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: