Leon and Nell Oakes  – Las Vegas Photographers 1920s-1940s Part One

In 1921, the husband and wife team of photographers, Leon and Nell Oakes arrived in Las Vegas.   For nearly a quarter century the Oakes name would be connected to photography in southern Nevada.

This is part one of a series of articles on their live and their photographs, which include more than monthly updates of the construction of Hoover Dam.

“Real photo” cards were available from the day work began on the dam recording both the progress and highlights of all elements of construction.

While there are at least a dozen known publishers of ‘real photos’ of the dam, two stand out:  Frasher of Pomona, California, and Oakes of Las Vegas.

Both Leon Jay and Nell Oakes were both photographers.    They arrived in Las Vegas in 1921.  Oakes, now in his early 40’s, was looking for a new start. And he took the position as principal of the Las Vegas Grammar school.

Two years later, he and his wife opened a photography shop, “Oakes’ Vegas Studios.”  There is no record of Leon receiving professional training as a photographer.  Nell, however, was a graduate of the Illinois College of Photography.

For nearly a decade, the Oakes were the semi-official photographers of Las Vegas and the Boulder Canyon Project.

They sold their photographs to national news wire services, book publishers, and post card companies.

In 1932 their photographic business had been enlarged several times and was publicly identified at that time as “the most widely known in southern Nevada.”[1]

Shortly after work began on the dam, the Oakes began numbering their cards as part of an effort to grow their sales, and to help speed up re-orders.

While there are Oakes’ post cards with numbers in the 700’s, it is unlikely that are that many different post cards, beyond those that were included in catalogs used by salesmen.

The Oakes not only sold their work to the general public, but they also sold their photographs to others, like William Ferron, owner of White Cross Drugs stories in Las Vegas.   He used, and gave credit to Oakes on the post cards he published.

Leon died somewhere between post card number 275 and 285.

The exact date was January 9, 1932.

The local newspaper said the cause of death was “lobar pneumonia, following a long siege with the flu, which in turn followed a lengthy illness resulting from a toxic condition caused by his teeth.”[2]

At the time of his death, it was reported that Oakes “enjoyed a wide reputation for his pictures of Boulder Canyon and of the desert scenes.  The picture of the Old Fort, taken on the Stewart ranch, as taken by Mr. Oakes, has been generally conceded as being the best ever taken of that subject, and has been widely distributed among the prominent people of the community.”[3]

He was also remembered for “doing valuable work for several years delivering lectures illustrated with colored slides which gave splendid views of many of the scenes in and about Black and Boulder Canyon and also the Southern Utah Parks.”[4]

Pioneer Las Vegas Charles Squires said that Oakes did “much to preserve the beauties of this section for posterity.”[5]

Nell continued to take the photographs and produce post cards.  More on Nell and what happened to the Oakes Photography studio in part two.

The Oakes’ Signature

From Leon’s to Nell’s

      Many of the post cards they issued before actual work on the dam began were not signed.

However, the couple’s distinct handwriting is discernable in the hand printed titles.  After viewing several of their cards, an Oakes real photo card can be picked out of a group of Las Vegas or Hoover/Boulder Dam cards.

Based on the scenes depicted on the cards, it seems likely the couple began using the phase “OAKES FOTO” on their post cards at the time work began on the dam project.

Their signature, found on the face of the Oakes cards, changed.   The signature changed a total of five times before Nell got out of the business in the 1940’s.

  2. Classic Oakes “s”
  3. Classic Oakes with slash. This changed when Oakes died.  It occurred somewhere between post cad 275 and 285.
  4. Oakes, with upper case “A”   This lasted until post card number 459.
  5. Oakes with lower case “a) This started with post card460 and continued until the Oakes was dropped and Vegas Studio was used.
  6. “Vegas Studio”


[1]Las Vegas Review Journal, Jan, 11, 1932, p.2.

[2]Las Vegas Review Journal, Jan. 6, 1932, p1

[3]Las Vegas Review Journal, Jan, 11, 1932, p.2.

[4]Las Vegas Age, Jan 10, 1932, p1.

[5]Las Vegas Age, Jan 10, 1932, p1.


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