Taming the Wild West

In the early days, the traveler fed on the buffalo. For doing so, the buffalo got his picture on the nickel. Well, Fred Harvey should have his picture on the one side of a dime, and one of his waitresses with her arms full of delicious ham and eggs on the other side, ‘cause they have kept the West supplied with food and wives.  (Will Rogers)

Not only did Fred Harvey’s waitresses supply the West with wives, they went a long way toward taming the Wild West of the late 1800s.

“But don’t call them waitresses. They’re Harvey Girls.”

After the transcontinental railroad made passenger travel feasible in 1869, it fell to [Fred] Harvey to make it fabulous. Before his lunch counters, dining rooms and hotels started popping up every 100 miles, railway riders who weren’t savvy enough to pack their own victuals or who did not possess cast-iron stomachs, were forced to fast.

Or, as the Wikipedia article on the Fred Harvey Company put it…

Before the inclusion of dining cars in passenger trains became common practice, a rail passenger’s only option for meal service in transit was to patronize one of the roadhouses often located near the railroad’s water stops. Fare typically consisted of nothing more than rancid meat, cold beans, and week-old coffee. Such poor conditions understandably discouraged many Americans from making the journey westward.

The “Don’t call them waitresses” article continued…

Not only was the fare offered by middle-of-nowhere eateries often unsafe for human consumption but some unscrupulous proprietors, in league with railroad employees, deliberately failed to deliver already-paid-for meals before the “All Aboard” whistle blew—”cheating,” writes University of New Mexico historian Richard Melzer, “passengers of both their nourishment and their cash.”

Harvey, a Kansas restaurateur and victimized train traveler, vowed to bring white linen tablecloths, fresh meat and produce courtesy of icebox cars, signature coffee made with pure spring water and four courses of gourmet cuisine served in just under 30 minutes (75 cents) to every Santa Fe stop from Chicago through the Southwest to California and, at its northwestern terminus, San Francisco. At its peak, the Fred Harvey empire included 100 restaurants and 25 hotels.

I’m too young to remember The Harvey Girls, the Judy Garland musical based on a historical novel about this slice of history. It came out the year I was born, 1946. (And featured the classic hit song “On the Atchison, Topeka and the Santa Fe.”)


So I had never heard about Harvey Girls until I stumbled on a short article about them on the Web the other day. Fascinated, I did a little digging to find more info.

Although waitresses are everywhere in the 21st century, waiting tables was considered a man’s job in the 1800s. So all of Harvey’s staffs in his restaurants were male for a while. But all that changed in 1883. (Continued from “Don’t call them waitresses…”)

In 1883, after a midnight brawl involving Harvey’s “likkered up” waiters in Raton, New Mexico, Harvey’s manager suggested hiring females, who would be ‘”less likely to go on tears.’” The ladies proved so popular with customers that Harvey decided to replace all his waiters, advertising in newspapers for ‘”young women 18 to 30 years of age, of good 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.”

Respectable families at first refused to allow their daughters to join this cutting-edge approach to female employment. But Fred Harvey soon won them over with his exceptionally high standards of employment.

And high chances of matrimony.

Not only was a Harvey Girl forbidden to wear makeup or jewelry but, not coincidentally, her uniform (long-sleeved black dress, black hose and white starched apron) resembled the garb of a Catholic nun.


Harvey also took his “in loco parentis” obligation quite literally. Not only did he institute draconian dating policies and hire housemothers to strictly enforce curfews but he kept the girls very busy—-ten hours a day; six days a week—and still managed to boost their poise, people skills and personal growth.

While about half the Harvey Girls returned home after the first contract period, the other half appreciated the security and family atmosphere that Harvey created as well as the generous wages that could be banked, invested in property, business or education or sent back home.

What was probably the biggest draw for Harvey Girls, however, was the prospect of matrimony. American Weekly writer Nina Wilcox Putnam estimated that during the first 22 years (1883-1905), 8,260 Harvey Girls found themselves at the altar. The groom could be a railroad man, rancher, miner or (despite the rules) fellow employee or well-heeled customer. Rumor has it, by the turn of the 20th Century, some 4,000 babies were named Fred, Harvey or both. These unions, however, supplied the founding fathers—and mothers—of municipalities, great and small, that mushroomed during the Westward Expansion.

Some estimates note that eventually over 100,000 women worked for Harvey House restaurants and hotels, and of those, 20,000 ended up marrying one of their customers.


As someone in the Harvey Girls movie put it, ““A Harvey Girl is more than a waitress. Wherever a Harvey House appears, civilization is not far behind. You girls are the symbol and the promise of the order that is to come.”

Harvey meals were certainly civilized! Here’s a brief description of the amazing service Harvey was able to ensure in such a rough and tumble time and place and for many decades to come. (From the Wiki article–picture below is from 1910.)

 The subsequent growth and development of the Fred Harvey Company was closely related to that of the Santa Fe Railway. Under the terms of an oral agreement, Harvey opened his first depot restaurant in Topeka, Kansas in January 1876. Railroad officials and passengers alike were impressed with Fred Harvey’s strict standards for high quality food and first class service. As a result, the Santa Fe entered into subsequent contracts with Harvey wherein he was given a “blank check” to set up a series of “eating houses” along almost the entire route. At more prominent locations, these eating houses evolved into hotels, many of which survive today. By the late 1880s, there was a Fred Harvey dining facility located every 100 miles along the Santa Fe line.

The Santa Fe agreed to convey fresh meat and produce free-of-charge to any Harvey House via its own private line of refrigerator cars, the Santa Fe Refrigerator Despatch, and in them food was shipped from every corner of the United States. The company maintained two dairy facilities (the larger of the two was situated in Las Vegas, New Mexico) to ensure a consistent and adequate supply of fresh milk. When dining cars began to appear on trains, Santa Fe contracted with the Fred Harvey Company to operate the food service on the diners, and all Santa Fe advertising proclaimed “Fred Harvey Meals all the Way”.

Harvey’s meals were served in sumptuous portions that provided a good value for the traveling public; for instance, pies were cut into fourths, rather than sixths, which was the industry standard at the time. The Harvey Company and the railroad established a series of signals that allowed the dining room staff to make the necessary preparations to feed an entire train in just thirty minutes. Harvey Houses served their meals on fine China and Irish linens. Fred Harvey, a fastidious innkeeper, set high standards for efficiency and cleanliness in his establishments, personally inspecting them as often as possible. It was said that nothing escaped his notice, and he was even known to completely overturn a poorly-set table. Male customers were even required to wear a coat and tie in many of Harvey’s dining rooms. Fulfilling their patriotic duty, the Harvey Houses served many a meal to GIs traveling on troop trains during World War II.

This mutually-beneficial relationship, characterized as one of the most successful and influential business partnerships in the early American West, endured until 1963.

…Harvey initially balked at the suggestion that in-transit dining facilities be added to all Santa Fe trains operating west of Kansas City. Eventually, Harvey agreed to support the railroad in this endeavor, and the California Limited became the first of Santa Fe’s name trains to feature Harvey Company meal service en route. Later trains, such as the vaunted Super Chief, included dining cars (staffed by Fred Harvey Company personnel) as part of the standard passenger car complement right from the outset.

Given the sparse menu available on planes these days, even on cross-country flights, and how stripped-down service is on Amtrak, it sure could make you nostalgic for the days of the luxury “streamliners” like the Super Chief (billed back in the day as the “Train of the Stars.”)

And to think it all started with a group of girls dressed like nuns!

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One Response to Taming the Wild West

  1. Pingback: Taming the Wild West | Currently StaRRing …

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