gambling. The 18th century witnessed changes in social norms, and gambling became more widespread, especially in urban centers. As the American colonies transitioned into an independent nation, gambling would continue to play a role in shaping the nation’s cultural landscape.

19th Century:

The 19th century witnessed the advent of riverboat gambling along the Mississippi River. These riverboat casinos were particularly popular in states like Louisiana and Mississippi.

These boats became floating hubs of entertainment, offering a variety of games such as poker and blackjack. The term “casino” had not yet gained widespread usage during this period.

As America expanded westward, gambling became an integral part of frontier towns. Saloons and gambling halls were prevalent in mining and trading communities, offering games such as poker, faro, and blackjack.

These establishments were often informal, with makeshift tables and simple gambling equipment. Gambling was a common pastime among settlers seeking entertainment and, in some cases, a chance at wealth.

The mid-19th-century Gold Rush spurred the establishment of gambling halls and saloons in mining towns across the West. Games like Faro and various forms of poker gained popularity in these frontier establishments.

In these Gold Rush communities, gambling was not only a form of entertainment but also a means for miners to try their luck and potentially strike it rich. Popular games included poker, roulette, and dice games.

In 1891, the first true slot machine, known as the “Liberty Bell,” was invented by Charles Fey and featured three spinning reels with five symbols – horseshoes, diamonds, spades, hearts, and a Liberty Bell.

Professional gamblers became prominent during the 19th century, gaining recognition for their skill in various gambling games. Many of them traveled from town to town, showcasing their expertise in games like faro, a popular card game of the time.

Early 20th Century:

The Prohibition era (1920-1933) brought about a surge in illegal liquor and gambling establishments, known as speakeasies.

Prohibition was the result of the 18th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which banned the manufacture, sale, and transportation of alcoholic beverages. While the primary focus of Prohibition was on alcohol, it inadvertently gave rise to a flourishing underground gambling scene.

Men in saloon gambling in Telluride, Colorado circa 1910-1920

With the legal ban on the sale of alcohol, hidden establishments known as speakeasies proliferated. These illegal bars and clubs operated surreptitiously, often behind unmarked doors or in basements.

Speakeasies provided not only a venue for secret drinking but also became hubs for various forms of illicit entertainment, including gambling.

To attract patrons, many speakeasies offered gambling activities, ranging from card games like poker and blackjack to roulette and craps. These gambling operations were often run by organized crime groups that found the Prohibition era to be a lucrative opportunity for illegal enterprises.

The Prohibition era significantly contributed to the rise of organized crime in the United States. Criminal syndicates, such as the Italian-American Mafia, played a prominent role in running illegal gambling operations, speakeasies, and bootlegging activities.

In 1931, Nevada broke new ground by becoming the first state to legalize casino gambling. In the midst of the Great Depression, Nevada faced economic challenges as the mining industry declined.

To stimulate the economy and attract visitors, the state legislature took a bold step by legalizing casino gambling on March 19, 1931.

This decision allowed licensed establishments to offer various forms of casino games. The city of Las Vegas, then a relatively small and desolate town, began to transform with the construction of the first legal casinos.

The city of Las Vegas began its transformation into a gambling and entertainment hub with the opening of iconic casinos like the Flamingo and Sands. Organized crime figures like Benjamin “Bugsy” Siegel played a role in the development of Las Vegas during this period.

The construction of the El Rancho Vegas in 1941 marked the birth of the Las Vegas Strip. The 1940s and 1950s saw the development of iconic resorts like the Flamingo, the Sahara, and the Sands.

El Rancho Vegas in Las Vegas, NV in the 1940s

The 1960s brought significant changes to the industry. Corporate entities began to invest heavily in Las Vegas, leading to the construction of larger and more opulent resorts.

The Nevada Gaming Control Act of 1959 and the creation of the Nevada Gaming Control Board in 1961 introduced regulatory measures to oversee and control the industry, ensuring fair play and preventing the infiltration of organized crime.

The success of Las Vegas inspired other areas in Nevada to explore legalized gambling. Reno, Lake Tahoe, and Laughlin emerged as additional gambling destinations within the state.

Post-World War II:

The post-World War II era saw the unprecedented growth of Las Vegas as a gambling destination. Visionaries like Bugsy Siegel and influential figures such as Howard Hughes played pivotal roles in shaping the city’s landscape.

In the mid-20th century, Las Vegas started transforming into a destination for more than just gambling. The construction of iconic casino resorts like the Flamingo, Sands, and Caesars Palace changed the landscape. These resorts offered luxurious accommodations, fine dining, and entertainment, turning Las Vegas into a gambling city.

In 1978, Atlantic City, New Jersey, entered the scene by legalizing casino gambling. This move provided competition to Las Vegas on the East Coast and marked a significant development in the industry.

The first legal casino in Atlantic City, Resorts Casino Hotel, opened its doors on May 26, 1978. The introduction of casino gambling was seen as a way to attract tourists, create jobs, and generate revenue for the city and the state.

Resorts Casino in Atlantic City, New Jersey in 1985

Meanwhile, the first Native American owned casino opened in Fort Lauderdale, Florida in 1979. The casino was owned by the Seminole tribe.

Following the success of Resorts in Atlantic City, other casinos quickly joined the scene. The 1980s saw the opening of numerous casinos, including Bally’s, Caesars, Trump Plaza, and Harrah’s. The city’s skyline transformed with the addition of these large-scale casino resorts.

In the 1990s and early 2000s, Atlantic City faced increasing competition as neighboring states legalized casino gambling. This competition posed challenges to the city’s status as the East Coast’s premier gambling destination.

Late 20th Century:

The passage of the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act (IGRA) in 1988 opened the door for Native American tribes to establish and operate casinos on their reservations. This legislative act spurred the growth of tribal gaming across the nation.

In the latter half of the 20th century, many states embraced various forms of gambling, including casinos, lotteries, and racetracks. The industry witnessed expansion and consolidation, with major corporations entering the casino market.

By the end of 1996, 25 states and three territories legalized true casinos, through statutes and tribal-state compacts.

21st Century:

The 21st century brought about the rise of online gambling. Technological advancements enabled individuals to access casino games from the comfort of their homes. However, the legal status of online gambling varied across states, with some embracing it and others imposing restrictions or outright bans.

The legal landscape for sports betting underwent a seismic shift in 2018 when the U.S. Supreme Court overturned the Professional and Amateur Sports Protection Act (PASPA). This decision allowed states to legalize sports betting, opening up new avenues for the gambling industry.

Throughout this journey, the history of casinos in America reflects changing societal norms, economic considerations, and regulatory landscapes. Casinos have evolved from small gambling dens and riverboats to sprawling resorts offering a wide array of entertainment options.

Today, they are integral parts of the hospitality and entertainment industries, contributing significantly to local economies. The history of American casinos showcases the dynamic relationship between risk, reward, and the pursuit of entertainment in the ever-changing landscape of the United States.

“Casinos and Gaming in the USA: Then Versus Now.” BET MGM, casino.betmgm.com/en/blog/casinos-and-gaming-in-the-usa-then-versus-now/
“History of American Gaming Laws.” HG.org, hg.org/legal-articles/a-history-of-american-gaming-laws-31222
Rose, Nelson I. “Gambling and the Law: Pivotal Dates.” PBS.org, pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/shows/gamble/etc/cron.html
Colette, Fana. “The History of Casinos: From One Armed Bandits to Live Dealer Tables.” Casinos.com, 20 July. 2023, casinos.com/news/history-casino-gaming

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