In pre-television and early radio times, mass sharing of information and culture was printed. No selfies, no send button, no insta-anything. Postcards shared pieces of the world, and of people.
Bob Stoldal sees them as a rich source of information to cull from, literally a paper trail documenting the growth of Las Vegas as well as the auto-era travel industry. His collection is thousands of postcards strong, chronicling more than a century. And his interest isn’t so much the over-saturated images of mid-mod pylons, stylish fonts and Googie architecture, but rather the early 20th-century documentation of life on the ground here—the years between 1905 and 1931.
It’s intense and comprehensive. Binders might include neatly inserted brochures, girlies matchbooks, newspaper articles and a hotel key. This is a guy who has original dinnerware from the Salt Lake Route Railroad and rare memorabilia from historic and erased places like the Moulin Rouge vying for space among his vast book collection.
A Las Vegas resident since 1957 and longtime news director for KLAS Channel 8 (who got pulled out of retirement for a time to helm KSNV Channel 3), Stoldal is a go-to for local history, a collector and researcher who sits on the boards of the Mob Museum and Nevada State Museum and on the Las Vegas Historic Preservation Commission. He shared a few gems and facts from his postcard collection.
The golden era of postcards: “Every household had postcards. That is the way people saw the rest of the world. Billions of postcards were produced annually. They were educational, informational and entertainment. There was no television. This was another visual element. You could be in the middle of Las Vegas in 1910 with 1,000 to 1,300 people, and you could see the world through postcards.”
A changing landscape: The Las Vegas that the world was seeing one decade barely resembled it the next. Stoldal’s collection weaves the dusty pioneer setting with the development of Downtown and the Strip’s open, flat landscape speckled with resorts and little themed motels. In the backdrop of postcards for the Monaco motel on the Strip is the dome of the Las Vegas Convention Center and the nearby Paul Revere Williams-designed Guardian Angel Cathedral (pre-and-post mosaic).
Tracking times: “There is an amazing amount of information on postcards. Postmark, stamp, message, where it’s to be sent. It also gives you a sense of what the public’s tastes were, what people thought was important. I look for those stories of the town that haven’t been told over and over. I’m interested in the people who made the trains run and who ran the businesses. In the ’20s the community was living as if the dam was going to be built any day.”
Favorite postcard of the moment: A recently acquired postcard of the Overland, featuring Las Vegas’ first neon sign—“hotel.”
Late 19th-century postcards: “Many photographers were itinerant, moving from one town to the next setting up their lab. The early history of photography in Nevada hasn’t been told yet. I’m trying to identify Nevada photographers.”
Civic Las Vegas: “When you see a postcard of 1905, you see almost a chamber of commerce effect. They show you the buildings, the homes, water. It was a way to show the world that Las Vegas was a progressive city.”
Meta: Stoldal has in his collection a black-and-white postcard of a Paiute chief, as well as a postcard of the chief selling postcards, (presumably portraits of himself), circa 1910.
Postcards and the auto: “The automobile made traveling democratic. You could go on adventures in your cars, stay at auto camps. The auto camps would have running water and communal showers. Then they’d put in a cabin. A big sign would tell what kind of mattresses they had.”
Round-trip: In 1910 a photographer stood on top of the Downtown Arizona Club and took eight images that were sold as a panoramic, as well as individual pictures. Ed Von Tobel sent three of these postcards to his cousin in Switzerland, from whom Stoldal purchased them. Scribbled into the image are arrows identifying the mountains in the background. Among others that traveled round-trip are several of a school, a drug store and other buildings sent to France in 1919.
Railroad country: One postcard shows a family standing in “Carville,” aka Mina, Nevada, against the rugged landscape. The town was the end of a rail stop, and residents were living in railroad cars.
How the collection began: Stoldal, finding that most Las Vegas and Nevada history books were based on government figures and bereft of women, sought advice from historian Frank Wright. He suggested postcards. “I said, ‘Okay, postcards.’ It wasn’t too long when the infection set in. The virus took over.”