While Nevada and especially Reno were once famous for quickie divorces, there has been surprisingly little scholarly study of that period. Historian Mella Harmon is filling that void with extensive research and work on a book derived from her college thesis.
Tell me what got you interested in Nevada’s divorce history.
I got interested in divorce history because I needed a thesis title for my master’s thesis [laughs]. That’s the bottom line answer. How I came across divorce, though, as a topic—I had all these crazy notions I wanted to tackle. You know, the New Deal projects in Nevada and all these impossibly large projects. And I was looking through the publication Guide to the Silver State, which was the WPA [Works Progress Administration, a New Deal agency] guidebook for Nevada. And there was this wonderful quote in the Reno section about the divorce trade and how people with very simple houses would vacate their homes and rent them out to divorce seekers, you know, for a six-week period … only to return home to find that their lavish tenants had redecorated their homes. And that image really captured my imagination. So I wanted to understand how the citizenry of Reno, how everyday people were involved in the divorce trade, to what degree and what level and how they interacted, what various services were offered and that sort of thing. And that’s how I got into it.
Once you got into it, was there anything that surprised you?
Well, there were lots of things that surprised me. My thesis statement was that—and the title of my thesis—is Divorce and Economic Opportunity in Reno, Nevada, During the Great Depression. My premise was that individuals, people in the community benefited from the divorce trade. And I guess the big surprise was that they did and to a much greater degree than I had even imagined when I set out to do my research. … The thing that also surprised me is, if you look at motion pictures of the day, of that period, say, between [the] 1920s through the early ‘60s, how often just using the name Reno was shorthand for getting a divorce. And how often and how frequently—I mean, I tried to keep a list, but it’s out of hand. There are so many films where it might just be a sign in the background, but that indicates that Reno had this incredible reputation as a place where you went for a divorce, to the extent that just saying the name Reno was synonymous with getting a divorce.
Did you find a lot of finger-pointing at Nevada?
Yes. Reno did not have a wonderful reputation in some camps. Certainly the various religious organizations weren’t keen on Nevada. Other states, I think, probably weren’t either, for having liberal laws, you know. But it did not slow down the divorce trade one iota.
Is this just a historical curiosity, or is there something that period can say to us?
I think that period can say a lot to us on many levels. Now, I’m not a sociologist, but I suspect that period probably says a lot to us on how our society was changing in the 20th century. And I think somebody looking back who has that sort of background can really say a lot from that. I think from the standpoint of Reno’s reputation, it can say a lot because another thing that amazed me was that Reno had this incredible international reputation. And now, of course, the RSCVA [Reno-Sparks Convention and Visitors Authority] and everybody else is struggling to get people to come to Reno, and we had so many people then, and our name was known throughout the world.