The Harvey Girls
May 15, 2019 | by Becky Oeltjenbruns
This year we celebrate the 150th anniversary of the completion of the Transcontinental Railroad. This Herculean transportation project connected the Wild West with the refined East coast, providing the conduit for pioneering folks to carve out their destiny. We’ve already met one such amazing woman, who rode the rails for a spell, and now let me introduce you to some more gals with grit: the Harvey girls. Their story was put to music in the 1946 MGM classic, starring Judy Garland and Angela Lansbury. Hollywood glamour aside, just who were these gals who helped civilize the West? All aboard for brief history of the Harvey girls.
Our story starts in Liverpool, England in the early 1800s with the birth of Fred Harvey. (And here you thought the Beatles were the only famous boys from Liverpool!) Fred, determined to seek new adventures, immigrated to America as just a teenage boy. Could you imagine making that journey so young? As you’ll see, that love of wanderlust became the center of his budding empire. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves… Young Fred arrives in New York City and sets his sights on gainful employment. (After all, America was to be the making of him!)
What role did our bright-eyed and hopeful Fred assume? That of a pot scrubber and busboy. But not just any pot scrubber or busboy, no sir. He was employed at the most popular restaurants in town and he soaked up every bit of operational knowledge he could. Saving up both his money (his wage was about $2 per day or $64 per day in modern dollars) and treasuring his self-made apprenticeship, he decided after about a year and a half to give the South a try. New Orleans proved to be a key place for Fred because he learned every aspect of the restaurant business. Armed with management know-how, he made his way to St. Louis and opened up his first restaurant. It was not a success.
You could blame it on the economy (the civil war wasn’t exactly good for business), but Fred took this detour in stride and soon found work in the lucrative railroad business. While employed as a mail clerk, Fred traveled extensively. The scenery may have changed, but one common thread tied all these locales together: awful food. A chance meeting in Leavenworth, Kansas changed both Fred’s life and the lives of generations of travelers. Charles Morse, superintendent of the Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe Railway (and self-described foodie) struck up a conversation with Fred. (They were probably both lamenting the absence of a tasty meal.) Fred pitched his idea for a quality hotel and restaurant experience and in 1876 it became a reality!
That first Harvey House, located in Topeka, became famous for catering to the weary traveler. The food was top-notch (steaks with hashbrowns) and the atmosphere was refined (silver utensils, fine linens, and a dress code). Less than a decade later, the wait staff became decidedly more elegant as well. The all-female crew, known as the Harvey Girls, took over the customer service department. With their impeccable manners, crisp attire, and efficiency, these women bravely brought order to chaos. In less than twenty years, this recipe of great food and exceptional service became a legacy of 45 restaurants operating in twelve states! At every grand opening, there was an army of Harvey girls ready to serve.
These women were more than waitresses, they were ambassadors – diplomats of genteel society. But the cultural significance of the Harvey girls extends even beyond this lofty-sounding ideal. Quite simply, in this era, there weren’t many respectable employment options for women. If you weren’t married and didn’t want to live at home your options were two fold: domestic service or teaching. Talk about variety! For young women, the promise of a job as a Harvey girl brought with it the reality of a better life. The job requirements were quite simply: have at least an eighth-grade education, have good morals, good manners, and be a tidy and communicative person. The job’s rewards were a decent wage, free room and board, all-expense paid relocation package, and free uniforms. The wages earned (about $425/month in today’s money) was fair for the time, especially when the free accommodations are considered. Fred wanted his staff to be aces and to get the best, you need to pay the best. How refreshing!
Fred’s views, progressive for the time, extended past the dining room. He hired a female architect, Mary Colter, to design many of his signature hotels in the Southwest. Fred gave Mary her first big break, promoting her from interior designer to architect in a few short years. Influenced by her Native American neighbors, and as much of a perfectionist as her employer, Mary created the geographically-specific environs that Harvey Houses became famous for. Harvey House may often be credited as the first chain restaurant in the country, but each site was given careful consideration. (In fact, the quality of the regional artifacts displayed in his establishments are museum-worthy – just ask the Smithsonian!) As chief architect for the Fred Harvey Company, Mary made Fred’s ideas come to life in a time when women were not encouraged to pursue these learned professions. By partnering with local artisans, a symbiotic economy was born. This was about so much more than just a good meal!
When we consider Fred’s legacy – his entrepreneurial vision – it can be easy to see it simply in business terms alone. (After all, it was quite genius to pair a customer service focus with the popular new world of railway transportation). But for me, his true legacy lies with this band of women (totaling just a little over 100,000), who decided to take on the world and do it with grace. Most of these gals eventually settled down in these far-flung locations (as Will Rogers noted, Fred Harvey “kept the West in food and wives.”). But, all joking aside, these gals with grit contributed so much more than that. They made their own legacies, away from home. And you see that pioneering spirit in American gals to this day. So three cheers for the women who traveled on the Atchison, Topeka and the Santa Fe!