The Reno Divorce Era

The Reno arch, in the rain

The Reno arch in rain. (Courtesy Neal Cobb Collection, Nevada Historical Society, Reno)

The Reno divorce era was launched in 1931

Today, no one needs to get away to divorce; they just divorce. But “splittin’ blankets” was not always so easy.

Before March 20, 1931, in most other states, divorce required a waiting period of one year or more, and the only ground allowed was proof of adultery – a messy business and potential embarrassment for either spouse.

On March 20, 1931, Nevada made it simple. In the depths of the Great Depression, Nevada Governor Fred B. Balzar signed two highly controversial bills: one for legalized gambling; the other for a reduced residency requirement for a divorce from three months to only six weeks.

The Nevada State Journal headlines shouted out the big news in boldface type on page one:

Front page of the Nevada State Journal, March 20, 1931

Anyone seeking a “quickie” divorce could reside anywhere in the State for six weeks, pick their reason for wanting a divorce from a list of nine legal grounds that required little or no proof, and spend an average of six minutes in court before a judge to get the divorce decree.

The motives behind the legalized gambling and six-week divorce measures were purely economic: to bring people and their money to the State. And, indeed, people came and spent their money.

For decades to come, these two highly-controversial measures set Nevada apart from the rest of the nation, and colored the popular image of the State. However, legalized gambling and easy divorce helped Nevada get through the Great Depression years.

Motel sign in Reno reading "Restless Divorcees Welcome"

Hotel sign in Reno, circa 1940. (Photo Express/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

The floodgates opened

When word got out about Nevada’s six-week divorce, the State’s divorce business exploded. Divorce seekers (as the media called them) came running to Reno by the thousands. (Las Vegas would get in the act later.) They came from all walks of life – the rich, the poor, Eastern socialites, and the working class.

The wild and wooly small town “out West” became known nationwide, even worldwide, as the “Divorce Capital of the World.” Reno was the place to go.

Publicity about the Reno divorce generated its own glossary of divorce terms. “Getting Reno-vated” (a term coined by columnist Walter Winchell), “I’m Going to Reno!” and “Taking the Cure” were synonymous for getting a divorce in Reno. A “Divorcée Special” was a train bringing divorce seekers to Reno. The Washoe County Courthouse was “The Separator.” There was even a brassiere called “The Reno” because it both separated and supported.

To accommodate the influx of divorce seekers, hotels, boardinghouses and dude ranches (the media called them divorce ranches) sprang up in and around Reno. For six weeks, divorce seekers spent their money on food and lodging, gambling, drinking, Western wear, and more. Many divorce seekers fell in love during their six weeks – some with the West and others with someone they met. Many wealthy Easterners stayed in Nevada after their divorce, bringing with them their wealth and their culture.

Bill McGee and a divorce seeker on the Flying M.E., 1948

Bill McGee and a divorce seeker in her newly-purchased Western wear on the Flying M.E., 1948. (Author Collection)

The Reno divorce era flourished throughout the 1930s and ’40s

Reno continued to retain its title as “Divorce Capital of the World” throughout the 1940s. However, in the 1950s, Las Vegas began to catch up, and by the 1960s was granting half of Nevada’s divorces.  By the 1970s, as other states were relaxing their divorce laws, the need to go to Reno for a divorce faded out.

Today no one needs to go to Reno for a divorce, they just divorce. But the story of how a small town in Nevada came to redefine divorce in America is a remarkable true story and a part of history few know about today.

Nevada as a place “to split” will always remain a legend of our time

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