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How the West Was Won… By Waitresses

Harvey Girls helped settle the west and advance the stature of women in the workforce

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Harvey Girls, circa 1926, in evening uniforms at the El Tovar Hotel. Image courtesy of Flickr user Grand Canyon NPS.

In the realm of the popular mythology of the American West, food rarely comes to the fore. At most, we generally see a token saloon and the barkeep who keeps whistles wet but otherwise amounts to little more than set dressing. But the truth is, people who boarded a westward-bound train were able to eat pretty darn well. This was thanks to entrepreneur Fred Harvey, who launched a successful chain of restaurants (called Harvey House) along the Santa Fe railway and provided fortune seekers access to fine dining on the frontier. And at each location, patrons were served in the dining rooms by an elite force of waitresses known as Harvey Girls, a corps of women who helped settle the West and advance the stature of women in the workforce.

While the American West of the 19th century was a place for great opportunity, it lacked creature comforts, namely access to quality dining. Here, English-born entrepreneur Fred Harvey saw a chance to launch a business. Working with the nascent Santa Fe railway, he opened a lunchroom at the Florence, Kansas, train depot in 1878. The first location was so successful that additional locations were opened up along the line and by the late 1880s, there was a Fred Harvey restaurant every hundred miles—America’s first chain dining establishment. Strict standards ensured that a Fred Harvey meal was consistent at each location. Bread was baked on-site and sliced three-eights of an inch thick; orange juice was squeezed fresh only after it was ordered; alkali levels of the water were tested to ensure high-quality brewed coffee; menus were carefully planned out so that passengers would have a variety of foods to select from along their travels. Harvey took advantage of ice cars to transport highly perishable items—fruit, cheeses, ice cream, fresh fish—to the harsh environs of the southwest. For railroad towns eking by on fried meat, canned beans and stale coffee, the Harvey House chain was nothing short of a godsend.

Then there was the factor of the service. After the team of waiters in the Raton, New Mexico, location were involved in a brawl, Harvey fired the lot and replace them with young women. It was a radical idea. As far as respectable society in the late 1800s was concerned, a woman working as a waitress was considered to be as reputable as a prostitute. What else were the high-moraled society to think of single girls working in places that served alcohol, soliciting orders from male patrons? But this facet of Harvey’s venture could possibly succeed if the same structure and standardization used in the kitchen was applied to the serving staff. Placing newspaper ads calling for intelligent girls of strong character between the ages of 18 and 30, Harvey put applicants through a 30-day boot camp. By the time their training was over, they had the skills to serve a four-course meal within the thirty-minute meal stop a train would take at each station. The trial run at Raton was so successful that women replaced the male wait staff at all Fred Harvey establishments.

The classic Harvey Girl uniform. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons user Wikibofh.

When working the dining room, Harvey Girls were forbidden to wear jewelry and makeup. They wore a conservative uniform: black ankle-length dresses with Elsie collars, white bib aprons. Waitresses lived in a dormitory supervised by a matron who strictly enforced a ten o’clock curfew. Working 12-hour-shifts six and seven day weeks, when a waitress wasn’t serving a customer, she was busy keeping the dining room spotless. In this way, the Harvey House functioned as a corporate chaperone that was able to provide the waitressing profession considerable social respectability.

Although being a Harvey Girl was hard work, there were considerable benefits. In terms of pay, they were at the top of their profession: $17.50 a month plus tips, meals, rooming, laundry and travel expenses. (By comparison, waiters made, on average, $48 a month, but have to pay for room and board. Men in manufacturing made about $54 a month, but all living expenses came out of pocket.) Not only were these women able to live and work independently, but they were able to save money, either to send home to family or to build a nest egg for themselves. And given that the West had a higher male-to-female ratio, they had improved odds of finding a husband. ”The move west in the late 1800s and early 1900s was, for men, a change to break with the past, look at the world beyone the family porch, and being a new life,” Lesley Polling-Kempes writes in her exhaustive study on the Harvey Girls. “Fred Harvey gave young women a similar opportunity. A sociologist could not have invented a better method by which the West could become inhabited by so many young women anxious to take part in the building of a new region.”

Women of loose morals and rough-and-tumble, pistol-packing mamas are among the stereotypical images of women that abound in the literature and movies. And so too did the Harvey Girls attain their own mythic status, fabled to have married business magnates and to have inspired the ire of the local dance hall girls. The waitresses even inspired poetry, such as the fllowing by Leiger Mitchell Hodges, published in 1905:

I have viewed the noblest shrines in Italy,

And gazed upon the richest mosques of Turkey—

But the fairest of all sights, it seems to me,

Was the Harvey Girl I saw in Albuquerque.

The idea of the Fred Harvey’s waitresses as a force of womanhood that civilized the West saw its fullest expression in the 1946 musical The Harvey Girls. With music by Johnny Mercer, it’s a perfectly hummable treatment of the wild west, although rife with its share of historical inaccuracies. And the musical/comedy treatment detracts from the fact that these women worked a long, hard day. But for the sight of synchronized table setting alone, it’s well worth a watch.

As airplane and automobile travel gained in popularity, business declined in the years following World War II. By the late 1960s, Fred Harvey restaurants were no more and the waitresses who kept the train passengers fed were the image of a bygone America. And while they were simply hard working women, their role as community builders is not to be underestimated. “Harvey Girls became women well educated in the needs, moods, affectations and habits of people from all over the United States,” Poling-Kempes writes. “Harvey Girls were among the most upwardly mobile women of the American West, crossing social boundaries in their daily routines, playing the role of mother and sister to travelers rich and poor, famous and infamous.”

Sources

Fried, Stephen. Appetite for America: Fred Harvey and the Business of Civilizing the Wild West. New York: Random House, 2010.

Henderson, James. Meals by Fred Harvey. Hawthorne: Omni Publications, 1985.

Poling-Kempes, Lesley. The Harvey Girls: Women Who Opened the West. New York: Paragon House, 1989.

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