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Taking a Spin in Special Collections - A Photo Essay by Nancy Hardy

By Su Kim Chung on May 25, 2016 5:19 PM | Permalink

May is National Bike Month, so we thought we’d roll out this free- wheeling assortment of bicycling images from our photograph collections. For us, Bike Month is the perfect opportunity to share photos of both notable and everyday Southern Nevadans enjoying the many pleasures of life on two wheels.  By Nancy Hardy, Special Collections Outreach and Reference Assistant

This image from our Leon Rockwell Collection likely dates from the late 1890s. The bicycle seems almost out of place next to the prim and proper woman wearing an apron. The woman in the apron on the right is believed to be Grandmother Rockwell.  Her grandson, Leon, is one of Las Vegas’s early residents. Leon’s personal recollections of his life and the city’s past are available online through the University of Nevada Oral History Project  (Leon Rockwell Collection, PH: 0008-0414)

Although bicycles appeared earlier in various incarnations, the 1890s are considered the peak of the bicycling craze in America. Electric streetcars had already begun to appear in some cities, but they were slow and inefficient. Not all people could afford horses and carriages, either. Bicycles, though, were inexpensive and offered a new level of freedom, particularly for women. The bicycle craze coincided with the first wave of the Women’s Rights Movement, and it also seemed to embody a similar spirit of progress. Women found bicycles to be a transformative means of getting around, and riding them necessitated changes in women’s fashions. The much more comfortable “sports corset” gained popularity, and women discovered a new sense of independence and courage. According to Susan B. Anthony, bicycling “has done more to emancipate women than anything else in the world.” The distinctive drop frame of the bicycle in the photograph above informs us that this bike was in fact, designed for a female rider and her billowy skirt.

The accessibility of the bicycle also improved efficiency for many businesses across the country, including this postal telegraph office in Los Angeles.  The third young man from the left in this 1909 photo is Clarence Stocker, son of Oscar and Mayme Stocker, who would soon be counted among Las Vegas’s earliest and most prominent residents.  Read more about the Stocker Family Collection. (Harold Stocker Photo Collection, PH: 0006-0163)


Oscar and Mayme Stocker were photographed here on a farm in Riverbank, California, in 1915, before coming to Las Vegas with sons Clarence and Harold. (Evidently the bicycle also was practical in the barnyard and pasture!) By 1920, Mayme had opened the Northern Club in Las Vegas, Nevada, after her sons Clarence and Harold became unemployed as a result of a railroad strike. Mayme later became the first recipient of a gaming license when gambling was legalized in Las Vegas in 1931. Clarence and Harold went on to become charter members of the Elks Lodge in Las Vegas. (Harold Stocker Collection, PH: 0006-0212)

The popularity of bicycling declined steadily in the United States between 1900 and 1910, as automobiles became the favored mode of transportation. By the 1920s, bikes were mostly thought of as children's toys, and by 1940, most of the bicycles manufactured in this country were designed for children.

Leon Rockwell Jr. and sister Margie Rockwell at 121 North 3rd Street in Las Vegas in the mid-1920s sharing the joys of a bike ride. (Leon Rockwell Collection, PH: 0008-0482)

Patents for tandem bikes date back to about 1895. Riding tandem bicycles historically has been considered quite a romantic activity during courtship. The lady generally rode in the front seat, with her beau behind her controlling the steering through a linkage. Couples were able to enjoy a certain degree of socially-approved public togetherness, thus tandem riding had a lingering appeal over the decades.

Tandem bicyclists taking off for a ride in the 1930s-1940s.  The rear rider is Donn Arden, the almost-legendary director of many Las Vegas production shows from the early 1950s until his last stage spectacular Jubilee! closed in February of this year. Donn Arden’s Papers and Photograph Collection are housed here in UNLV Libraries Special Collections. (Donn Arden Photo Collection, PH: 0328-0076)

Judging from the number of bicycles interspersed between patrons waiting in line, bicycling to the movies was the way to go back in the 1940s. The Victory Movie Theatre opened in downtown Henderson, Nevada at Army and Panama Streets in 1943 at the height of WWII. The first film shown was Judy Garland starring in Presenting Lily Mars. The theatre operated until the 1970s and was demolished in 1989. (Manis Collection, PH: 0100-1382)

UNLV Libraries Special Collections also includes photographs of bicycles being used in rather unusual ways by entertainers on the Las Vegas Strip. Finding these images within our archives is one of the distinct delights of documenting the history of entertainment and production shows in our very unique city!

Cycling ahead to the 1960s, one of the evening’s specialty acts at the Stardust Hotel's Lido de Paris show in the elegant Cafe Continental showroom involved quite a novel use of the bicycle. Donn Arden, the tandem cyclist in this photo essay, directed all of the Lido de Paris productions. His classic French stage spectaculars featured four or more themed dance numbers strung together with astonishing variety acts such as this one. We're wondering how this talented performer managed to pedal... (Valda and Esper Esau Collection, PH: 0348-0037)

This miniature bicycle was used by performer Charlie Charles in one of the various live circus performances featured on the midway at the Circus Circus Hotel in Las Vegas, sometime in the 1970s. The photograph is from our Jay Sarno Collection. Sarno was the casino imagineer behind both Caesars Palace and the Circus Circus Hotel. Director of UNLV’s Center for Gaming Research, Dave Schwartz, has written a compelling biography of Jay Sarno, Grandissimo: The First Emperor of Las Vegas: How Jay Sarno Won a Casino Empire, Lost It, and Inspired Modern Las Vegas. This photo of Charlie Charles is from our Jay Sarno Collection, PH: 0347-0087.

We hope National Bike Month and these collected images will inspire you pump up those bicycle tires and take a spin during the month of May and beyond. We also hope you’ll be inspired to visit our archives at any time of the year!