Teaching American History Project Lesson
  Shawn J. Lear

Author:  Shawn J. Lear
           
Unit title:  Post WWII trends

Lesson title:  Getting “Reno-Vated

Subject:  U.S. History

Level:  11th Grade

Length of Lesson: One 105-minute block period

Introduction:
In the wake of WWII, as in the aftermath of most wars, Americans returned their focus to the home front with renewed vigor.  For the first time in nearly two decades, Americans seemed to have nothing immediate to worry about-no economic depression, as the economy was booming from wartime production, no foreign aggressors, as they had been dealt with, and seemingly nothing to fear, except maybe fear itself, though fear was probably the last thing on anyone’s mind. No, life was good, and it was only getting better, due to the ever-increasing advancements of technology and American ingenuity.  Americans were cruising headlong into the new future they themselves had created.  This technology brought some challenges, but not without some added comforts.  Brand new homes, shiny new cars, steady new jobs, and exciting new relationships were in full-effect.  Families began to blossom out of the last-minute marriages between soldiers and sweethearts who had feared they might never again see the beloved spouse they hardly knew.  Often times they had tied the knot just before he boarded a transport to war.  Dreams of loved ones kept hope alive for those awash in the horrors of war and monotony of factory life.  Yet the return to daily life in America brought even more unexpected changes than the war itself-some of the previously happy couples were suddenly finding themselves in a state of despair and regret, and anxiously searched for an escape from the chains of their marriage, an escape that, to the average American in the 1950’s, was culturally unacceptable, morally wrong, financially unattainable, and practically difficult, yet to those in the predicament, seemingly necessary. 

Nevada, and especially Reno, had long been a divorce center.  Many came to “take the cure,” as they called it.  “I’m on my way to Reno,” sang Billy Murray in 1910, declaring Reno’s easy divorces under Nevada state law.  This dry, barren land in the West became an oasis of hope for those seeking relief from their marriage.  Though other states offered divorces to varying degrees, Reno’s mix of the quick and practical divorce quickly caused the city to gain a reputation as the undisputed leader of convenient divorces.  Reno had also played a key role in the dramatic increase of marriages at the outset of World War II with its instant marriage services.  It is only fitting that Reno could help people reverse their hasty decisions. 

Divorce had been legal in Nevada since the state’s inception in 1864 and even during the territorial period of 1861-1864.  Because the transient population had found it difficult to make a permanent home in the arid state, the original citizenship requirement was only six months, and hence so was the divorce requirement, half of what most states required.  Thanks to an entrepreneurial lawyer in New York who began to advertise the less stringent divorce laws of Nevada, and the coverage of high profile divorces like that of Mr. William Corey of U.S. Steel in 1905, Reno began to be known as a haven for those seeking divorce.  Nevada legislators and business entrepreneurs continued to support this growth as they countered divorce measures in other states by lowering the residence requirements in Nevada and remaining on the cutting edge of the industry.  It eventually was lowered to three months and then six weeks, except for the two year period that it was increased to one full year.  Advertising, word of mouth, and the continued reporting of high profile divorcees kept Reno in the limelight for decades.           

Nevada offered a variety of reasons for granting a divorce other than the reason most states allowed for, which was infidelity.  Local businesses catered to and thrived on the clients and business of divorce, providing all of the necessary amenities for the weary, forlorn, and mismatched.  These included hotels and resorts, guest ranches, food, entertainment, nightlife, recreation, and the like.  In a time when the unhappy were hemmed in from all angles, Reno provided the easy escape from the seemingly cursed trap of a bad marriage.  Like a light at the end of a dark tunnel, the beacon of Reno beckoned many and welcomed their problems, their presence, and their pocketbooks.  Though Reno has become known as a city of finalities, dissolutions, and dreams gone awry, it is equally a city of possibilities, open doors, and hopes renewed.  Many a divorce seeker came to Reno merely proclaiming their intent to “take up residence” and actually ended up calling Reno home for a lifetime. 

