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Sunday, August 7, 2011

How Waitresses Fed the Western Expansion: The Harvey Girls

El Garces, Hotel Harvey

Waitressing may not seem an unusual occupation for a woman, but in the late 1800’s it was almost unheard of for a woman to be serving people in a public establishment, unless, of course, she was a dance hall girl in a saloon. That changed when Fred Harvey, an Englishman, began to open up The Harvey Houses along the Santa Fe Railroad line starting in 1878. Harvey was one of the first to employ women of “good character” to serve the railroad patrons who were traveling west over several days where stopovers to eat at a respectable and well ordered establishment were a welcome respite. With the founding of the Harvey House restaurants, hotels, and resorts, Fred Harvey and the Santa Fe Railroad also began an experiment in something new for the Wild West—tourism.
In keeping with the age, Fred Harvey initially employed men and only men to work in his restaurants. But after a midnight brawl by waiters at his Raton, New Mexico establishment, Fred Harvey took the advice of his new manager and hired women because they were less likely “to get likkered up and go on tears…Those waitresses were the first respectable women the cowboys had ever seen—that is outside their own wives and mothers. Those roughnecks learned manners.” (Quoted from Tom Gable as cited in The Harvey Girls: Women Who Opened The West, by Lesley Poling-Kempes, p.42)
These upstanding waitresses were popular with both patrons and the community to such an extent that Fred Harvey decided to replace the waiters in all his restaurants with women. A major obstacle would be convincing single women of good virtue to venture into the rough and ready frontier towns filled with saloons and the cowboys, railroad men, and prostitutes who frequented them.
Fred Harvey sought “women who were well educated (in 1880s, this meant having completed high school or at least the eighth grade) and exhibited good manners, clear speech, and neatness in appearance. Vulgarity of any kind would not be tolerated. Upon acceptance, a young woman usually had only twenty-four hours to say her goodbyes at home before she began rigorous training. When a Harvey Girl signed her contract for twelve, nine, or six months, she agreed to learn the Harvey system, follow instructions to the letter, obey employee rules, accept whatever locations she was assigned to for work, and abstain from marriage during the duration of her initial contract.” The Harvey Girls: Women Who Opened The West, by Lesley Poling Kempes, p. 43
Harvey Girls worked hard, putting in a good day’s labor, though every account says that Fred Harvey was a fair employer who treated his staff with respect and care. In most cases a Harvey girl was required to work two to three meal shifts a day with just thirty minutes to feed upwards of 50 passengers at a time over eight trains, but there were plenty of staff to make it happen, from cooks to butchers to bus boys and from fifteen to thirty Harvey Girls per establishment. There was opportunity for promotion up the ranks and, on rare occasions, a woman could even become a manager where she would receive equal pay to a man—something often not true today.

Well aware that in the West, particularly, a waitress was often thought to be a prostitute as well, Fred Harvey lifted up waitressing to a professional standard by mandating that these single women reside in Harvey House dormitories on premises in “beautiful and well-kept rooms” under the guardianship of a house mother enforcing a strict curfew. Adhering to a universal Harvey Girls uniform, a Harvey Girl presented the picture of virtue with no make-up allowed and starched black and white skirts and bibs and aprons with hems no more than eight inches from the floor. Enforcing high standards assured the public that these were women of good moral character to be treated with the respect due a lady.
Thousands of women applied during the Harvey House period spanning 1883 until the 1950s. Here was an opportunity for independence previously unavailable to women, with the exception of becoming a teacher.
Harvey Girls were paid an average of “$17.50/month” with free room and board and railroad passes- http://www.florenceks.com/text/local/local_hh-girls.htm Compare this to the cowboy at the time who generally earned about $30/month with keep.  Still, for a woman, these were considered good wages in a protected environment with the added bonus of adventure and, possibly, a marriage proposal. Minnie O’Neal became a Harvey Girl around 1885 in Raton, New Mexico and ended up married to the ranch foreman of Senator Stephen Dorsey’s ranch. Her experience was not uncommon. “It is estimated that more than 100,000 girls worked for Harvey House restaurants and hotels and of those, 20,000 married their regular customers.”- http://www.florenceks.com/text/local/local_hh-girls.htm
Fred Harvey worked with farming schedules, allowing time off during summer months to those who were needed on the farm and replacing them temporarily with teachers who needed work during summer months. Particularly in later years and through the depression, The Harvey Houses were known to help employees, including women, obtain a college education in the communities that had colleges or universities, by providing accommodating schedules for those who wished to attend classes.
The Harvey Girls were immortalized in Sam Adams’ book of the same name and romanticized in the MGM movie where there was much singing and dancing but not as much hard work as reality would suggest. The romance, however, appears to have been true. For those of you who have never seen the movie or would like a quick jog down memory lane, here is the movie trailer:

The Harvey Girls are one more example of women making their way out west for a new life in a role unthinkable at the time in eastern environs. As Will Rogers, an enthusiastic and loyal Harvey House customer, said: “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 the one side of a 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.”  (Quoted in The Harvey Girls: Women who Opened the West by Lesley Poling Kempes, p. 102)
Seduced by History Blog is hosting a month-long contest in August.  One winner will receive a ‘basketful of goodies.’  All you have to do is check in on each blog during the month, look for a contest question to answer and September 1-5, 2011 send in your answers to seducedbyhistoryblog@yahoo.com.

