The Harvey Girls were the brain-child of Fred Harvey who with his entrepreneurial spirit envisioned a path of gentility, courtesy and fine dining along railroads of the west. He arrived in New York City from his native England at the age of 15 and began working in restaurants. Ultimately, he apprenticed in the restaurants of New York, New Orleans and Kansas, learning everything they had to offer about the art of dining out. Harvey dreamed of opening his own restaurants.
In order to earn money to realize his dream, he took a job with the railroads and opened his first restaurant with a partner. But they differed in their goals and the venture closed. Harvey was appalled at the traveling conditions of rail passengers of that time. He conceived a brilliant plan of feeding and housing travelers in high-quality hotels and restaurants along the rail lines. The first railroad he approached, the Burlington, turned him down so he took his idea to the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railroad. A deal was struck with a handshake and the first Harvey diner opened in Topeka, Kansas in 1876. It was an immediate success.
Other hotels and diners followed. But in spite of his vision, Harvey had difficulty making it a reality with the available workforce in the remotest places of the Wild West. Upon finding every waiter drunk and disorderly in Raton, NM in 1883, he fired them all on the spot and set about finding a better and more reliable replacement. Newly hired manager Tom Gable suggested Harvey hire waitresses because they didn’t drink or have knife fights. Harvey thought about it and promptly placed the following ad in eastern newspapers:
“WANTED‑young women, 18 to 30 years of age, of good moral character, attractive and intelligent, as waitresses in Harvey Eating Houses on the Santa Fe Railroad in the West. Wages $17.50 per month with room and board. Liberal tips customary. Experience not necessary. Write Fred Harvey, Union Depot, Kansas City, Missouri.”
Folks were skeptical but the young women came. Often with only 24 hours notice, they packed their bags and came west. Harvey provided all the training, uniforms, lodging and board. Each woman was required to sign a contract agreeing not to marry during the term of her contract, follow the rules and learn the Harvey way. Their uniforms of black with spotless, starched white aprons and bows were provided for them and became the hallmark of a Harvey Girl. The women lived in dormitories and traveled on rail passes up and down the line.
At this time, there were few opportunities for women in the east and little prospect of achieving financial independence or homes of their own. Few respectable positions beyond that of teacher or wife existed. The Fred Harvey Company provided very decent wages and a safe living environment which made it an extremely tempting opportunity for women.
And thousands of them came to work for Harvey. Surely some returned east at the end of their contract or before its end, but many stayed. Some advanced within the company. But the influx of reputable young women was a welcome relief to the unmarried men of the Wild West and they fell hard for the Harvey Girls. Many a Harvey Girl went on to marry and stay in the west to put down new roots. American men might have opened the west along the Old Santa Fe Trail (to say nothing of the Native and Hispanic people already living there), but it was the Harvey girl that civilized it.
Well after the demise of the railroad, Harvey Girls could be found across the west working in diners and hotels along the highways that sprang up to replace the railroad. The Fred Harvey Company revolutionized railroad travel, offering decent, reputable service and goods under a well-known brand name in what became the world’s first chain restaurant. From 1883 until the 1950s the Harvey Company employed approximately 100,000 women. It opened opportunities for women in business and helped civilize the Wild West as sit came under the American flag.
Grattan, Virginia L. Mary Colter: Builder Upon the Red Earth, Grand Canyon, AZ: Grand Canyon Natural History Association, 1992.
Morris, Juddi. The Harvey Girls: The Women Who Civilized the West. New York: Walker and Company, 1994.
Poling-Kemps, Leslie. The Harvey Girls: Women Who Opened the West. New York: Marlowe and Company, 1991.