Harvey Girls: The Women Who Tamed the Wild Frontier

hg2.jpgMuch has been written about women who traversed the continent by wagon train as well as those who were mail-order brides. But there’s a less well-known, more unique, and equally important percentage of young women who blazed a trail of civilization from east to west coast. These were the Harvey Girls. 

As the railroad charged across the west, little thought was given to the comfort of passengers. Food was inedible or lethal and service sloppy. Some café owners even went in cahoots with railroad crews and scammed passengers: No sooner was the food placed before the patrons who had paid half a dollar in advance, than the whistle would toot. Afraid of being left behind, passengers ran for the train and the food was “recycled” for the next trainload of unsuspecting victims. 

Fred Harvey, an Englishman, worked his way up in fine eating establishments in the East before trying his hand at a partnership that failed. After brief service on a riverboat and a stint as a postal worker, he sold advertising for a newspaper and invested in cattle ranching, finally deciding while working as a freight agent that there was a crucial need for improved food and service along the rails. Harvey negotiated with Santa Fe Railroad and built his first dining operation in a wooden depot in Topeka. The premises were spotlessly clean. Premium prices were paid for top-quality supplies and ingredients, and table settings included Irish linens and English silver.

Harvey’s standards brought instant and overwhelming success. At his second establishment, a restaurant-hotel at Florence Kansas, he hired a chef away from Chicago’s Palmer House Hotel and paid him a $5,000 salary, more than the local bankers earned. The little town of Florence became famous for its Harvey House meals. Uniforms, fingernails, place settings, food lockers, and all facilities came under stringent regulations.

hg1.jpgHarvey, perfecting the Sudden Unannounced Visit as a means of quality control, would suddenly appear and conduct a white-glove inspection, tossing an offending manager out onto the platform at the least infraction. 

New Harvey Houses opened up at the division/meal-stop points, and by 1883, Harvey was operating seventeen establishments along the old Santa Fe Trail. The restaurants made a profit despite their devotion to quality food, generous portions, and elegant furnishings.

The only drawbacks to their success were the staffs of unreliable male employees who either showed up for work hung over or were injured in brawls. In 1883 Harvey implemented a policy that would be his greatest impact on the American West.

Advertisements appeared in several eastern and Midwestern papers: 

WANTED: Young women, 18 to 30 years of age, of good character, attractive and intelligent. 

hg4.jpgHarvey hired waitresses the same way he’d set about locating the finest food, furniture, chefs and managers. Women were screened with the same perfectionist methods. Upon signing a contract (twelve months in the early days), she usually had twenty-four hours to tell her family good-bye and begin rigorous training in Newton, Kansas. 

Between 1883 and the 1950’s, tens of thousands of women applied and learned “the Harvey way”. The first women answering the ads had many motivations for doing so, financial reasons most prevalent: Starting out, they were paid $17.50 per month, plus tips, room and board, and unsurpassed meals. 

Though black and white uniforms, black shoes and stockings, hairnets, and no make-up were intended to diminish their appearance, the Harvey girls were the best “dishes” the dining halls served up for the frontier men. The girls were friendly faces in an often lonely land. 

Most dormitories had a courting parlor where gentlemen could call, plus a sewing room. The girls were among the best paid and best dressed females in their towns. Many, being farmers’ daughters, sent earnings home to their families. 

The women worked their way up from the lunch counter to the dining hall and earned promotions or transfers to other houses along the Santa Fe. They worked six- and seven-day weeks, often twelve hours a day in split shifts around meal trains. When not serving, they cleaned and polished and kept their station ready for the next train. 

When they did have free time, they rode the rails free, visiting family, or played softball. Some Harvey Houses had their own teams that traveled up and down the line competing in other towns. 

A Harvey House was a social and business gathering place. Many real and imagined romances were spawned in the elegant setting. Countless contracts were broken and pay forfeited when Harvey Girls met and married railroad men, cattle ranchers, and businessmen.

The impact of these “good, attractive, and intelligent” women on the towns they poured into shouldn’t be underestimated. As approximately 5,000 of them married and raised families, eastern culture and civic improvement spread throughout Illinois, Missouri, Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas, Colorado, New Mexico, Arizona, California, and eventually the rest of the states.

