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Harvey Girls Changed the West
By Melody C. Whitener Smith
Fred Harvey was the founder of a chain of restaurants and hotels that stretched across the American West. Researchers disagree about when Frederick Henry Harvey, born in London in 1835, came to the U.S. Some say it was 1850 when he was 15, but Stephen Fried, author of Appetite for America: How Visionary Businessman Fred Harvey Build a Railroad Hospitality Empire That Civilized the Wild West, wrote that a London census listed Harvey as living with his aunt in 1851. Fried said that Harvey landed in America at age17 with just two British pounds in his pocket. Harvey became an American citizen in 1858 and married a year later.
Southwest historian Lesley Poling-Kempes in her book The Harvey Girls: Women Who Opened the West wrote that while in New York, Harvey observed how restaurants were run. His first job in the U. S. was as a dishwasher at Smith and McNell’s, a restaurant that prided itself in using fresh ingredients to produce excellent food for a fair price. He would work himself up the ladder at this restaurant and use this education as the base of his future in food service.
Image caption: A portrait of Frederick Henry Harvey. (Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)
Fried made the point that the concept of a full-service restaurant in the U.S. was only about 15 years old when Harvey came to New York, so he literally learned the business as it developed. After working in the food business for several years, Harvey traveled to New Orleans and then St. Louis, where, with a partner, he opened his first restaurant — when he was still only in his early 20s. When his partner absconded with the little money the two men had and after a bout with typhoid, Harvey began looking for other opportunities.
In 1862, Harvey found a job as a mail clerk on the Hannibal and St. Joseph Railroad. He remained when it was sold to the Burlington Railroad and became its western freight agent, which kept him away from his home, Leavenworth, Kan., most of the time.
Harvey discovered firsthand how hard it was to find a good meal while traveling by rail; in fact, having a meal while traveling often was a distressing and even dangerous act. George H. Foster and Peter C. Weiglin wrote in The Harvey House Cookbook: Memories of Dining along the Santa Fe Railroad that meals at railroad stops were undercooked, some food was unidentifiable and passengers often suffered indigestion because they were forced to eat quickly. Meals had to be paid for in advance, they were overpriced and they often were not eaten because of lack of time. Those leftover meals often were then sold to other passengers!
As the railroad expanded across the country, changes had to be made in transporting food and producing a high quality meal at train stops. Foster and Weiglin wrote that from his knowledge of both the railroad and restaurants, Fred Harvey was able to see an opportunity and revolutionize the way food was handled, prepared and served. With a unique idea of offering fine dining to rail passengers at announced stops, he first approached his employer, but the Burlington Railroad turned him down.
Harvey House restaurants and hotels were born when Fred Harvey approached Santa Fe Railroad executives with his idea of making dining a more pleasurable and sanitary experience for both the traveler and local diners. With no formal contract, but simply a handshake, he had a deal, wrote Poling-Kempes.
In 1876, he opened his first dining room in Topeka, Kan., with many more to come further west. At one time, a Harvey House lunch counter and/or dining room was located about every 100 miles on the Santa Fe routes. Fred Harvey and his servers, called the Harvey Girls, changed the West by revolutionizing how food was served while maintaining classy places to eat, including in El Paso.
The establishment of female waitresses in Harvey Houses came about because the male staff Fred Harvey first hired often got drunk and became enmeshed in brawls, wrote Juddi Morris, author of The Harvey Girls: The Women Who Civilized the West. Fred Harvey’s friend and new manager of his Raton, N. M. restaurant, Tom Gable, gave him the idea of hiring women as waitresses not only to tame the cowboys and relieve racial animosities (many waiters were African-American), but also to populate the West with more women, according to Foster and Weiglin. Thus, the first Harvey Girls were hired in Raton. Harvey could not hire just any woman, however; his standards would be set high.
Harvey ran an ad in newspapers on the East Coast and in the Midwest and waited for responses. The ad in the newspaper read, “WANTED Young women, 18 to 30 years of age, of good moral character, attractive and intelligent, as waitresses in Harvey House Eating Houses.” Poling-Kempes said that women who answered the ads were “promised their status as ladies would be protected by their employer.” These women came out West to seek greater economic opportunities, to look for a spouse, to alleviate boredom and to seek adventure, wrote Morris.