At a time when Americans sought to find a balance between their philosophical beliefs and practical needs, the state of Nevada and the city of Reno played a critical role in the ever-changing social and cultural trends of our country.  Following the lead of Nevada, many other states dropped their strict requirements on divorce in response to the changing needs of post WWII Americans.  Reno continues to offer some of the easiest divorces, and has a divorce rate of nearly twice the national average to this day.  An uncontested divorce for Nevada residents can cost as little as $400 and takes a mere 14 days to be finalized.

Given the historical setting of the post WWII era, students will begin the lesson by doing a brief timeline of the history of divorce in Nevada.  They will create a timeline of the major legislation, divorce statistics, and a few famous divorces.  Students will examine primary source photographs of a divorce law cartoon from 1931, an old Nevada Dude Ranch pamphlet, and a photo of the famous divorcee Mary Pickford.  Students will provide a written response to the photos using the NARA photo analysis worksheet. 

Next, students will examine newspaper articles from the WWII era to see what trends were developing in Nevada, especially Reno, concentrating on the marriage and divorce rates in the state at that time.  Students will participate in a prediction and cause and effect discussion based on these trends, and compare and contrast the liberal marriage and divorce laws of Nevada with the social standards of the 1950’s era.  Students will examine, interpret, and dramatically recreate part of a 1944 divorce advertisement from the American Weekly entitled “Out of this World in Reno.”  Lastly, students will look at the pros and cons of divorce as a whole, such as the effects it might have upon individuals, families, and communities, and even a state or country.  Students will analyze their own lives for the effects of divorce, and create a written or artistic representation of their feelings on the issue. 

 

Objectives:
1. Students will examine the history of divorce law in Nevada by creating an accurate timeline of significant divorce laws, famous divorces, and related events.
2. Students will describe primary source photographs related to Nevada and divorce through NARA primary source worksheets.
3. Students will read primary source newspaper articles for the WWII era and participate in a discussion of the trends of the time period.
4. Students will dramatize a portion of the Reno divorce advertisement from 1944 to present the various aspects of what a divorce in Reno might have looked like.
5. Students will examine the present day divorce statistics and create a current events journal of a related subject to find present day connections.
6. Students will examine the varying opinions about divorce and create a pro and con chart about the issue.
7. Students will process their own personal viewpoint or experience of divorce in a writing or artistic project.

 

Nevada State Content Standards:

History Standard 2.0: History Skills: Students will use social studies vocabulary and concepts to engage in inquiry, in research, in analysis, and in decision-making.
Benchmark 2.12.2 Integrate, analyze, and or­ganize historical information from a variety of sources

History Standard 9.0: The Twentieth Century, a Changing World: 1945 to 1990:        Students understand the shift of international relationships and power as well as the significant developments in American culture.
Benchmark 9.12.6 Describe the causes and effects of changing demographics and developing suburbanization in the United States.
Benchmark 9.12.14 Summarize the influence of art, music, literature, and the media on United States society.

 

In Class Student Activities:

Introduction to the lesson: (15 minutes)
Begin by asking the students this question:  What has brought people to Nevada over years?  Put the answers to their brainstorming on the board, and after students have given several accurate ideas, which should include jobs, Lake Tahoe, and to get married, ask the following question:  Have you ever considered the other side of the marriage issue, namely, that people also came to Reno for a divorce? 

Activity 1:  (45-60 minutes)
Teacher led instruction, students work individually by timeline creation. Teacher will provide an overhead with chronological dates and descriptions of early Nevada divorce laws and some famous divorces in Nevada.  Students will follow along and create their own timeline as the teacher explains the events in a mini-lecture, tracing the development of Nevada’s liberal divorce laws from statehood to 1940.  Primary sources will be used periodically during this process.

Students will examine the history of divorce law in Nevada by creating an accurate timeline of significant divorce laws, famous divorces, and related events.  Timeline will be on 11 x 17 inch paper, in color, and accurately show the significant events from early Nevada to 1940.  Timeline will be used as assessment of student learning.