Prizes award to one lucky winner include:  Victoria Gray’s book "Angel in My Arms",  "Spirit of the Mountain" package from Paty Jager,  Cynthia Owens’ book  "Coming Home",  a Kansas basket from Renee Scott, Anna Kathryn Lanier’s ebook “Salvation Bride and gift basket, “Stringing Beads - Musings of a Romance Writer” by Debra K. Maher,  Eliza Knight’s ebooks “A Pirate’s Bounty” and “A Lady’s Charade”,  Anne Carrole’s book (that's my book:) “Return to Wayback,” a 4 gb jump drive, a $25 Barnes and Noble gift card, and more!

All entries must be received by midnight Monday, September 5, 2011 to be eligible for the drawing. A winner will be chosen from all those eligible on or about September 6, 2011 and contacted by email.  Odds of winning will depend on the number of total number of entries received.
Here's my question for you to answer: Who starred in the MGM film The Harvey Girls and made famous the song the Atchison, Topeka and the Santa Fe? Hint: check out the trailer for the answer.

Anne Carrole writes about cowboys who have grit, integrity and little romance on their mind and the women who love them. You can check out her contemporary romance, Re-ride at the Rodeo, at The Wild Rose Press. She also is co-editor of the review website, www.lovewesternromances.com


Kirsten Lynn said...

Thank you for this blog! I just found it, and will be checking back often.

This post was fascinating. I've heard about the Harvey Girls in passing, but never really knew much about them. This has inspired me to do further research.

Thanks again! Kirsten

Anna Kathryn Lanier said...

Anne, what a great post! I'm going to put the link to up on my class, Pioneering Women of the West. You said better than I could and now, I don't have to do the work...LOL.

Janie Mason said...

Thanks for including the movie trailer. That was fun!

Sandy L. Rowland said...

Loved the movie and now I know more.
Thanks for the post.
The contest sounds fun. Can't wait!

Debby Lee said...

Hi Anne, thanks for posting this. I had lots of fun reading this and then researching it further. I'm writing a story set in 1980 and one of the characters is a woman waitress, so this was right up my alley.
In answer to the question, Judy Garland was the star and she sang the song, "On the Atchison, Topeka and the Sante Fe." The song was written by Harry Warren and Johnny Mercer and was a big hit.
Other interesting bits of trivia regarding the movie: the train conductor who made good time was played by the grandson of Fred Harvey, Ray Bolger also starred with Judy Garland in The Wizard of Oz, and Lucille Ball also tried out for the parrt of Em. I gleaned all this info from The Internet Movie Database, imdb.com
Thanks again Anne for sharing this, it was fun.

Anne Carrole said...

Thanks Kirsten for finding us and I'm glad you found the post inspiring. The book I cited in the blog is filled with first hand accounts of what it was like to be a Harvey Girl--away from home and working on the frontier.

Anne Carrole said...

Thanks Anna for posting the link. I'm so enjoying your class.

Anne Carrole said...

Janie and Sandy--glad you enjoyed the trailer.I was thrilled to find it on You Tube.

Anne Carrole said...

Thanks for all that info. I had no idea that the train conductor was Fred Harvey's son no less. Like seeing a slice of history come alive!

Gerri Bowen said...

That was a very interesting post, Anne. I never knew that The Harvey Girls and Harvey Houses were a chain. Thank you.

Anne Carrole said...

You're welcome Gerri. At one time there were 84 Harvey Houses and he's credited with creating the first chain restaurants in the U.S.

Alison E. Bruce said...

I loved the movie Harvey Girls! It was the first movie that made me look up the history behind the story. Thank you for the refresher and the trip down memory lane.

Alison Bruce
Under A Texas Star

One Nation, Under Fred said...

to learn more about the Harvey Girls and Fred Harvey, your readers might want to check out my 2010 book "Appetite for America: Fred Harvey and the Business of Civilizing the
Wild West--One Meal at a Time" (Bantam, just out in paperback and ebook), the first new book on the subject in over 20 years (Lesle's oral history of the HGs came out in 1989). "Appetite" explains, among other things, the real reason for the creation of the Harvey Girls in 1883 in Raton, NM (racism in NM, where the company was expanding and where the company then only employed african-american male waiters). You and your readers might enjoy it.
May Fred be with you,
Stephen Fried
adjunct professor, Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism

Anne Carrole said...

I love the movie too, Alison. Great songs as well.

Anne Carrole said...

Stephen, thanks so much for stopping in and letting us know about your book. Definitely want to check it out. The Harvey Girls are such an interesting part of the settlement of the West.

Crista said...

The Harvey Girls is one of my favorite Judy Garland movies. Glad to learn that there was some real basis for it, too.

Anne Carrole said...

Wasn't Judy great in that! She played such a feisty character.

Anonymous said...

I had no idea there were Harvey Girls. Thanks for the fascinating post. The contest sounds fun. And :answer here: Judy Garland, is always a treat to watch. :)

Anonymous said...

Oh Wow that was extremely interesting. Not sure why I haven't heard about the Harvey girls. it's fasinating how they paved the way to career women even of today. Thanks for posting.