Foster and Weiglin noted that being a Harvey Girl was considered a more prominent position than a waitress. Poling-Kempes wrote that in the last quarter of the 19th century, waitressing was seen below nursing and teaching when it came to jobs for women, and Harvey was able to change how waitressing was viewed much as he changed railroad dining.
So many young women and girls decided to join the Harvey Girls in the West because “most likely [they] had never traveled more than 20 miles from home, and had met few strangers of either sex in [their] entire life,” wrote Nancy Johnson, a writer for the Deming, [N. M.] Headlight. Johnson pointed out that “girls who had finished their schooling were expected to remain at home until marriage ... [and] there was a dark prejudice … against single working women.” Many had to “overcome their parents’ disapproval to become Harvey Girls,” wrote Morris. Before the Harvey Girls, the women in the East earned money through “sewing, raising chickens and selling eggs … [or] butter,” said Johnson.
Foster and Weiglin noted that in the late 19th century, Fred Harvey convinced well over 5,000 women to move west, and they ultimately helped change the area. Morris wrote that those who came soon learned to love the West even though they missed the green and the trees of the East. But when they had a chance to go home, they found those same trees made them feel boxed in. Tens of thousands of young women would move west during the first half of the 20th century to become Harvey Girls.
Foster and Weiglin wrote that only those young women who passed an extensive background check into their private lives were allowed into the training program. Because of the racial climate of the country at the time, mostly whites were hired for many years, according to Morris. However, as times changed, so did the color of Harvey House personnel, as a 1940s era photo of staff in El Paso shows. Poling-Kempes wrote that local women, including Hispanics and Native Americans, were hired in New Mexico, Arizona and El Paso, especially during World War II. Some Harvey Girls were also married with families as many women worked in war-related occupations.
Most training occurred in Harvey Houses in Kansas, especially the one in Topeka. The women worked full time for 30 days without pay as they learned the “Harvey Way.” Upon completion of training, the girls were usually sent to small houses in Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas, New Mexico and Arizona, where tips were poor and social life scarce. After a year in such a position, a Harvey Girl could request a transfer.
Training to be a Harvey Girl was akin to serving in the military. Fried wrote that the girls were put “through a kind of culinary boot camp,” and some claimed “training was more difficult than army boot camp,” according to Morris. If they could not handle the stress of the training, they were “discharged” to go home. One Harvey Girl interviewed by Morris claimed, “I always felt that training as a Harvey Girl was as important as my college education. I learned about getting along with people, about hard work and carrying my share of the load.”
Morris said the new employees got a feel for what it would be like to be a Harvey Girl when they placed their own food order with the train conductor in advance of their arrival in Chicago or Kansas City, the two employment centers of the Harvey empire. Upon arrival, the first part of their meal was already on the table, and they were served by the current Harvey Girls on staff.
Lenore Dils, special correspondent for the El Paso Times, wrote that because of the prestige of the job, many girls who weren’t trained as Harvey Girls tried to pass off fraudulent waitressing credentials. But it was apparent within minutes that they had not served at a Harvey House because they didn’t know serving techniques, such as “serve from the right, take away from the left.”
Fried noted that if the girls made it through their contracts, they were awarded a service badge worn on the uniform to show the number of years of service. The girls received room and board, so they had few bills and could pocket the extra money or send it home to their family. The pay in the 1870s consisted of $17.50 per month (plus tips), room and board and travel passes.
For decades, many Harvey Girls lived two to a room above the restaurant, dormitory style. They had a house mother who enforced rules, which included no men in the dorms, according to Poling-Kempes. They were expected to adhere to a strict code of conduct (including no “expectorating” on the floors of their room!) and curfew was 10 p.m., regardless of their age. Over the decades, these rules relaxed a little, and some Harvey Girls lived out in the community.
Caption: Scene from the film The Harvey Girls (1946) featuring Judy Garland. (Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons).
A Harvey Girl worked “six and seven day weeks, usually twelve hour days,” according to Poling-Kempes. Sheila Wood Foard wrote that Harvey’s dress code included “long-sleeved black dresses hemmed exactly eight inches off the floor and covered by a starched white pinafore,” along with black shoes, black opaque stockings and hairnets. Foster and Weiglin noted that this uniform was meant to de-emphasize a girl’s feminine features. As the years passed, this uniform changed some, and in Santa Fe at the La Fonda Hotel, the Harvey Girls wore brightly colored Mexican blouses and long skirts.