When it is time to examine the first primary source, teacher can divide the students into groups of four, each with a copy of the primary source and the corresponding worksheets.  If the teacher chooses, the primary sources can be shown on overheads or LCD projector and students can fill out worksheets individually or as a group.  If in groups, students will examine primary source photographs and answer questions within their group, choosing one person to record their responses on the NARA worksheets and another to present to the class.  NARA worksheets will serve as the formative assessment of each group or individual.

Timeline of Divorce in Nevada:

1864: Nevada becomes a state during the Civil War

1864-1899: Nevada maintains a six-month residency requirement to attract and maintain its population (allows for a six-month divorce requirement; most states required at least one year)

1899: Lord John Francis Stanley Russell arrives from Europe and gets a divorce in Genoa, Nevada

1906:  William Corey, President of U.S. Steel, comes to Nevada for a divorce from Laura B. Corey and marries dancer ________________

1910: Billy Murray releases song entitled “I’m on my way to Reno”

  • Reno becomes known as the divorce capitol during this time

PRIMARY SOURCE SONG LYRICS: Have students listen to the song and/or read the lyrics as a group, and have the group recorder fill out the NARA sound recording sheets for assessment
http://www.archives.gov/digital_classroom/lessons/analysis_worksheets/sound.html
http://www.archives.gov/digital_classroom/lessons/analysis_worksheets/document.html
                                                                                                   
1913: State legislators boost the requirement to one year during Progressivism

1915: State legislators lower the requirement back to six months following protest of Reno business and political leaders
            (One businessman said Reno lost up to $1 million from 1913-1915)

PRIMARY SOURCE PHOTOGRAPH of Mary Pickford-pass out the photo to each group for discussion of this question:
http://www.archives.gov/digital_classroom/lessons/analysis_worksheets/photo.html
            How did high profile divorces add to the reputation and expansion of Reno as the “divorce capitol of the world?”  Is this still true (prediction)?

Teacher should explain to the students that the reporting of high profile divorces aided in the development of Reno’s reputation and economic growth.

1920: Famous American actress Mary Pickford comes to Reno for a divorce from her husband Owen Moore.

1920’s:  Nevada adds “extreme mental cruelty” to the list of acceptable reasons for a divorce, and phrases such as “taking the cure” and getting “Reno-Vated”         become popular, as do the acts of kissing the courthouse pillars and throwing rings into the Truckee River once one’s divorce was final.

1927: Nevada residency law is lowered to 3 months to compete with other Western states, providing for even easier divorces!

PRIMARY SOURCE CARTOON: Cartoon of 1931 divorce law-have students examine in their groups and fill out the NARA cartoon analysis sheet for assessment
http://www.archives.gov/digital_classroom/lessons/analysis_worksheets/cartoon.html
            Discuss the following: 
What attitudes towards divorce does the 1931 cartoon show?  How do you think people felt at the time?  Teacher should explain the law’s significance.

1931: Six Week residency law is passed, making Nevada, and especially Reno, the “divorce capitol of the world.”

PRIMARY SOURCE PHOTOGRAPH:  Pyramid Lake “Dude Ranches” (divorce ranches).  Have students examine and fill out the NARA Photograph analysis sheet for assessment. 
http://www.archives.gov/digital_classroom/lessons/analysis_worksheets/photo.html
            Ask the students the following questions:  How did the expansion of the “dude” ranches in Nevada connect to the issue of divorce?  What amenities or accommodations and attractions did the ranches offer?

Activity 3:  (25 minutes)
Students will read secondary source newspaper articles for the WWII era and participate in a discussion of the trends of the time period.

Point out the dramatic rise in marriages at the beginning of WWII and the rise of divorces following the war.  Point out the connections as mentioned in the introduction, and discuss the societal pressure of conformity of the 1950’s era to help students understand how Reno’s reputation has developed in a primarily negative manner as divorce has been viewed by much of our society as a social evil and stood in stark contrast to the “nuclear family “of the 1950’s era. 
           
Students will dramatize a portion of the Reno divorce advertisement from 1944 to present the various aspects of what a divorce in Reno might have looked like.  Students can examine whole or part of this PRIMARY SOURCE PHOTOGRAPH and article and present it to the class.