These were the women in the forefront of the law and order movements, improving safety and quality of life. Their voices were the ones heard in civic activities, church choirs, and community stage productions. The Harvey Girls who married and settled in the West tended to marry men of high standing and to be the most capable women in the community. It’s been claimed that thousands of boys born to these couples bore the names Fred or Harvey or both. More so than dining experiences and service standards, Harvey’s most profound contribution to the civilization of the American West was the advent of the Harvey Girl. They worked hard, but with dignity and a sense of purpose. They were professionals worthy of respect and admiration. 

Many Harvey Houses survived the great depression o the 30’s, and as part of the war effort, Harvey Girls served thousands of troops during WW II. The disappearance of Harvey Girls is historically linked to the extremes of war and to progress in the form of automobiles and airplanes, an appropriate and worthy end to the legendary women who settled the West. 

harveygirls_01.jpgWill Rogers, western philosopher and humorist, recognized the contribution of the Harvey Girls with this: “In the early days the traveler fed on the buffalo. For doing so, the buffalo got his picture on the nickel. Well, Fred Harvey should have his picture on one side of the dime, and one of his waitresses with her arms full of delicious ham and eggs on the other side, ‘cause they have kept the West supplied with food and wives.”

I’ve written three books with Harvey Girls as characters, and I still find them as fun and interesting as always.  Many people remember the movie with Judy Garland, which was actually set toward the very end of the era, and much liberty was taken with that storyline. 

Harvey Girls are perfect material for heroines because they’re adventurous and out of their element in a new land.  Can you imagine, as a young woman, leaving your family behind, traveling to a rugged part of the country, and working in such a disciplined atmosphere?  Your needs would be provided for, you’d be supervised, and you’d probably send your wages home to help out the family.  Of course, you just might meet a studly cowboy–with a heart-stopping mustache, of course–and live happily ever after! 

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23 thoughts on “Harvey Girls: The Women Who Tamed the Wild Frontier”

  1. Oh wow. I’ve heard the term “Harvey Girl” before, but I didn’t know where it came from or the roots of it. Thank you for sharing this today. It’s very informative and awe inspiring.

    They had to be some of the strongest women in history, to brave the almost unknown frontier with their courage and determination. I can’t even imagine having that kind of strength to leave home and go so far away, but I’m sure if I knew it would help my family, I would do it without a second thought. The idea of finding a ruggedly handsome cowboy husband isn’t so bad either.;o)

  2. Hi Cheryl, couldn’t leave on my trip without stopping by P&P. It’s become a morning ritual. Love your blog! Harvey Girls are intriguing. Just think of all the stories those women could tell. My, oh my. I’ve read some books with a Harvey Girl as the heroine and my imagination always ran away with itself. Endless possiblities and most of them true. And you’re right about it taking a lot of courage to leave home to work.

    Congratulations on your new book deal! I’m thrilled for you. Keep reaching for new heights. The sky is the limit.

  3. Cheryl, the Harvey girls and their regimen reminds me of a female military or boarding school–not in a bad way, but in dedication to high standards that developed morals and work ethics. Always a good thing.

    I didn’t realize they were around until WWII. Interesting stuff!

  4. I loved reading the finer details about Harvey Girls. Hardly Hooters girls, right? I’m thinking of who we might compare them to today and I couldn’t really think of any establishment that would compare. Thanks for sharing their history – I always love to read about how things develop and came to be. Train travel has a certain romanticism about it and I’ve always loved riding on trains with my mom as a child.

  5. I just read a book with a Harvey Girl heroine. I can’t quite bring it into focus. Maybe it was yours Cheryl.
    This went on for years, right?
    Have you (I’m sure you have) ever noted that the Pony Express lasted about a year and a half? And yet Pony Express is almost universally known and referred to and written about in stories. And yet these Harvey Girls are a really little known part of western history. I think that’s odd, what a great source of adventure and romance.
    And those rat fink restauranteurs who brought out the same food over and over, knowing no one would have time to eat.
    Diabolical.

  6. Loved your story about the Harvey girls, Cheryl. If I remember right, one of the most notable Harvey facility was the lodge at the South Rim of the Grand Canyon. It’s been a while, but I remember the photos of Fred Harvey and his “girls” in the lobby. It’s still an awesome place.