Harvey Girl contracts were anywhere from six to nine to 12 months long. Morris wrote that under their contract, young women consented to learn the “Harvey Way” of working and behaving. They “agreed to follow all instructions, obey employee rules, go wherever [they were] assigned to work, and not to marry during the term of the contract.” After the contract was up, they could take a break to go home by train anywhere the Santa Fe traveled, after which they could commence working again. If they happened to marry during the terms of their contract, they would lose half their pay and would not receive the free pass home on the train.
The rules were considered “necessary guidelines that assured the public that these single women, hundreds of miles from home, were upstanding and respectable citizens,” according to Poling-Kempes. Even their uniforms had to be spotless: if a girl got just the slightest stain on her uniform, she was expected to change, since each girl had several uniforms. Harvey laundered the uniforms for the girls but they were responsible for the ironing and starching.
Harvey Girls could wear no jewelry or makeup and could not chew gum. Poling-Kempes told the story that “management would take a damp cloth and run it over a girl’s face to make sure she had absolutely no makeup on.” Morris said if a girl was caught chewing gum on the job, more than likely she would be “fired on the spot.”
Harvey Girls were expected to perform their job to Fred Harvey’s high expectations. He was meticulous about the appearance and management of his restaurants. He would sometimes inspect the premises with the fabled “white glove.” Often the train staff would telegraph ahead that the boss was to be expected. One example of his expectations concerned the water served to customers. Water pitchers had to contain ice to chill water for diners. Morris said Harvey was known to dump a pitcher on the floor if it was not up to his expectation. If a Harvey Girl did her job, he was a good boss and he would compliment her. Harvey set his standards high, and those who didn’t meet his expectations were let go.
Each Harvey House restaurant usually employed about 30 girls. Between customers they were to polish silver, fold cloth napkins and prepare for future meals and customers. They were not to be seen sitting down or slacking on the job. If a girl left her work unfinished or it was not up to standards, she would be retrieved from her quarters to complete her job to perfection, dressed in her uniform, according to Poling-Kempes. An ordinary waitress did not have the “skill to serve sixteen people in twenty-five minutes” as the Harvey Girls could, wrote Foster and Weiglin.
A person eating at a Harvey House had to meet some expectations as well. For example, in an Arizona Highways Magazine article, Charles Herbert said all male customers had to wear coats in order to eat in the dining room. If a man did not have one, he would be loaned one. However, no such clothing requirements existed at the more informal lunch counters. All customers were treated with respect, even the rude ones, according to Marie Evans, writing for the Deming Highlight.
Modern diners would have loved the coffee at Harvey Houses. Dils tells us whether a traveler was in El Paso or in another Harvey House, “a cup of coffee … was always the same,” which was so because the water at each restaurant was analyzed and an exact brewing formula was determined so that quality could be maintained. If water did not meet Harvey standards, it was brought in by train.
Harvey Girls took beverage orders orally and arranged cups in a type of code:
Coffee ‒ Cup upright in the saucer
Hot Tea ‒ Cup flipped upside down in saucer
Iced Tea ‒ Cup flipped upside down, leaned against the right side of saucer
Milk ‒ Cup flipped upside down, set an inch apart from right side of saucer
Of course, if diners changed the position of the cup after the waitress left, they might be drinking milk instead of iced tea!
According to a food service brochure obtained from Patricia Kiddney of the El Paso Harvey Girls Association, orange juice had to be freshly squeezed as it was ordered, and coffee was emptied every two hours and a fresh pot made. Bread was baked daily and pies cut only into fourths. No six to eight servings from a pie here!
Caption: Scene from the film The Harvey Girls (1946) picturing Judy Garland and John Hodiak. (Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons).
Fresh food was shipped from various areas of the country via refrigerated cars, and the cost of shipping was not as important as the quality of the food. Thus, food like fresh fish, oysters, and the finest beef and freshest vegetables were served in every Harvey House. Harvey had his own ranch producing beef and owned several dairies along the route from Chicago to Los Angeles, the source of milk, cream and ice cream served in his restaurants and dining cars. While a train was miles away from a station, a brakeman took orders from passengers and wired them to the restaurant. Notified by the sound of a gong, servers had the first course ready as passengers walked in.
