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The Harvey Girls

April 2024
1min read

Women Who Opened the West

by Lesley Poling-Kempes; Paragon House; 213 pages.

You might have found yourself in Waynoka, Oklahoma, or Gallup, New Mexico, but if you were a single woman venturing west in the late 1800s, working for Fred Harvey’s hotel and restaurant chain was the way to do it. Harvey was a Kansas restaurateur hired by the Atchison, Topeka, and Santa Fe Railway in 1878 to establish a dining system along its route from Chicago to the Pacific.

After having forged a passage to the coast, the Santa Fe had to devise ways to lure passengers onto its new line. Train travel in the seventies was neither glamorous nor comfortable, and vacationers were intimidated by the vast expanses of the West. Towns, many composed of no more than a few hastily erected shacks and a population of dangerous-looking miners, were few and far between. Accommodations were limited, and dining usually consisted of prairie-dog stew and “sinker” biscuits, with fresh coffee once a week. Fred Harvey revolutionized train travel by creating an extensive network of more than forty hotels and restaurants that continued to grow even after his death in 1901. “This seemingly small asset,” writes Lesley Poling-Kempes, “would soon make [the Santa Fe] one of the great railroads of the world.”

Harvey set high standards from the start. His impeccably clean and welldecorated establishments served specialty foods—such as Coney Island clam chowder, Long Island duckling, and Gulf of Mexico sea turtle—hauled in from all across the United States. Waitressing was not then a respectable occupation, but being a Harvey Girl held a certain cachet because of the credentials and manners required. Harvey did not allow his girls to chew gum, to live outside the dormitory he provided, or to wear make-up, jewelry, or anything other than his black-andwhite uniforms. One traveler remarked that the Harvey system was “like nothing so much as a good old German nurse, starched and firm.”

In The Harvey Girls the author argues that this highly structured system offered real benefits to many women. It provided a sisterhood and a safe haven for them in a rough land, presenting them with a unique opportunity to forge a new life: “Independence, selfesteem, travel to interesting places, were all by-products of the system,” Poling-Kempes writes. Although some felt that the job was like slave labor, most enjoyed working for a Harvey House. “I just wanted to work … [and] find out some things for myself, away from the farm,” said one employee from Kansas City. Being a Harvey Girl was a dignified way for women to go West alone.

The automobile and the airplane forced most Harvey Houses to close after World War II, but not before they had done a great service both to women and to the West.

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