History of Gambling & Casinos in the U.S.

Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

Gambling is a major pastime in the United States, and it's not without its own history. In this lesson, we'll explore the history of gambling and see how it has impacted America throughout the years.

American Gambling

'I'm calling your bluff.' 'I'm all in.' 'I've got an ace up my sleeve.' What do all of these common American parlances have in common? They're all based in gambling lingo. Games of chance and luck, upon which money is staked, have been both a popular form of recreation and a major topic of debate in the United States. To fully understand this, we need to ante up and take a look at the history of American gambling.

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  • 0:00 American Gambling
  • 0:29 Gambling in Colonial America
  • 2:03 Gambling After the Civil War
  • 2:44 Gambling in the Early…
  • 4:12 Gambling after WWII
  • 5:38 Lesson Summary
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Gambling in Colonial America

Games of chance have been a part of European cultures for as long as we can tell. So, when Europeans arrived in North America, these traditions were not only maintained, but also encouraged as a way to transfer a bit of home into a new environment. In the French port of Louisiana, for example, high-end gambling houses were built that closely mimicked those of Paris.

In the English colonies, gambling was a popular form of recreation focused mainly around games of cards or dice. You may have heard of the 1756 Stamp Act, in which the English placed a tax on paper documents. One reason that the colonists protested this so fiercely was because it taxed playing cards.

American colonists also embraced the European concept of a lottery, and this is the first time the colonial governments really became involved in gambling. When America entered the French and Indian War in 1754, lotteries helped generate revenue for the war.

After America gained its independence, gambling remained a popular pastime but also changed with the times. From the early 1800s through the 1840s, America began to expand west, went through its first Industrial Revolution, and developed a free market economy. Gambling became a part of this economy on a wider scale, focused more on the promise of substantial gains but also featuring substantial risks.

While Washington D.C. was amongst the largest gambling centers of the era, it was not alone. The other major hotbed of gambling was the Mississippi River. Steamboats, an American invention of the early 19th century, cruised along the river as mobile gambling houses filled with food, music, and other luxuries.

Gambling After the Civil War

The Civil War turned the Mississippi River into a battle zone and disrupted the economic success of gambling houses in the South. Reform movements that originated in the rebuilding of the post-slavery South also grew, and moral questions about gambling began to appear.

At the same time, gambling moved into the American West with the boom of post-war settlers. Contrary to popular belief, however, not all Western towns supported gambling. Many of these towns were founded on temperance-based Protestant ideals and outlawed gambling outright. By the 1890s, moral-based reform movements had grown in size and scale to the point that gambling was essentially banned across the entire United States.

Gambling in the Early 20th Century

That brings us to the 20th century, which began as an era obsessed with moral reform. Along with gambling, progressive reformers sought to abolish other social evils like alcohol, an agenda they achieved with the passing of the 18th amendment, which instituted the national ban on alcohol known as Prohibition in 1920.

Prohibition ended up being the saving grace of American gambling. After the First World War ended in 1918, many Americans began to lose their zeal for reform and instead tried to focus on enjoying their lives. As a result, Prohibition was a dismal failure, with Americans flocking to underground bars called speakeasies. For the organized crime syndicates that trafficked illegal alcohol, the concept of people gathering to participate in illegal vices presented an opportunity. Gambling returned in a big way, sponsored by organized crime and closely associated with black market alcohol consumption.

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