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Gambling before the casinos — A look back at Atlantic County history

(Look Back is an occasional series with content and images from the Atlantic County Historical Society.)

Atlantic City never waited for gambling to be legal.

Long before legislation was passed to legalize gambling in Atlantic City, it was widely known that underneath the surface many forms of gambling were taking place.

People, mainly from Philadelphia, knew the reputation the resort had as a wide-open town where you were able to find amusements not available in their hometown.

Betting was a pastime to try your luck and solve the boredom that most people experienced in their everyday activities.

There were various ways of betting, at a more formal venue and down to the penny games of chance.

The most popular ones were playing the numbers, a forerunner of the lottery. Three numbers came out each day and you could play 1, 2 or all 3 numbers. Its hard to estimate the number of local residents who went to their favorite candy, newspaper or cigar store to place their daily bets.

Betting on the horse races was next in popularity, in which you went to a bookie joint, which had a legitimate business for a front, and placed bets on races all over the country. Many residents followed the racing forms known as the Armstrong and The New York Telegram.

Besides the above forms of gambling, you could find a bookie to place bets on baseball, boxing and college football.

The higher class of gambling took place in well-known nightclubs, where casino-type games were available such as roulette, poker, black jack, craps and wheels of fortune. Some of the better known venues were the 500 Club, Club Harlem, Little Belmont, Babettes and the Bath and Turf Club. A humorous story is told that a woman named Rose was eating in the front restaurant and kept seeing men going back and forth to the rear. She thought they were going to the men's room when her husband, Dan, said they were going to the casino.

Gambling in those days was not just for the tourists, but it was known by out-of-towners where you could go for a day or more to enjoy a form of recreation that was not available at home. It also was a place where you could go from the corner cigar store to the high-class nightclub.

Founded in 1913, the Atlantic County Historical Society has been preserving historical materials in its library and museum since. Every week, Wednesday to Saturday, from 10 a.m. to 3:30 p.m., it opens its doors to share these collections with anyone who is interested. The society building is located at 907 Shore Road in Somers Point. More information is available at and on Facebook, or by calling 609-927-5218.

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