Tokens of history
Collectors will gather to buy, sell and trade gambling memorabilia at the Nevada Historical Society
Steve Blust has been collecting casino chips for about two decades now. Blust, who worked for many years as an editor for the Sacramento Bee, said his interest in history and Sacramento’s close proximity to Lake Tahoe and Reno led him to the hobby.
“The history was the big pull for me, and that’s still the main attraction for me,” Blust said. “I love learning about where places used to be. As an example, the Crystal Bay Club on the north shore of Lake Tahoe started out in the late 1930s as a place called the Ta-Neva-Ho. … I have some chips from the Ta-Neva-Ho from the late ’30s in my collections.”
Blust hesitated to estimate how large his chip collection grew. But it’s smaller now.
“I used to collect from Canada and Australia, the Caribbean,” he explained. “When I first got into the hobby—and this is what a lot of people do—I started collecting everything. And then you realize pretty quickly that you can’t collect everything unless you win the lottery.”
Over the years, Blust began to focus his collecting on Northern Nevada and Lake Tahoe casinos and sold many of the unrelated chips in his collection, both online and at chip digs—events where collectors come together to buy, sell and trade gambling memorabilia. He’ll be selling more of them during a chip dig at the Nevada Historical Society on May 12.
“I’m at a point now where I’m selling most of what I have,” Blust said. “I’m getting a little older. My kids are in their late 30s. They don’t have any interest in this, and so I made the decision a while back to start gradually selling off parts of my collection.”
He’ll keep most of his Lake Tahoe collection, which he estimates at 200 chips.
At the NHS, where Blust and other collectors will convene for the chip dig, there is already a large collection of gambling memorabilia. And it goes far beyond chips.
Amassing an archive
An exhibition in the NHS featuring slot machines, casino chips, gambling manufacturers’ sales catalogs and cheating devices like marked cards and loaded dice provides a fascinating glimpse into the history of gambling in Nevada and elsewhere in the U.S. And according to NHS Director Catherine Magee, what’s on display represents a tiny fraction of the materials in a collection called the American Gaming Archives. The archives, she explained, are the product of five decades of work by the man who amassed much of them.
Howard Herz is the coordinator of the American Gaming Archives. He explained that his own interest in gambling history emerged in the mid-1960s. But, at first, it was a part of his job. Herz’s maternal aunt was married to Harvey’s Hotel and Casino owner Harvey Gross. And Herz worked as the curator of the Harvey’s coin collections.
“And starting around 1965, Harvey’s began a collection of gaming chips,” he said. “And as we continued to accumulate more and more gaming chips and gaming tokens, I became interested in some of their history and where they were from.”
Within a few decades, the chip collection had swelled to around 25,000. Harvey Gross died in 1983. In the years to follow, Herz explained, inventorying the chip collection became a necessity.
“We had certain obligations with the Gaming Commission to inventory what we had—and to account for what we had, with regard to the estate matters,” he said. “That led into a lot of research regarding what we had, where it came from, what were the distinctions to be made if it was going to be catalogued.”
As a part of this undertaking, Herz started making trips to visit gambling manufacturers, many of which were based in places like Chicago. But getting information from them wasn’t always easy.
“I visited one called Mason & Company and was literally thrown out because they said they had nothing of interest for me,” Herz said. “But, as it turned out, five years later, after the owner of the company had died, I purchased the company’s records. And I continued to be able to obtain and purchase records during the ’90s when a lot of the Chicago companies were closing or turning over. And those records, today, are here in the American Gaming Archives.”
Eventually, most of the chips in the Harvey’s collection were sold to private collectors. But, as the ’90s progressed, Herz developed a new motivation—to preserve what he refers to as the “fabric of gaming”—a thing, he said, “which goes everywhere from loaded dice to fair dice to entertainment to looking at the term ’gaming,’ instead of ’gambling.’”
Herz had begun gathering sales catalogs and artifacts like chips and fair and loaded dice. And as manufacturing companies closed, he felt a need to continue collecting their records.
“The history of what they produced, of what types of materials they produced, was vanishing,” he said. “It was going into dumpsters in Chicago and New York, even in Reno, Nevada.”
Herz’s interest in preserving gambling history went beyond tangible artifacts. Along the way, he also felt the need to accumulate stories.
“It was obvious to me that people who had started the gaming, who knew how gaming progressed and what its problems had been and what they’d overcome—these were all people who were getting into their 70s, 80s and, in some cases, their 90s by then,” Herz said.
By the early 2000s, he’d interviewed many people involved in gambling—from casino workers to the heads of manufacturing companies—and amassed a sizeable collection of artifacts and archival materials telling pieces of gambling history from across the U.S. and even the Caribbean.
“And I felt it was important to look back at the history that I had begun to see and accumulate,” Herz said. “And I thought it was very important that some institution should have and preserve these records. And, obviously, because of Nevada’s historic position in gaming, I wanted them to be in Nevada.”
Herz set his sights on the NHS as a repository for his archives, and the American Gaming Archives were established there in 2006—the year that marked the 75th anniversary of legal gambling in Nevada.
A full house
Over the last decade, the archives have continued growing, often through donations from private gambling collectors. But casual visitors to the NHS museum likely wouldn’t know it. Magee, who took up the director’s post at the society in 2016, estimates less than one percent of the archive’s materials are currently on display. However, she’d like to see that change. The first step, though, would be for the NHS to move from its current facilities constructed on the University of Nevada, Reno campus in 1968.
Magee said the NHS has been looking at options for buildings closer to downtown Reno but that funding for a move is an unresolved issue.
“It helps if we have some partners in this,” she said. “I hate to say it, but it’s one of those ’chicken or the egg?’ things—because we have some supporters who want us to have a new facility, but they want us to have a new facility before they feel like they can put their full support behind us. So we’re in that Catch-22 situation.”
But Magee said she thinks there’s a strong interest in Reno to have a more centrally located history museum.
“If I had my fantasy, which—this is not going to happen—I would love to be in the old Ponderosa Hotel Casino,” she said. “I would love to be in an old hotel casino, but particularly there, because I could see it creating a museum corridor really close to the Nevada Museum of Art, the Discovery Museum and the Automobile Museum. So that’s my fantasy.”