Embracing the Divorce Capital of the World

A postcard from the 1940s adds a little humor to the notion of the Reno divorce. Postcard from the personal collection of Mella Rothwell Harmon.

Perhaps it’s no big surprise that Reno, Nevada hasn’t done much to promote or even to acknowledge its six decades as Divorce Capital of the World. The title might seem a dubious honor, implying that Reno’s culture proved so poisonous to the concept of stable wedlock that the city’s married couples didn’t stand a chance.

In fact, Reno’s migratory divorce trade played a pivotal role in enabling the matrimonially dissatisfied, abused, and abandoned to be free of their conjugal constraints, in the process increasing the widespread acceptance of divorce, empowering thousands of men and women to take charge of their own lives, and hastening the enactment of similar legislation nationwide.

At the same time, the divorce trade played a significant role in establishing Reno’s image and its tourist economy, something I covered at great length in my book, Reno’s Big Gamble. The unique industry clearly demonstrated the economic potential of attracting outsiders to the state (and to Reno in particular, as its largest and most accessible city) by legislating highly desirable activities not available elsewhere, and paved the way for its embrace of legalized wide-open gambling.

Illuminating Reno’s Divorce Industry is a project of the Special Collections Department, University of Nevada, Reno Libraries

The absolute centrality of the migratory divorce trade to Reno’s development, and its largely unacknowledged significance both nationally and in Reno itself, prompted the creation of the new online exhibit and archive, Illuminating Reno’s Divorce Industry–a project I was thrilled to participate in for the past 15 months. A project of the Special Collections Department of the University of Nevada, Reno Libraries, this effort involved digitizing over a thousand photos, books, pamphlets, diaries, postcards, and other materials; recording interviews with individuals who experienced the divorce trade firsthand; writing narratives to explain the many facets of the trade; and designing an exhibit and online archive to bring this story–in all its marvelous complexity–to the public.

Browse the online library, read the narratives, and listen to the voices, and I think you’ll begin to appreciate the magnitude of this six-decade industry and its wide-ranging contributions to the culture of Reno, the state of Nevada, and the United States. The legacies of this trade are everywhere–in Reno’s architectural and business landscape; in the large number of local residents who came to town for a Reno divorce and decided to stay; in the city’s longstanding identity as a cosmopolitan crossroads; and in this rich and often surprising collection of colorful stories that hold such potential for further research, for tourism, and for strengthening the identity of a community almost perpetually in transition.

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