Sue Tester of the Santa Fe New Mexican said that most of the stops lasted only about 20 to 30 minutes, but the Harvey Girls made the meal seem luxurious and no passenger was rushed. The food was not only classy and delicious, but affordable to all classes of riders. Evans stated that prices for dinner in 1914 ranged from $1 to $1.25 in the Deming-El Paso region. She also said that entrees cost as little as 75 cents for a gourmet dish and the menus were prepared daily. Dils wrote that El Paso Harvey tables were set with imported fine linens and silverware, just as they were at all the other Harvey Houses.
Menus included such things as oysters, sirloin steak, broiled sole or salmon, ham, lamb, roasted capon and turkey, veal, sweetbreads, and even plover (a small wading bird) on toast. Potatoes were served mashed, french fried, au gratin, Lyonnaise and other ways; other vegetables might include sweet potatoes, asparagus, beets, artichokes, peas and spinach.
Lighter fare such as chicken salad, lobster salad, coleslaw and goose liver sandwiches were served, as were desserts such as fruit pies, cheesecake, strawberry shortcake, fresh fruit and berries and ice cream. Diners could also enjoy Edam and Roquefort cheeses at the end of a meal. Tenderloin of trout with potatoes and toast for breakfast? Sure! In the 1890s, a patron might enjoy a huge breakfast of cereal or fruit, steak, eggs, and potatoes, and hotcakes with butter and syrup, along with pie and coffee — all for 50 cents! In later years, Harvey Houses in the Southwest added Mexican favorites such as huevos rancheros and enchiladas, all served by the famous Harvey Girls.
Harvey Girls were respected and admired in the community. Morris wrote that many of the women were part of local women’s organizations and clubs. In addition, many Harvey Girls enjoyed getting dressed up to go out. They had nice clothes and others coveted their finery. Morris said Harvey Girls demanded respect from the gentlemen they dated because of the high moral character they were expected to uphold. The girls were “self-assured and poised,” and being “treated politely” was expected, according to Ruby Douglas Kuntz, a former Harvey Girl Morris interviewed. Part of that respect was generated by Harvey who wouldn’t allow foul language around the girls.
Many of the girls who came from the East married after their contracts were up. There were many more eligible bachelors than single women looking for marriage out West. The standards upheld by the Harvey Girls made them even more attractive candidates.
Although male employees were not permitted to date the staff, Tester said “as many as 20,000 Harvey Girls married prominent ranchers, cowboys, miners, merchants” and railroad employees from engineers to station agents, and attorneys and salesmen, men in almost all walks of life in the West. Of the couples who married, it was rumored that more than “four thousand boys born to these couples were named Fred, or Harvey, or both,” according to Foster and Weiglin. A popular MGM musical, starring Judy Garland and Angela Lansbury, was made in 1946 that showed the life of the Harvey Girls.
Image caption: Photo showing El Paso Harvey Girls taken November 6, 1943. Lilia Mendez Medina is pictured third row from the bottom, twelfth from left. (Photo courtesy of the El Paso Harvey Girls' Association).
Prince McKenzie, director of the Railroad and Transportation Museum of El Paso, said in an interview that after working as Harvey Girls, many young women decided to work in predominantly male-dominated jobs in retail shops. They already knew how to work with the public and had learned about finance, economics and grooming from their Harvey training. They fared well when it came time to find other jobs. Many even went into their own business after being Harvey Girls. McKenzie said that their training as Harvey Girls left them “capable of advancing,” a type of job security.
After more than a decade of being ill and not knowing what was wrong, Fred Harvey died in 1901 from what was believed to be colon cancer, wrote Fried. Fred Harvey had two sons, Ford and Byron, who ran the business after their father died. Various grandchildren also worked in the business. Fried said that Fred Harvey's will requested that the business be run the same for ten years after his death. No disbursements were to be made to anyone in the family, and his son Ford was to continue to run the business as his father had. The elder Harvey would have been gratified to see that even 50 years after his death, the business was still basically run the way it was when he was alive.
Along with the Santa Fe Railroad as a partner, Fred Harvey and his progenitors ran the “most famous and successful restaurant and hotel chain in America,” according to Foster and Weiglin. Of note is that his empire was incorporated simply as “Fred Harvey” without accompanying tags such as Inc., Company, Sons and so on, perpetuating the illusion that he was still at the helm many decades after his death.
