“The Harvey Girls” serving meals “All the way”

admin's picture
  “Harvey Girls” in 1918
   Fred Harvey (1835-1901) is the originator of restaurants in railroad depots along the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railway railroad lines.
     “Harvey Girls” (shown above, circa early 1900s) that worked in the dining houses were all single, and required to sign a one year contract.

The following is an article written by Kathy A. Weckwerth for the "Then & Now" column from the Swift County Monitor-News January 27, 2016 Senior Living Special Edition.

The sky was bright blue with wisps of white clouds as Dean and I boarded the original old train in South Dakota that dated from the late 1800s. We gazed through open windows, breathed in fresh spring air, and relished the view of the countryside. I, of course, imagined that I was back in time, traveling to relatives, and stopping at some old hotel for dinner.   

 “If there would have been a Harvey restaurant that would have been perfect!” I exclaimed.

 “What’s a Harvey restaurant?” Dean asked.

 “Really? Let me tell you the story,” I said, as we settled into the old leather seats and prepared for the next two hours together.

 “It all started like this,” I began. “In 1853, an eager, hard-working 17-year old-man traveled from England to New York City towards a dream of entrepreneurship. Fred Harvey worked as a bus boy in a restaurant saving every dime until he could open his own restaurant in St. Louis, Missouri, in 1859.

“As fate would have it, the restaurant failed, but a determined Fred began again, this time as a mail sorter for the railroads making his way up to a freight agent for the Chicago, Burlington and Quincy Railroad.”

“A mail sorter? I like him already,” Dean said.

I continued, “By 1875, as the railroads expanded, so did Fred’s dream and he met with the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railway railroad line in Kansas to pitch a new idea: Fred would open restaurants in the depots.

“At the time, the only option for railroad travelers to eat was at roadhouses located where trains would stop for water. Often times the only food offered at these dives would be rancid meat, beans, and stale coffee.  

“The railroad line contracted with Harvey for several eating houses on an experimental basis and by the end of the 1880s, Harvey had opened dining houses located every 100 miles along the AT & SF railroad lines.

With fresh food and professional service, the railroad lines boasted their advertising with “Fred Harvey Meals All the Way.”

“The railroads worked with Harvey to create a buzz by cutting pies into quarters instead of sixths, serving food on fine china, and covering tables with Irish linens. AT & SF boasted with Harvey they could feed an entire train in 30 minutes.

“Harvey’s business grew and by 1878 he began to build his own restaurants for the Trans Continental railroad system, changing the course of American history.

“As the businesses expanded, he headed to Raton, New Mexico, which was considered the wildest part of the Wild West. Many of the same men who lost the Civil War were back and resentful. Harvey hired African American men to serve customers, but brawls were breaking out among customers and staff.

“Into the picture walked Harvey’s friend, Tom Gable. Knowing nothing about business, Tom assessed the situation and was offered full rights to reorganize. But before he would accept, he demanded a radical change ... only white women waitresses would be hired so fighting would end.

“Harvey, a man with a vision of fairness and inclusivity, agreed wholeheartedly. So the world of Harvey Girls began and extended to over 100,000 women hired over the next 50+ years.

“The late 1800s was a time when women lacked opportunities. Independence for women didn’t exist. Working women were looked down upon because they were accused of shirking their wifely duties and motherhood.

“Former Harvey Girl from the 1930s, Zada Shanon, said, ‘It gave women a chance to move out of the lives they were locked into and to be a little bit adventuresome.’

“Fred Harvey believed that in order to make the best restaurant across the western states, he would deliver quality food and service. But Harvey never hired locally, so this meant girls left their homes, traveled west, and lived in protected dorms. Harvey only hired single women.

“By 1883, Harvey Girls, once hired, were paid $17.50 a month to start, plus room, board, and tips. Girls would work and send their money back home.

“Each girl would respond to an advertisement that stated, ‘Wanted: Young women, 18 to 30 years of age, of good moral character, attractive and intelligent, as waitresses in the Harvey Eating Houses on the Santa Fe Railway in the West.’

“Mothers begged daughters not to go and churches banded together, preaching against the wiles of being led astray by cowboys or soldiers.”

“I wonder if I’d have courage to become a Harvey Girl?” I questioned and continued.

“Breakfasts at the Harvey Houses would consist of thick steaks with fried eggs placed atop. Next to them, a platter of hashed brown potatoes topped with six buckwheat cakes drizzled with maple syrup, and a large slice of apple pie accompanied by steaming hot coffee.”

Dean interrupted for a moment as he pulled a box of milk duds out of his pocket and stated, “Ma’am, now I’m hungry.”

I launched back into the story. “By 1910, Harvey hired Miss Steele, a female executive to serve as Director of Human Resources. Miss Steele would take one look at a young woman and determine if she would fit the requirements of a Harvey Girl. If the woman was disheveled, had painted nails, wore makeup, or was chewing gum, they were immediately disqualified. 

“No one was allowed to date unless approved by the restaurant manager, but an estimated 20,000 of the 100,000 girls were hired and eventually married a co-worker or customer. Once married, a Harvey Girl could no longer serve.”

“Sounds like your pastors screening your dates and finally approving me!” Dean said.

I smiled and continued. “Each woman spent six weeks training how to properly serve customers, make coffee, act like a lady, and all women were expected to adhere to a strict 10:00 p.m. curfew.  

“While in training, the girls were given black and white uniforms that covered their entire body. Uniforms consisted of a long skirt that hung eight inches off the floor, starched collars, opaque black stockings, and black shoes. Hair was pulled back in a net and tied with a regulation white ribbon.

“Harvey Girls were required to sign a one year contract, and had to forfeit half of their base pay if they failed to complete their contractual agreement.”
As Dean and I talked, the wind began to whip through the train and I pulled up my grandma’s old robin egg blue sweater tightly around my shoulders and fixed a bobby pin that had loosened from my bun at the nape of my neck.

“You’d fit right in because you look like your grandma from the early 1900s right now,” Dean quipped. I had to question if that was a compliment ... or not. I continued with my story.

“Uniforms were always used because this helped Fred maintain his idea of professionalism. Fred was determined to provide a civilizing presence to each community that he entered. No mother, father, or preacher could say that his women were anything but professional.

“Due to the popularity of the Harvey Girls and their famous service, in 1946 MGM studios came out with the film The Harvey Girls, starring my favorite Wizard of Oz star, Judy Garland, along with the lovely Angela Lansbury.

“The movie produced several hit songs, one called ‘On the Atchison, Topeka, and the Santa Fe,’ made popular in 1945 by several artists including Bing Crosby, Tommy Dorsey, and Johnny Mercer.”

The train was slowing down and I dreaded snapping back to the 21st century. I thought of a simpler time when no cell phones stole attention of travelers.

Dean questioned, “Is that it, Ma’am? That’s the story? What happened to Fred?”

I wrapped things up.

“By the 20th century, people drove cars instead of taking trains. Harvey’s company continued to prosper by marketing services to the motoring public. Due to the legacy of Fred Harvey, his son Ford and grandchildren continued to operate until the death of Fred’s grandson in 1965.”

The train came to a halt and I smiled as the conductor tipped his hat to us. My story was done. Our ride was over. 

For those two short hours in the now, I made it back to the then ... and loved every ... single ... moment of remembering The Harvey Girls.



For more from Kathy Weckwerth, as well as local news and sports, subscribe to the Swift County Monitor-News print edition or our PDF internet edition. Call 320-843-4111 and you can get the Swift County Monitor-News delivered to you!

Rate this article: 
Average: 5 (4 votes)