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The Harvey Girls, a Slice of American History

Updated on April 26, 2012

A Harvey Hotel

How the West Was Won

The Harvey Girls came into being in the early years of railroads. Before railroads included dining cars on their trains, a railroad passenger's only option for meals while travelling was to eat at a roadhouse near a water stop, en route. The food was terrible! Rancid meat, cold beans, and week-old coffee. The trip out west, from New York to Sante Fe by rail, took about five days, and these conditions discouraged many travellers, until the advent of Fred Harvey and the Harvey Girls.

Fred Harvey, who was a railroad freight agent, saw an opportunity there.

The Atchison, Topeka and Sante Fe Railroad Company contracted with Harvey for several eating houses along the route west. Harvey staffed his places with the "Harvey Girls"; waitresses with very high standards.

The subsequent growth and development of the Fred Harvey Company was closely related to that of the Sante Fe Railway. Harvey opened his first depot restaurant in Topeka, Kansas, in January of 1876. Railway officials and customers alike were impressed with Fred Harvey's strict standards for high-quality food and first class Harvey Girl service. As a result, the Sante Fe Railway enetered into subsequent contracts where Harvey was given a "blank check" to set up eating houses along the entire route west. At more prominent locations, these restaurants evolved into hotels, many of which survive today, though not many are open for business. The Harvey Girls were almost as famous as the Harvey restaurants and hotels along the railroad route west.

Of the eighty-four Fred Harvey facilities, some of the more notable include:

  • The Alvarado — Albuquerque, New Mexico; closed in 1969. Demolished. Exhibit at the Albuquerque Museum of Art and History (March 8- June 7, 2009.) 
  • The Bisonte — Hutchinson, Kansas; closed in 1946 
  • The Casa del Desierto — Barstow, California; closed in 1959. Refurbished 1999; operating as two museums and city offices. 
  • Castañeda — Las Vegas, New Mexico; closed in 1948, used in the film Red Dawn 
  • El Garces — Needles, California; closed in 1958. Undergoing restoration (2008). 
  • El Navajo — Gallup, New Mexico; closed in 1957. 
  • El Ortiz — Lamy, New Mxico; closed in 1938. 
  • El Otero — La Junta, California; closed in 1948. 
  • El Tovar — Grand Canyon, Arizona; still in operation. 
  • El Vaquero — Dodge City, Kansas; closed in 1948. 
  • The Havasu House — Seligman, Arizona; closed in 1955. Demolished 2008. 
  • The Escalante — Ash Fork, Arizona; closed in 1948, demolished in the 1970s 
  • The Fray Marcos — Williams, Arizona; restored and reopened as a historic hotel and train depot for the Grand Canyon Railway 
  • La Fonda — Sante Fe, New Mexico; still in operation 
  • Las Chavez — Vaughn, New Mexico; closed in 1936 
  • La Posada — Winslow, Arizona; closed in 1957; restored and reopened as a historic hotel 
  • The Sequoyah — Syracuse, Kansas; closed in 1936  

Harvey Girl Poster--The Orange Empire Railroad Museum

Fred Harvey's biggest challenge was not delivering fresh food to his far-flung outposts but finding reliable help. So he placed advertisements in the East and the Midwest for single "young women, 18 to 30 years of age, of good character, attractive and intelligent."

These women became the famed Harvey Girl waitresses, trained in rules of etiquette and given black-and-white uniforms befitting a nun. Humorist Will Rogers once said Harvey and his Harvey Girls "kept the West in food and wives." Indeed, one estimate put the number of Harvey Girls who wound up as brides of western cowboys and railroad men at 20,000.

Mrs. Harvey met each girl as she was hired. Mrs. Harvey had strict standards of etiquetteand codes of behavior, and the prospective aHarvey Girl had to measure up. The jobs were considered plum positions in those days. Paid $17.50 a month, this was a dream job for many young girls who were unable to find work in Eastern cities, with the burgeoning populations of big cities like New York, Boston and Philadelphia.

Many Harvey Girls, who were always respectable, left their employment as a Harvey Girl to became the wife to a customer. One railroad baron said "The Harvey House was not only a good place to eat; it was the Cupid of the Rails". It is estimated that more than 100,000 girls worked for Harvey House restaurants and hotels and of those, 20,000 married their regular customers

How Did They Do It?

How these girls did it, I'll never know. The rules were strict: No fraternizing with the guests. Fred Harvey, who would overturn tables in a fit of temper if he was displeased with the way it was set, was a real stickler for the rules. Any least infraction would result in instant dismissal, without the rest of the person's pay. Fred Harvey advanced the girls a train ticket and half their first month's pay on hiring them, but expected them to keep their end of the bargain, and work the full year's contract, abiding by every strict rule he imposed.

It drove him CRAZY!! His staff kept getting married out from underneath him, over and over. At one point, a rule was imposed that a Harvey girl could not sit down, anywhere, while on duty. Harvey girls were on duty twelve to fourteen hours per day.