Download Supplemental Lesson Documents
Divorce Advertisement: "Out of this World in Reno"
Mary Pickford Photograph
Pyramid Lake "Dude Ranches" Photograph
Reno Divorce Flyer Map
Lyrics: "I'm on My Way to Reno"
Divorce News Clippings

 

Extended Enrichment Activities:
1. Students will examine the present day divorce statistics and create a current events journal of a related subject to find present day connections.
2. Students will examine the varying opinions about divorce and create a pro and con chart about the issue.
3. Students will process their own personal viewpoint or experience of divorce in a writing or artistic project.

 

Materials List:

Primary source items from Nevada Historical society:
            Famous divorcee Mary Pickford photograph
            1931 Divorce law cartoon
            Pyramid Lake “Dude Ranches” photograph
1944 divorce advertisement from the American Weekly entitled “Out of this World in Reno.” 

Items included in this lesson plan document following the outline:
Photocopy of 1940’s newspaper articles from Reno listing divorce statistics
            Nevada divorce timeline
            Lyrics to Billy Murray’s “I’m on my way to Reno”

NARA primary source photograph evaluation worksheet
http://www.archives.gov/digital_classroom/lessons/analysis_worksheets/photo.html

NARA primary source cartoon evaluation sheet
http://www.archives.gov/digital_classroom/lessons/analysis_worksheets/cartoon.html

NARA primary source sound recording evaluation sheet
http://www.archives.gov/digital_classroom/lessons/analysis_worksheets/sound.html

NARA primary source written document evaluation sheet
http://www.archives.gov/digital_classroom/lessons/analysis_worksheets/document.html

 

Evaluation /Assessment:
NARA primary source evaluation sheets and the Nevada divorce timeline will serve as the assessments for this lesson.

 

Bibliography/Citation:
America:  Pathways to the Present.  Prentice-Hall:  Upper Saddle Back, New Jersey.  1998.

Martin, Amber.  Reno Divorce History.  March 18, 2004.  http://www.jour.unr.edu/outpost/specials/wedding%20Pkg./div2.reno.html

NARA website.  March 18, 2004.  http://www.archives.gov/digital_classroom/lessons/analysis_worksheets/worksheets.html

Nevada Historical Society. 
http://dmla.clan.lib.nv.us/docs/museums/reno/his-soc.htm


Timeline of Divorce in Nevada:

  1. 1864: Nevada becomes a state during the Civil War
  2. 1864-1899: Nevada maintains a 6 month residency requirement to attract and maintain its population (allows for a six-month divorce requirement; most states required at least one year)
  3. 1899: Lord John Francis Stanley Russell arrives from Europe and gets a divorce in Genoa
  4. 1906:  William Corey, President of U.S. Steel, comes to Nevada for a divorce from ___________________
  5. 1910: Billy Murray releases song entitled “I’m on my way to Reno.”
  6. 1913: State legislators boost the requirement to one year.
  7. 1915: State legislators lower the requirement back to six months following protest of Reno business and political leaders (One businessman said Reno lost $1 million from 1913-1915).
  8. 1920: Famous American actress Mary Pickford comes to Reno for a divorce from her husband Owen Moore.
  9. 1920’s: 
    1. -Nevada adds “extreme mental cruelty” to the list of acceptable reasons for a divorce
      -Phrases such as “taking the cure” and getting “Reno-Vated” become popular, as do the acts of kissing the courthouse pillars and throwing rings into the Truckee River.

  10. 1927: Nevada residency law is lowered to 3 months to compete with other Western states, providing for even easier divorces!
  11. 1931: Six Week residency law is passed, making Nevada, and especially Reno, the “divorce capitol of the world.”


“I’m on my way to Reno”

My wife and I don't get along,
We simply fight and fight.
I married her to win a bet,
it really serves me right.
The love she once declared was mine
has simply turned to hate.
So I've made up my mind
to visit old Nevada State

-- From Billy Murray's "I'm on my way to Reno" RCA Victor 1910