Harvey Girls and the
Settling of the West
The Harvey Girls were perhaps the most prominent group of women living and working alongside the railroads. They were named for their employer, Fred Harvey, who opened his first depot restaurant in Topeka, Kansas, in 1876. Patrons were impressed with his strict standards, high quality food, and first class service. By the late 1880s, Fred Harvey dining facilities were located every 100 miles along the Santa Fe line.
In 1883, after a rowdy brawl involving his male wait staff, Harvey began hiring only females. He placed ads in Midwestern and Eastern newspapers reading: “WANTED—young women, 18 – 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.” Thousands of women responded.
Every aspect of life as a Harvey Girl was regulated. New hires were allowed twenty – four hours to pack before heading west to their assigned locations. They underwent rigorous training, working full–time for thirty days without pay. If a woman proved capable of staying on, she remained for the duration of her employment contract. Those who failed to complete their term of service agreed to forfeit half their base pay.
Harvey Girls lived in dormitories where a strict 10:00 pm curfew was enforced. They worked six or seven days a week, usually in a twelve hour split shift. Their black and white uniforms were designed to diminish the female physique. Makeup, jewelry, nail polish, and gum chewing were prohibited. A Harvey Girl’s duties were to serve customers, starch and fold linen napkins, polish silver, maintain a spotless work station, and arrange customer’s cups by drink order. Fred Harvey was a fastidious innkeeper who personally inspected his facilities. Nothing escaped his notice, and he was even known to completely overturn a poorly–set table.
A total of 116 Harvey Houses were ultimately established, reaching their zenith after the turn of the twentieth century as tourism of the American West boomed. As the airplane and automobile became preferred modes of travel, the Harvey Girl era ended in 1968.
“The Harvey girls never build a railroad, shot a buffalo, or escaped an Indian raid, yet they played as a big part in the settling of the West as most men who traveled to this region during the latter of the nineteenth century.”
The Harvey Girls: The Women who civilized the West by Juddi Morris
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