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 legal 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 to legalize gambling in Nevada; the other to reduce the residency requirement in the State for a divorce from three months to just six weeks.
The Nevada State Journal shouted out the big news in a boldface headline on page one (see image above).
Anyone seeking to get out of their marital bounds in a hurry could reside anywhere in the State for six weeks – Reno was the “biggest little city” at the time; pick their reason from a list of 9 grounds for a Reno divorce – each ground required little or no proof; then spend an average of six minutes in court before a judge to get their 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, spent their money, and Nevada made it through the Depression years.
9 grounds for a Reno divorce
4. Conviction of a felony
5. Habitual drunkeness
6. Neglect to provide the common necessities of life
8. Living apart for three years
9. Extreme cruelty entirely mental in nature
The most popular? Mental cruelty – which covered the serious to the silly, an example of the latter being, “Your Honor, he reads the newspaper at breakfast and ignores me.”
When word got out about Nevada’s “quickie” divorce the floodgates opened
Divorce seekers (a term coined by the media) came running to Reno by the thousands and the divorce business exploded. (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. It wasn’t long before 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 divorce ranches (another media term) sprang up in and around Reno. For six weeks, divorce seekers spent their money on food, 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.
Throughout the 1940s, Reno continued to retain its title as “Divorce Capital of the World”. 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.
That unique Nevada institution – the divorce ranch – has faded away, but Nevada as a place “to split” will always remain a legend of our time