The Harvey Girls

Women in the 19th Century

In the 1870s, there weren’t exactly a slew of career opportunities for “respectable” women. These women weren’t familiar with the term “glass ceiling,” but they knew a thing or two about dirt floors! I have compiled a list of possible job opportunities for respectable young women in the 1870s:

  • Schoolmarm
  • Housewife

(I will concede that my list is a slight exaggeration—but only a very slightly so.) Woe to the woman who didn’t have a desire to teach or marry the neighbor’s son, Jedediah! Then. . . along came Fred Harvey. Fred Harvey - Black and WhiteIn those days, passenger trains throughout the West did not provide meals, and Fred Harvey saw that as a golden opportunity. The Fred Harvey Company opened the first chain of restaurants and hotels along railroads in the Western United States. And Fred Harvey did something that was unheard of at the time: He hired young women to serve as waitresses in his restaurants and he paid them good wages. Fancy that!   Las Chavez HotelIn case you don’t think waitressing sounds like a dream career choice for a young woman, please review my above list of possible jobs for women of that time!  Think of it. . .you didn’t have to marry the neighbor’s son and live out the rest of your years in the same town you were born in. . . you didn’t have to teach a classroom of sassy kids in the same town you were born in. . .you could travel to a new and exotic locale you never even dreamed of. . . you could visit with new people every day and you could make a fresh start. Darned appealing, considering the options!

How Will You Make it on Your Own?

The Harvey Girls Photo Color me eccentric, but every time I think about Harvey Girls, I hear the theme song to “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” playing in my head. With all of that “turning the world on with her smile” and “making it on her own,” Paul Williams’ lyrics would have been just as fitting to the Harvey Girls, who originated in the 1870s, as they were to Mary Richards in the 1970s. I picture the Harvey Girls as being an adventurous bunch. After all, they did answer ads, which The Fred Harvey Company had placed in newspapers across the country. Surely those women had whatever the Old West equivalent of chutzpah might have been! Here were the requirements for becoming a Harvey Girl:

  • Single, white, female between the ages of 18 and 30 (I didn’t say it was a perfect system.)
  • Good moral character
  • At least an 8th grade education
  • Well-mannered
  • Attractive
  • Intelligent

This World is Awfully Big

Harvey Girls Working at the BarMrs. Fred Harvey personally scrutinized new hires to be sure they met the standards. Upon hiring, girls were advanced the cost of a train ticket, which they were expected to pay back from their first month’s salary. Harvey Girls were paid $17.50 a month, to start, plus room, board and tips. That wasn’t exactly chicken feed! Harvey Girls were not thrown to the wolves upon their arrival—not by a long shot! A senior Harvey Girl, who served as housemother, supervised the women. There was a 10:00 pm curfew and their uniforms were more likely to be confused with those with those of nuns than of saloon girls! The Harvey Girls UniformsThe uniforms were black and white ensembles with enough starch to stand without the aid of an occupant. The black skirts could fall not more than eight inches from the ground. White “Elsie” collars ensured that no one got a peek of a collarbone. Black opaque stockings and black shoes were regulation. White aprons were often changed multiple times a day to guarantee a pristine look. Even the Harvey Girls’ hair had to follow regulation. Hair was restrained by a net and tied with a white ribbon. Harvey Girls were required to be fresh-faced as any make-up was a definite no-no!

Love is All Around, No Need to Waste It

Harvey Girls at WorkIn exchange for all of the glitz and glamour of waiting tables, Harvey Girls signed a one-year contract, promising to follow company rules. During their time of service, the women were not allowed to marry. If a woman broke a contract, she forfeited half of her base salary. Harvey Girls ComicIt is estimated that there were over 100,000 Harvey Girls. While they were not allowed to fraternize with the customers, more than 20,000 Harvey Girls are believed to have married a regular customer. Many worked out their contracts and others found Cupid’s call to be too irresistible and coughed up the money to be released from contract. One has to wonder how they ever found time for courting when they were working 12-14 hour days and going to bed at 10:00 pm. Will Rogers is credited for saying the Harvey Girls were responsible for keeping the West in food and wives! You must admit that both of those things were necessary for the West’s long-term survival!

You’re Gonna Make It After All

Up in the AirThis is the part of my musical interlude where the Harvey Girl of my imagination throws her hairnet up in the air and catches it. For thousands of young women, being a Harvey Girl allowed them a chance to get out and do something that didn’t involve the words “shucking” or “churning”. Waitressing may not sound like an upwardly mobile career choice for us today, but being a Harvey Girl was a tremendous opportunity for many young women. Harvey Girls are sometimes credited with helping to civilize the West. harvey-girls In 1942, Samuel Hopkins Adams’ novel The Harvey Girls was published. That, along with the 1946 MGM musical film, “The Harvey Girls,” went a long way toward guaranteeing the Harvey Girls a permanent position in American Western legend. In case you haven’t seen The Harvey Girls, I strongly recommend it. Judy Garland and Angela Lansbury will sing and dance their way into your heart! My favorite song from the musical is, hands-down, “On the Atchison, Topeka and the Santa Fe”. In fact, I never ride a train without singing it. So, if you’re ever riding a train and you hear someone softly singing that song, it’s probably me! Come on over and say, “Howdy!” We can reminisce about Fred Harvey and his girls! And for a special treat, watch Judy Garland sing “On the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe” in The Harvey Girls!

Happy Trails, y’all!,

Anita Lequoia

5 Replies to “The Harvey Girls”

  1. Thank you for the lovely article! My name is Chris and I work as a tour guide for the Rosenberg Railroad Museum. Before it was closed in 1922, a Harvey House used to be attatched to the Union Depot here in Rosenberg, Texas… the same Depot which our museum is modeled after. I’ve been searching for a way to incorporate Fred Harvey, the Harvey Houses, and the Harvey Girls into part of my tour and I would like to thank you for your wonderful article. Please know that I now share the information in it with hundreds of people weekly and folks of all ages are fascinated by it.

    1. Hi Chris, thanks so much for the wonderful compliment! I will be sure to stop by for a visit the next time I am in the Rosenberg area. For more information on The arvey Girls, as well as fred harvey and his family, I can recommend a wonderful book by Stephen Fried, Appetite for America: Fred Harvey and the Business of Civilizing the Wild West–One Meal at a Time and the PBS documentary “The Harvey Girls: Opportunity Bound.” I think that you will enjoy them!

  2. Just found your blog and love it. I love all the “women of the west” articles. This one in particular because when I first learned about Harvey Girls I decided if I had lived another life I would want to be one. Instead I’m the schoolmarm. Keep up the good work!

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