Through most of the 20th century, divorce was rather difficult. Not only was it socially unacceptable, but laws in most states made it an onerous ordeal. But like anything else, someone, somewhere, will find a way to make it profitable. For divorce (as well as gambling), that was Nevada. Give people what they want, and they will come from all over to get it -and spend their money along the way. Nevada's six-month residency requirement was half that of other states in the 1920s, and several high-profile divorces among the Hollywood elite drew attention to Reno as a solution to an unhappy marriage.
Before long, other jurisdictions decided they wanted a piece of the action Reno was earning from its well-heeled short-timers, who lived, wined, and dined as if, well, they were about to start a new life. In 1927, when Mexico and France were reportedly considering lowering their residency-for-divorce requirements (even though many states did not recognize foreign divorce decrees), Nevada preemptively countered by lowering its requirement to three months. This spurred Idaho and Arkansas to do the same, to which Nevada responded again, in 1931, by lowering its residency requirement to just six weeks.
By May of 1931, there were so many divorce seekers flooding into Reno, some were forced to camp on the banks of the Truckee River for the lack of accommodations in town. Gambling had been legalized that March, which lured even more people, and in 1933 the state won the amoral trifecta, as it were, when Prohibition was repealed. All told, during the 1930s, more than 30,000 people came to Reno to get a divorce, pumping an estimated $5 million per year at its height into an economy whose population hovered around 20,000 full-time residents throughout the decade.
Reno’s reputation for easy divorces became a topic of pop culture, supplying plots for books and movies, which further fed its reputation. Read about how the peculiar legal history of Nevada made Reno the Divorce Capital of the World at Collectors Weekly.
(Image credit: Special Collections, University of Nevada-Reno Library)