How DID they do it? How did they find a way to establish enough of a relationship to get married, without being able to talk to their suitors, or even sit down in their company; while wearing black hosiery, black dresses with white aprons, full length, to the floor; high collars, hair back, no makeup...I love it. These Harvey Girls kept working miracles!


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    • profile image

      Stephanie Ulrich 

      2 years ago

      My Mother, Helen Espy, was a Harvey Girl in Kansas City. Met my father there. 1939.

    • profile image


      4 years ago

      grandmother was Harvey girl. How can I find more info on her time as Harvey girl?

    • RealHousewife profile image

      Kelly Umphenour 

      7 years ago from St. Louis, MO

      Hey Paradise! This is fabulous! The day of the Harvey Girls was fascinating wasn't it? I hope you don't mind I linked this hub to my newest so I wouldn't have to go into an explanation as you did it so beautifully for me!

      Thank you!

    • Paradise7 profile imageAUTHOR


      8 years ago from Upstate New York

      Thankyou, vocal coach, for the comment. I found this subject fascinating. These girls were actually quite brave, and very hard-working.

    • vocalcoach profile image

      Audrey Hunt 

      8 years ago from Idyllwild Ca.

      I remember Seeing the Harvey Girls in a Judy Garland Movie a few yrs ago. So this hub is so very interesting to me. I enjoyed the story and the photos are great.

      You've done an excellent job researching this information. I'm rating up! Thank you.

    • Paradise7 profile imageAUTHOR


      8 years ago from Upstate New York

      Thanks, fastfreta, I thought it was cool, too, that Ted's mom was a Harvey Girl. I wish I could have interviewed her for the article.

    • fastfreta profile image

      Alfreta Sailor 

      8 years ago from Southern California

      This is a great story Paradise7. How cool Ted Kimbler's mother was a Harvey Girl. You know I vaguely remember hearing about these women in the movies. Anyway, very well written. Voted up/useful/awesome.

    • profile image

      Ted Kimbler 

      8 years ago

      My mom was a Harvey Girl and that's where she met my dad.

    • profile image

      Kylie Jenkins 

      9 years ago

      that was good

    • Paradise7 profile imageAUTHOR


      9 years ago from Upstate New York

      Thank you, Dolores. I enjoyed this story so much, I just had to share it.

    • Dolores Monet profile image

      Dolores Monet 

      9 years ago from East Coast, United States

      What a great tribute to the Harvey Girls. I love the old ads and the story was great.

    • Paradise7 profile imageAUTHOR


      9 years ago from Upstate New York

      Oh, this is great!!!! You actually knew a Harvey Girl! How much I would've liked to interview your grandmother and her friend for this hub. Thanks for the comment.

    • profile image


      9 years ago

      What a great place for information. My grandmother and her friend were Harvey Girls from Chicago around 1914 and went to work in Wendover, Wyoming. She married one of Fred Harvey's cooks!

    • Paradise7 profile imageAUTHOR


      9 years ago from Upstate New York

      Thank you, A Evans! It sounds like a wonderful trip!

    • AEvans profile image


      9 years ago from SomeWhere Out There

      What an amazing story and you wrote it so well, I enjoy learning history that is enlightening and not boring to read, you did a great job! I must travel up to the Grand Canyon this summmer and check-out the Hotel thanks so much for the wonderful hub! :)

    • Paradise7 profile imageAUTHOR


      10 years ago from Upstate New York

      Thank you, Catherine & Matthew. I think there WAS a real shortage of women. More men, by a lot, than women. I LIKE those odds!

    • profile image

      Matthew 43 

      10 years ago

      Good hub!

    • Catherine R profile image

      Catherine R 

      10 years ago from Melbourne, Australia

      This was great - absolutely news to me. Seems like it must have been the uniform! But there must also have been a bit of a shortage of respectable women in the far flung outposts so I am guessing these girls were in great demand. Fascinating stuff.

    • IslandVoice profile image

      Sylvia Van Velzer 

      10 years ago from Hawaii

      What an exciting job, to be a Harvey Girl! Food and men, you can't go wrong. Love this historical hysterical hub!

    • Paradise7 profile imageAUTHOR


      10 years ago from Upstate New York

      Thank you Dohn. That explains it--it was the uniform. The guy just had to find out what was underneath it, and since these were all very respectable and well-protected women, he had to marry her!

    • dohn121 profile image


      10 years ago from Hudson Valley, New York

      To me, I don't see how it isn't possible! Many men (ask the Japanese who adore their Geishas) love obscurity...Leaving much to the imagination can be very much a "turn on." When a Geisha wants to grab a hold of their male customer, she will show him her wrist! Her neck can also be a very sexy revealing body part! I myself for some reason or another, have a penchant for cashiers and waitresses. I just don't know why. I guess when I do get married, my wife and I aren't allowed to eat out or buy anything :( Oh well!

      Thank you, Paradise7! What an awesome hub!

    • Paradise7 profile imageAUTHOR


      10 years ago from Upstate New York

      You're very welcome, AW

    • awsydney profile image


      10 years ago from Sydney, Australia

      Wow, never knew there was such rich history about them! Thanks for sharing.


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