  7. <p>Hi guys! I’ve been scheduling guest bloggers for your blogging pleasure (thanks to Linda and Charlene for their help) and you’re going to be excited about who’ll be chatting with us.</p>
    <p>Anyway, here you all were busy blogging this morning. I have to stop and think: The Doctor’s Wife was my first Harvey Girl, then The Lawman’s Bride and the third in that series was The Preacher’s Wife. She isn’t a Harvey Girl, but same town, same places and people and a few HG’s revisited.</p>
    <p>Hmmm…I need to do another.</p>
    <p>Interesting contrast about the Pony Express, Mary. Women’s accomplishments took a back seat, didn’t they? I’m reading your book right now.</p>

    I’ve never been to the Grand Canyon, Elizabeth. Sounds great.

    And THANKS! I’m always amazed when other authors tell me they read my book, I don’t why why. *G*

  8. The Doctor’s Wife heroine was a Harvey Girl? I loved that book, Cheryl, it’s one a re-read every once in a while. I think the doctor hero in that book is about the most perfect man ever.

    I’ll have to re-read it again for the Harvey references.

  9. Oh Cheryl, you need to go to the Grand Canyon. You could go for inspiration. And research. And make it a business expense. You have such an eye for the beauty of nature – you would love it.

  10. Well, for some reason, Mary, the editors took out all specific references to Harvey Girls. They left the name of the hotel, etc.. I was never sure why they did that, and I was rather ticked, actually, since her position was half the fun. But that’s the fun of the publishing biz.

  11. There was an article about the Harvery Girls in the Order of Elks national magazine last month.I had never heard of them until then.

  12. What a fascinating blog! Thank you! I think I’d heard of the Harvey Girls, either from my husband (he’s big into history) or perhaps at Durham Museum. I’m going to save this for a future story, they’re so inspiring.

  13. Thanks, Julie! Here are some good resources:

    THE HARVEY GIRLS, Women Who Opened The West, Lesley Poling-Kempes
    THE HARVEY GIRLS, The Women Who Civilized The West, Juddi Morris
    THE HARVEY HOUSE COOKBOOK, Memories of Dining Along The Santa Fe Railroad, George H. Foster and Peter C. Weiglin
    THE RAILROADERS, Time-Life Old West Series
    STEEL TRAILS TO SANTA FE, L.L. Waters, University of Kansas Press

  14. I had never heard of Harvey Girls until I read Cheryl’s “The Lawman’s Bride”. Because of that one I found “The Doctor’s Wife” and I have “The Preacher’s Wife” in my to be read pile. I’ll have to look into some of those Harvey Girls books listed above. Thanks for the info and the wonderful books, Cheryl.

  15. I loved your blog about the Harvey girls. I have read other stories about them and they always fascinate me. I can’t imagine moving west in the circumstances they did. I did my westward trek and left all family and friends behind in the early 1990’s and that was really hard. Just my hubby and the kids. Our phone bill was awful. Can you imagine what it would have been like back then with no email or telephones? Great job as usual Cheryl.

  16. Cheryl, Do you have an idea WHY these girls took these jobs? Were they terribly poor? Were they orphans? It doesn’t seem like a girl would have been allowed to do such a think back then and, to have them all be proper and upright young women as they were advertized for, well, that strains credulity.
    Or maybe it just attracted adventurous rebellious, but still respectable young ladies.

  17. Hi, I am late getting to Petticoats today but have to reply to this wonderful post. Yes, the Grand Canyon concessions are “descended” from the Harvey era…it is a fantastic place to visit. And something I haven’t thought about since dinosaurs roamed the earth: I played Fred Harvey in our Girl Scout Play on the Harvey girls way back when.

  18. Cheryl, I really enjoyed your post. I have your books in my TBR pile and am now more eager to read them than ever. I’ve been wanting to do a Harvy Girl story, but so far the only one in the works doesn’t quite get there due to a train wreck and amnesia. Maybe some day I can actually have a Harvey Girl heroine. Thanks for the references. I even have one of the books you mentioned!

  19. Loved reading more on the Harvy Girls. Visiting the train station in Kansas City gives one a great insight into a very small part of their lives.
    Thanks Cheryl

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