celebrating women’s history month: The Harvey Girls

It is March 1 and today begins an entire month of celebrating women here at thatmom.com! I have chosen women from history as well as some contemporary women whom I greatly admire.  I will be sharing mini- biographies as well as links to podcasts and books for further study so grab a cup of coffee and join me for a whole month of women’s history!!!  

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Kicking off an entire month of celebrating women, we are beginning with not one but an entire regiment of women, over 100,000 of them, as a matter of fact. Today we are celebrating The Harvey Girls, the women who settled the western United States through humble acts of service and kindness to the weary train travelers on the Santa Fe Railroad, women who brought civilization to a pagan, godless environment that was, prior to their arrival, inhabited primarily by men and loose women.

During the mid to late 1800’s, rail travel to the Southwest and Great Plains was a common, though uncomfortable, way of life for those who wanted to be part of the Great Westward Expansion. The transcontinental railway was completed in 1869, thus opening the doors of opportunity to many who had previously been unable to travel west.

British entrepreneur and restaurateur Fred Harvey set out to accommodate the dining needs of these train travelers by establishing the first chain restaurants called Harvey Houses. Having traveled by train only to find the purchased meals contained rancid food that caused severe illness to travelers, Harvey brought the fine dining of Europe to both the exhausted train traveler and the hungry cowboy.

Eventually located in train stations from Chicago to California, the Harvey Houses were destined to failure until Fred Harvey placed ads in city newspapers looking for young women who would be willing to work as waitresses. Initially, Harvey had employed men as waiters but they often spent their time drinking, gambling and picking fights, even during working hours. Harvey realized that the secret to taming the wild west would be not only linen tablecloths and fine china but gentile women whose very presence would influence both the restaurant atmosphere and the general environment of the small towns popping up everywhere west of the Mississippi.

So Harvey began hiring young ladies who could meet his requirements. Fred Harvey wanted no “saloon” women; Fred Harvey was looking for virtuous, wholesome, high-minded young ladies who would be willing to work hard and live in chaperoned dormitories. Not only were their uniforms to be clean, starched, and perfectly fitted, but the duties of a Harvey Girl were clearly defined and slackers would soon be heading home with one way tickets.

The entire dining experience at a Harvey House was a pleasant one. Ten minutes before the arrival of a train, a wire would be sent to the Harvey House, alerting the staff. Tall pitchers of ice water were placed at each table along with fresh salads. Steaks were grilled and pies were cut into the standard servings of 4 slices per pie! Fresh coffee was made and any unused portion left at the end of one train stop was thrown out. Second servings were always available for no additional charge. And all of this was done by the hands of lovely young women who were there to serve others!

In exchange for their hard work, the Harvey Girls made a good salary and were given free lodging, train travel where ever they wanted to go, all their uniforms, a laundry service, and all their meals. Many of them sent home every penny they made to help support their parents and siblings. Others worked as Harvey Girls and saved money to put themselves through college.

Stepping off the train platform in Dodge City, the Harvey Girls might encounter the stench of 200,000 rotting buffalo hides piled in a city street. At other stops there were threats of Indian uprisings or the unbearable heat of the dessert. These young ladies were not only sturdy and determined, but because they had to meet the stringent requirements for wearing the Harvey uniform, were young ladies who had a vision for service and, perhaps, a greater vision for their part in setting up households in those small towns.

Many Harvey Girls were courted by and married ranchers and cowboys. As they joined the communities, they also were instrumental in seeing that schools were established. Because many of them were Christians, churches were soon built in small towns, circuit riding preachers came, and the Gospel was procalimed in areas previously unreached! These women brought a sense of propriety to their neighborhoods and to this day many towns and cities have Harvey Girls as “founding mothers” in their town histories.

During World War II, the Harvey restaurants were turned into way stations for troop trains and the Harvey Girls often served 4 meals a day, 100’s of men at each meal. The Harvey Girls had no small part in the war effort; during 1943 alone, more than 1 million meals were served each month to servicemen in Harvey Houses across the U.S.

Though riding trains, for the most part, was replaced by car and air travel, thus bringing an end to the Harvey House chain, the mark of these incredible women will forever be written on the landscape of the old west.

 

For more reading about The Harvey Girls, I would recommend the book The Harvey Girls, Women Who Opened the West by Lesley Poling-Kempes.

For recipes for modern day Harvey Girls, check out my adaptations of some of their menu specialties!

“Fred Harvey realized that the secret to taming the wild, wild west would be not only linen tablecloths and fine china, but genteel women whose very presence would influence both the restaurant atmosphere and the general environment of the small towns popping up everywhere west of the Mississippi.”  Listen here for this amazing podcast entitled “The Women Who Tamed the Wild, Wild West….Those Amazing Harvey Girls.”

 

 

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Comments

  1. mARCIA says

    Great story, and I’m looking forward to this series. One little edit – I would suppose that these girls were genteel in deportment, not gentile as in ethnicity.

  2. says

    Great story. I would love to learn more about the Harvey Girls. I’m always curious to learn about the history of women of the past and what they accomplished. Thanks again.

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