These girls were ground-breakers for being among the first to work outside the home during the 1800’s. Fred Harvey provided them with an independent career at a time when women were usually only offered teaching and nursing jobs. A new tradition began once the original Harvey Girls started families-their daughters would become Harvey Girls just like their mothers.
Fred Harvey was the mastermind of the game-changing hospitality restaurant and hotel chain called Harvey House. I learned about Fred and the Harvey Girls on a recent ski trip with friends to the snowy slopes of Colorado. We stopped to spend the first evening in Winslow, Arizona at the La Posada Hotel, the last of the Harvey House hotels to be built. Here’s what I discovered about Harvey House and the amazing man who changed railroad travel and the hospitality industry forever.
The Harvey Girl legacy started with Fred Harvey, who emigrated from Liverpool, England at 18 and got his first job as a dishwasher in New York. From there, he moved on to New Orleans and St. Louis, learning the restaurant business from the ground up. Eventually, he moved to Leavenworth, Kansas, where he worked sorting mail for the first railroad post office. He noticed how the lunchrooms serving train passengers were terrible and most of the trains did not have dining cars. It was common practice for trains to make stops every 100 miles or so, but that didn’t guarantee that there would be food available at these stops for the hungry travelers, who often had an hour or less in which to find sustenance.
Utilizing his previous restaurant experience, Harvey came up with a plan to build a network of restaurants that would serve passengers aboard the trains. He presented his idea to Charles Morse, the Superintendent of the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railway,( A.T.&S.F). Charles endorsed the idea and the first Harvey House restaurant opened in Topeka, Kansas at the Santa Fe Depot.
Harvey first order of business was to concentrate on cleanliness, service, good value and food. The restaurants were a huge success and it didn’t take long for the railways to have Harvey handle all their food services. The restaurant chain was born and Harvey House restaurants quickly populated the railway depots from Kansas to California. By the end of the 1800s, there was a restaurant every 100 miles along the Santa Fe line. By the 1890’s there were Harvey House dining cars as well, serving delicious food on china, with linen tablecloths and napkins and efficient servers.
But finding reliable workers who could carry out Fred’s demanding expectations in the West was not easy. Harvey found men from the West were unreliable so he started recruiting young women from across the country using newspaper ads. The requirements for a Harvey Girl included: “at least an 8th grade education, good moral character, good manners, neat and articulate.”
A good salary with room, board and uniforms, made these jobs very popular among young women. Harvey Girls had to agree to a 6-month contract, not to marry and to abide by all company rules during their tenure of employment. Fred Harvey was way ahead of his time providing an opportunity to young women for travel and independence outside the societal norms of the day.
Here are a few fun and interesting facts about the Harvey Girls and their iconic status:
The uniform of a Harvey Girl consisted of a long black dress that was 8 inches from the floor, topped by a long white apron, black stockings and shoes. The girls were a major attraction in the West where men dominated the population. The girls lived on hotel premises or next door to the hotels in a dorm-like situation, under the “care of” the Harvey Girl with the longest tenure. Harvey Girls girl could sign up for another six months at the same restaurant or a new location for more adventure. If a girl left before her contract was finished, she forfeited her pay for the unworked time. Most girls who left the job early did so to get married.
In 1946, the Harvey Girls were celebrated with icon status in the 1946 movie, The Harvey Girls starring Judy Garland, Angela Lansbury and Ray Bolger. The Harvey Company was involved in the MGM Studios production, sending a representative to ensure that the company was shown with proper family values. Interestingly enough, they also requested that Fred Harvey not be depicted in the film.
Harvey continued to hone his brand with continued success until his death in 1901. His sons took over, but the business declined during the Great Depression. With WWII, the hotels saw new life and ,railroads were busy again transporting and feeding all those troops. The most popular hotels were built throughout the 1930’s and 40’s, peaking at 84 hotels. But demand changed in the 1950s with the automobile and new highways. The Harvey Hotels slowly closed, ending the era of passenger train travel for the country. But Fred’s contributions to the hospitality industry and the career opportunities he provided to women across the United States left an indelible mark on Western expansionism and freedom.