The El Paso Harvey House was in existence from March 1906 until 1948. It was located inside the Union Depot Station. The El Paso Harvey House had not only a spacious lunch counter, but it also housed a fine dining room inside the depot. Clarke Garnsey, author of an article in the journal Password, stated that the Harvey House was awarded space inside the Union Depot in September 1905, with the “Harveys assum[ing] responsibility for decorating and furnishing the room.” The Harvey House was not ready for dining by the dedication date of the Depot, but it was ready for dancing.
Caption: Interior of El Paso's Union Depot. (Photo By Maribel Montes).
Harriot Howze Jones wrote in Password that the El Paso Harvey House was a great place for a man to take his date. She mentioned that it served “fancy things like raw oysters and artichokes and lobster.”
Deen Underwood, treasurer for the local Harvey Girls Association, interviewed former Harvey Girl Lilia Mendez Medina, who is now in her eighties. Underwood said that Medina served as a Harvey Girl in 1944. She had a sister named Bertha Mendez who served as a bus girl in the 1940s. Medina’s favorite customers were the Price family of the local dairy because they always left generous tips. She enjoyed working with the other girls but was scared of the matron and the cook, who was meticulous. Mendez Medina also mentioned that she couldn’t fraternize with the customers and she always had to look busy. Her favorite dessert was the banana crème pie and she said she was also fond of the shrimp cocktail sauce.
Underwood noted that one thing of particular importance about the El Paso Harvey House is the fact that many of the girls were local. In the 1940s during World War II, trains often would slow down and the girls would hand box lunches through the windows. Traveling railroaders as well as upper class gentlemen ate at the local Harvey House, wrote Ann Carroll in the El Paso Herald-Post.
Pres Derhkoop, educator for the El Paso Harvey Girl’s Association, pointed out in an interview with this author that the uniform worn in El Paso was white, unlike the other uniforms throughout the country that were mostly black with a white pinafore. Even more telling is that photos of Harvey Girls in the 1940s show both Hispanic and African-American women working at the local Harvey House. This was a rare occurrence since mostly white women were hired to work in the Harvey Houses. Most exceptions occurred in New Mexico and Arizona.
We do not know a lot about our El Paso Harvey House restaurant, but much is still being discovered. For instance, despite what some researchers have previously written, this author found in her research that the local Harvey House was located on the first floor of the Union Depot and not the second floor. A visit to the present day Union Depot makes it apparent that there was no room on the second floor for a dining room or lunch counter. In addition, there is no way that dancing at the opening of the Union Depot could have taken place on the second floor. The architectural plan shows that the second floor had offices for the railroad. Today, administrative offices exist in the place of the dining room and lunch counter.
The Indian shop and newsstand have been replaced by the Amtrak ticket counter, and the barber shop has been replaced by an office. Fred Harvey, along with architect Mary Colter, who designed the interior of many of his hotels, did much to promote Native American arts and was the first to open shops at many Southwestern train depots, displaying jewelry, rugs, pottery and other crafts by Southwestern tribes.
The El Paso Harvey House closed in 1948 after World War II, one of the contributors to the demise of the Harvey empire. The Depression, the increase in automobile travel and freeways, the rise of airplane travel and the decline of passenger trains were other factors. However, some restaurants and hotels prevailed into the 1960s and beyond. Many El Pasoans would recognize two of the most renowned Harvey establishments still doing business, although not by Fred Harvey: the La Fonda hotel and restaurant in Santa Fe and El Tovar, the gem of several housing choices once run by Harvey inside the south rim of the Grand Canyon, a luxurious hotel where one has to make reservations up to a year or more in advance.
Once upon a time, there were Harvey establishments from northern New Mexico to El Paso, including hotels and/or lunch and dining rooms in Raton, Las Vegas, Lamy, Santa Fe, Wallace, Carlsbad, Clovis, Vaughn, Gallup, Belen, Albuquerque, San Marcial, Rincon, Deming and El Paso.
It was difficult to find information on local Harvey Girls. Those still living are often not available to be interviewed, which was the case for Lilia Mendez Medina. However, knowing that the “Harvey Way” prevailed at every one of Fred Harvey’s establishments provides us knowledge of the El Paso restaurant as well. The Harvey Girl Association of El Paso is an organization that meets monthly to promote and preserve the history of the Harvey Girls locally. Their meetings are held the second Monday of the month from 2 p.m. to 4 p.m. at the Railroad and Transportation Museum of El Paso. Those interested may contact the association for more information at firstname.lastname@example.org or 915-731-6822.