The Harvey Girls

Harvey Girls

Harvey House, Syracuse, Kansas

When you think of the wild western frontier do you think of fine dining.  No?  Well, Fred Harvey wanted you to.

Fred Harvey ​was born in England and came to America as a teen before the Civil War.  He worked in the restaurant business, starting as a pot scrubber then advancing to busboy, waiter and line cook.  He started his own cafe, and did well until the start of the Civil War when his business partner took their money and left to join the Confederacy. 

Rather than start another eatery, Harvey turned to the railroad industry.  While the war was bad business for restaurants, it was good for the railroad industry and Harvey did well as a railroad man.

Eating while traveling by train was far from pleasant.  Roadhouses on the western frontier were the epitome of the "wild west," rough and dirty with barely editable food.  In 1876 Harvey struck up a partnership with the Santa Fe railroad to improve the food options for travelers. He would establish restaurants to provide clean, decent meals at station stops, and in return the railroad would give him the space rent-free and allow him to ship food and supplies to the restaurants by train for free.   As a result, Harvey fed hungry train-goers and is also credited with civilizing the west with his "Harvey Girls"

Harvey's goal was not just to feed people, but to provide an experience.  The trains were opening up the west​.  The railroads didn't want just one-time passengers, they wanted frequent riders who would use the trains to sight-see and vacation routinely.  Railroads built lavish hotels in rustic areas accessible only by train ... the railroads profited by stays at their hotel and also by the guests' train passage to and from the hotel. 

Harvey wanted to bring his English manners to his restaurants in the west.  But he found that the local men he hired to serve as waiters were frequently late, often hungover, and fought with each other and with the customers.  His solution to his staffing problems was unheard of at the time - he decided to hire women.

Harvey Girl Uniform

Harvey House and Harvey Girls

But he didn't want just ordinary women.  He ran ads throughout the country:

Wanted:  Young women 18 to 30 years of age, of good moral character, attractive and intelligent, to waitress in Harvey Eating Houses on the Santa Fe 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.

The ads did not mention that the Harvey Girls would be required to exhibit high moral character at all times - whether working hours or not ... and had to sign a statement swearing to their agreement.  The Harvey Girls lived in buildings next to the restaurant, had a strict 10:00 pm curfew and were chaperoned at all times.  At many eateries in the wild west "salon girls" were also expected to work as prostitutes ... Fred Harvey made it very clear that that was not the sort of girls he was looking for!

Harvey Girl Uniform

Harvey Girl uniform on display
at the Arizona Railroad Museum

The Harvey Girl uniform was designed to reinforce the women's respectability.  They wore black dresses with heavily starched white pinafore aprons, black stockings, black shoes and white ribbons in their hair.  Necklines were high and sleeves were long.  Cosmetics and chewing gum were forbidden.  Each Harvey Girl was inspected for neatness and cleanliness before opening and those who didn't pass were sent back to their room to change.   ​

New Harvey Girls underwent a six-week training period, then started at one of the smaller Harvey Houses before moving on to a larger, busier location.  They were not allowed to chat with the other Harvey Girls in front of a customer and were taught to smile at all times. 

The Harvey House success was due in large part to their organization.  It was a common scam for a roadhouse to take a customer's order - and money - but then serve the food so late that the customer ​had to re-board his train without eating.  Harvey House managers kept good tabs on the trains heading into their stations.  They had staff at the station preceding theirs to take a headcount of the number of people on each train, then would send a telegraph message ahead so that the next stop knew how many customers to expect.  When the train was one mile from the station a whistle would sound so that the Harvey Girls would prepare.

The Harvey House was also famous for its "cup code."  When a Harvey Girl seated you she would ask for your drink preference.  If you wanted coffee she turned your cup up, and if you wanted tea she turned your cup up-side-down.  When the coffee server or tea server came to your table she could fill your cup quickly and move onto the next table.   

Life as a Harvey Girl was restrictive, but also very liberating.  The wages were high - $17.50 per month plus tips was quite a sum ​in the late 19th century!  It was enough money to send some home to family, plus save a bit for yourself.  For many women it was the first time they had left home, it was exciting to be on their own (although fully chaperoned) and traveling to the great wild west.   

The Harvey Girls signed a one year contract, and they were not allowed to marry within that one year.  But the men far outnumbered women in the west, and many of the Harvey Girls would marry at the end of their contract.  Customers, even cowboys and ruffians, were expected to treat the Harvey Girls with respect - and they did!  The claim that the Harvey Girls civilized the west was twofold:  customers were expected to act civilized while dining, and when the Harvey Girls quit working to marry they presumably ran efficient, civilized households in the west.

When Fred Harvey died in 1901 his restaurants were continued by his children and later his grandchildren.  Most of the former Harvey House hotels and restaurants are now gone, but one exception is the El Tovar Hotel directly on the south rim of the Grand Canyon and just 330 feet from the Santa Fe railway station.  The El Tovar is part of the Grand Canyon National Park and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. 

Judy Garland in the 1946 musical "The Harvey Girls."
The musical created a whole new generation of people fascinated
by the Harvey Girls.

This month's Sock of the Month is the Colorado River Sock, a tribute to the Grand Canyon National Park and the Colorado River.  These toe-up socks feature a flowing slip stitch and cable pattern running up the center on both front and back, ebbing and flowing like the Colorado River itself.  If you yawn at the idea of wearing boring black stockings like the Harvey Girls, then be sure to check out the vibrant pink and purple Smooshy with Cashmere Grand Canyon colorway inspired by the Grand Canyon itself and created exclusively for our new Colorado River socks!

Happy Knitting! ... Scout

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