Sunday, October 31, 2010

The Harvey Girls

The Harvey Girls:  Women Who Opened the WestI just finished reading The Harvey Girls: Women Who Opened the West by Lesley Poling-Kempes. It shed light for me on a whole aspect of Southwestern history that I didn't know very much about, and I thought some of the key points were worth mentioning here.

After the Civil War, the Atchison, Topeka, & Santa Fe laid railroad tracks from Kansas to Colorado (1872), through Raton Pass to New Mexico (1878), into Lamy (the nearest stop to Santa Fe, 1880), and finally to California (1887).

As the trains began carrying passengers, the railroad built depots every 100 miles or so. There were no dining facilities on the trains and meals from home only lasted so long! Fred Harvey, a Londoner who had emigrated to the US at the age of 15, was a former café owner and a veteran clerk and agent for the railway, and was in the right place at the right time to start a train-oriented food business. The railroad he worked for (Chicago, Burlington, & Quincy) did not think much of his idea of restaurants at the various rail stops heading west, and they told him to go to the Atchison, Topeka, & SF because they "would try anything".

It's the same old story of start-ups being hungrier and more creative than the old, established, and more complacent businesses, and saying "yes" to Harvey turned out to be a brilliant marketing move on the part of the new railroad. Under their agreement, the RR provided depot space, coal, ice, water, and transportation, and Harvey provided food and staff. Harvey opened his first restaurant in Topeka in 1876, and his businesses spread southwest and west in parallel with the expansion of the railroad.

Harvey had exacting standards for his restaurants (and later the hotels that accompanied them). They provided elegant menus, an unparalleled choice of foods from all over the continent (brought in daily by train), white tablecloths and napkins, and split-second timing. (Telegrams would notify a restaurant of the precise time of the next train arrival, and of certain choices on the part of the passenger-diners.) Everybody had to be in and out--perfectly served and catered to--in 30 minutes. The restaurants gave the AT & SF a unique competitive advantage.

Sketch of Harvey Girls serving a customerIn the beginning, Harvey used male waiters in the restaurants. But in 1883 he fired all the waiters at his Raton, NM Harvey House because of poor service the day after a midnight brawl. It was suggested to Harvey that women might do a better job because they were less likely "to get likkered up and go on tears." The new waitresses were so popular that Harvey decided to replace all of the waiters in his establishments with waitresses, and he advertised in midwestern and eastern newspapers for "young women 18 to 30 years of age, of good character, attractive and intelligent" to go west to work.

Over 100,000 women served as Harvey Girls from 1883 until the 1960s. For many of these small-town girls and farmers' daughters, the Harvey establishments provided the college education they could not afford--a chance to travel, meet people they would never have had a chance to meet, broaden their horizons, live in a dorm with other young women, and find a husband in the male-dominated west. While many young women worked for a year or two and then returned home, many others moved from community to community over the years--sampling life in many different parts of the country. Thousands of Harvey Girls met and married Santa Fe railmen, cowboys, ranchers, and the occasional other Harvey employee (in spite of restrictions against dating within the business). They and their husbands became the founding mothers and fathers of many towns in the Southwest. (Will Rogers said of Fred Harvey and the Harvey Girls that they had "kept the West supplied with food and wives.")

The Harvey Girls had to adhere to a tough schedule and many rules governing their dress and behavior. They wore black uniforms and freshly starched white aprons and were thoroughly trained in service standards before being let loose on the floor. They were paid competitive wages, and since they were provided with room and board most were able to save or send home a substantial amount of money.

In many parts of the country, waitresses were considered to be barely a step above prostitutes, and Harvey's strictness helped to preserve the girls' reputations. However, they were more socially accepted in some communities than in others.

Harvey Girls had many opportunities that were unique for women at the time. The company instituted an early form of job sharing--where farmgirls were allowed to go home in the summer to help with the harvest, and Eastern schoolteachers worked in their place on their summer vacations. Girls in communities with colleges (such as Albuquerque and Las Vegas, NM) could wrap part-time work schedules and part-time college classes together.

In its heyday (roughly 1910-1940), the Fred Harvey Company operated a dozen or so hotels, 50-60 dining rooms and lunchrooms, and 60-100 dining cars on trains.

A Harvey Girl at the El Ortiz Hotel in Lamy, New MexicoNew Mexico was a particularly successful area for the Harvey Company. There were 16 Harvey Houses in New Mexico at the peak of the business--including some of the grandest in the country. These included the Montezuma and the Castañeda in Las Vegas, La Fonda in Santa Fe, the Alvarado in Albuquerque, and El Navajo in Gallup. (NOTE: The Alvarado and the El Navajo were eventually torn down.  The Montezuma is now United World College, the Castañeda is privately owned, and the La Fonda has continued to operate as a very successful hotel and restaurant.  In fact, my book club, which selected and discussed this book in October, met at the La Fonda for dinner and our discussion--to put ourselves in the right Harvey Girl mood!)

In many towns, the Harvey House became the center of local social life. It was usually the best and most elegant restaurant in town, and movie stars, presidents, and other luminaries were often spotted there on their way across the country by train.

The Harvey Company was run by Fred Harvey until his death in 1901, and after that by his son and grandsons.

Eventually, the Harvey Company fell victim to changing times, particularly the growth of auto and air travel. During the second world war, the company devoted a huge portion of its business to providing meals to troop trains as they traveled across the country, but the pressures of serving thousands of servicemen caused service levels to deterioriate and local community customers to receive short shrift. Many food were no longer available due to rationing, and there was no time to adequately train the increased staff needed.

Beginning in the 1930s, the Harvey Company had also expanded into large US train stations (Chicago and San Diego), bus terminals (San Francisco), and airports (Albuquerque). From about 1959 to about 1975, Harvey operated a series of restaurants along the Illinois Tollway.

Former Harvey Girls dress in costume at a 2004 San Bernardino eventThe original Fred Harvey Company lasted until 1968 when it was purchased by the Amfac Corporation of Hawaii. Amfac was renamed Xanterra Parks & Resorts in 2002. In 2006, Xanterra purchased the Grand Canyon Railway and its properties, including the Grand Canyon Hotel. So now the reincarnation of the Harvey Company is operating a railroad!

Painting, The Last Harvey Girl, by Tina Mion, 2005

Illustration Credits and References

The sketch of the Harvey Girls near the top of this post was found at the website.

The next photograph was taken at the El Ortiz Harvey Hotel in Lamy, NM around 1912. It was found on the New Mexico History Museum website.

The following photograph was taken in 2004 at the grand reopening of the Santa Fe Depot in San Bernardino, California, where a group of original Harvey Girls made a costumed appearance. It was found on the San Bernardino Railroad Historical Society website.

The final illustration is a touching 2005 painting by Tina Mion, entitled The Last Harvey Girl. On her website, the painter comments: "Only a handful of Harvey Girls remain. Most live in the desert towns they once escaped to. One day soon, someone will be handed a cup of tea or coffee by the last Harvey Girl, and in an anonymous kitchen or living room an era will silently pass."