The Harvey Girls
If you’re a fan of American historical romances, you’ve read your share of stories about women headed west on wagon trains. However, most women on the wagon trains were married, at least when they pulled out of St. Joseph. Single women were discouraged from joining the trains, since they didn’t have the manpower needed to keep track of the animals, hunt for food, and protect themselves from marauding Indians. It wasn’t until the advent of rail transportation that women began migrating west in large numbers, either as mail-order brides, or to join family already established.
Rail transportation from coast to coast was achieved at about the same time a young man named Fred Harvey, who worked in a restaurant in New York City, decided to change direction in his professional life. Just fifteen when he emigrated to America from Liverpool, England, he worked in a succession of restaurants, learning the business from the ground up. He began to notice a need caused by the railroads. Most of them didn’t have dining cars, and the lunch counters along the rail routes were deplorable. Although there were dining stops scheduled approximately every 100 miles apart, the stops were only an hour in duration–hardly enough time to find a restaurant, order a meal, and have it prepared and eaten.
Fred Harvey saw an opportunity.
Drawing on his restaurant experience, he pitched the idea of a chain of restaurants along the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe rail line to the company president, Charles Morse. He loved the idea of creating restaurants along the rail line, which followed the Santa Fe Trail and fully supported the Harvey restaurant concept. Harvey wanted to switch things up, though, from the way most restaurants worked at the time. Together with his friend and manager, Tom Gable, they decided to not employ black males to work in the restaurants, as was the current practice, but to use women–specifically young white single women between the ages of eighteen and thirty.
At a time when, as the old joke goes, there were “no ladies west of Dodge City and no women west of Albuquerque,” Fred Harvey and Tom Gable took a gamble that importing women from the east would have a settling influence on the local men who worked in the restaurants and on the railroad as well as those traveling on the railroad. They figured the cowboys who roamed the territory would behave better in the company of women, and the travelers who left the train for a quick meal would feel at home.
The first Harvey House opened in the Topeka, KS depot station in 1876. With a focus on cleanliness, reasonable prices, good food and service, the Topeka Harvey House became the training ground for his new female recruits, who answered his newspaper ads and came to Topeka. Word began to spread east that becoming a Harvey Girl was a good way to see the country, and perhaps, find a husband. In order to qualify to become a Harvey Girl, the women needed to have an 8th grade education or better, have high moral standards, have good manners and be neat and articulate. In exchange for a good wage of $17.50 per month, plus free room, board and uniforms, the girls had to sign a contract to work for Harvey for six months, agree not to marry during that time, and abide by Harvey’s rules and regulations. By the late 1880s, there was a Harvey House every 100 miles from Topeka to California employing thousands of young women. At its peak there were 84 Harvey Houses, and they continued in operation until the 1930s.
These women were never called waitresses. They were Harvey Girls. They were given few options on where to live, how to dress and when to be in bed. If one of them did attract the eye of a gentleman, he had to meet with Harvey’s approval before they could date. At the end of their contracts, many of these women elected to stay in the west, and became part of the civilization of the country
That is not to say these girls had an easy time of things. In some places where there was a Harvey establishment, rumors abounded that the Harvey Girls were really prostitutes with white aprons, instead of being the hardworking waitresses that they really were. In fact, in towns where ladies of the evening had establishments, they looked upon the Harvey girls as competition, and tensions between the two groups existed.
It took a special kind of woman to answer the call to become a Harvey Girl. They needed spunk and independence, and a dedication to do a job well. Fred Harvey ran the company until his death in 1901, at which time his sons took over the company, which continued to operate until the 1930s.
A Fred Harvey museum can be found in Harvey’s former residence in Leavenworth, KS.
Fans of old movies might remember the 1946 Judy Garland musical about The Harvey Girls.