Loose in the foothills: Harvey Girls help civilize wild Southwest

2010-07-22T00:00:00Z Loose in the foothills: Harvey Girls help civilize wild SouthwestOpinion by Bob Ring Special To The Arizona Daily Star Arizona Daily Star

Last week I talked about how visionary businessman Fred Harvey built a "railroad hospitality empire" in the West, and his company's lasting impact in Arizona.

Today I'd like to focus on Harvey's famous all-female waitress staff, the Harvey Girls.

In the early 1880s, when Fred Harvey began to feed rail passengers at regular stops along the Santa Fe Railroad in the "wild West" of New Mexico, his eating places experienced unruly behavior from local customers clamoring to get a restaurant meal.

Rough and ready cowboys, miners, gamblers and con men continually caused trouble.

What particularly irked Harvey were racial problems between his all-male, black staff and cowboys, many of whom were former Confederate soldiers. The situation got so bad that the black waiters lived in fear, believing they might need to defend themselves. (See Stephen Fried's book, "Appetite for America: How Visionary Businessman Fred Harvey Built a Railroad Hospitality Empire That Civilized the Wild West.")

In 1883, at the suggestion of one of his managers, Harvey decided to try replacing the waiters with young Anglo women. He sought out single, well-mannered, educated ladies and placed ads in newspapers along the East Coast and throughout the Midwest for "young women, 18 to 30 years of age, of good character, attractive and intelligent."

Quick service a must

The women signed six-month renewable contracts. The waitresses agreed not to marry during the contract period and were given a rail pass to get to their place of employment.

Harvey Girls underwent extensive training in etiquette and food service - efficient service was required to feed railroad passengers because the trains stopped for only a short time.

Originally, the girls were paid $17.50 a month ($388 in today's money) plus room, board and tips. They worked 12-hour shifts at least six days a week - and whenever an off-schedule train arrived in the middle of the night.

The young women lived in a dormitory run by a live-in older female chaperone and were subject to a strict 11 p.m. curfew except for Fridays, when they could attend an eating-house-sponsored town social.

Fried describes the uniform the girls wore and personal appearance rules: "A plain black, long-sleeved, floor-length woolen dress with a just-short-of-clerical 'Elsie' collar, along with black shoes and stockings; a starched white apron from neck to ankle, which had to be changed immediately whenever the slightest spot showed. Her hair was to be kept plain and simple, preferably tied back with a single white ribbon. Makeup was forbidden."

Those early Harvey Girls were welcome additions to the communities they served - the West was desperate for women.

The men working and living in Western towns were overjoyed at the "steady supply of single, personable, often comely young ladies being brought in by rail." The roughnecks learned manners quickly!

The experiment works

It has been said that the Harvey Girls "helped to civilize the American Southwest."

The staffing experiment was a huge success for the company, too. Harvey soon employed Harvey Girls at every food service location along the rail line between Chicago and Los Angeles. The women became one of the country's first significant female workforces.

Interestingly, "there were no Harvey Girls on wheels" as food services on railroad dining cars were provided by an all-black staff.

Harvey Girl service survived Fred Harvey's death in 1901 and continued through three generations of the family-owned business, called simply Fred Harvey.

Training manuals and several-week courses were designed and updated regularly. Harvey Girl uniforms changed over the years, but maintained their conservative look.

Harvey Girls often wore silver brooches with numbers in the center identifying the number of years of their service. Later, Harvey Girls wore nametags on their uniforms.

During World War II, rail transportation of huge numbers of soldiers strained the personnel resources of Fred Harvey; additional Harvey Girls were needed quickly. Hiring was expanded to include, for the first time, blacks, Hispanics and American Indians.

Following World War II, the ranks of the Harvey Girls were depleted as the women married returning soldiers, but the waitress tradition continued until Fred Harvey dissolved in the 1960s, when railroad passenger traffic dropped drastically.

A huge influence

Over more than eight decades of company operation, it is estimated that more than 100,000 women worked in Fred Harvey restaurants and hotels, and that of those, perhaps 20,000 wound up marrying their customers.

In 1946, MGM made a musical (based on a 1942 novel by Samuel Hopkins Adams) called "The Harvey Girls," starring Judy Garland. The film won an Academy Award for Best Song for "On the Atchison, Topeka and the Santa Fe."

Today you can view an exhibit at the Arizona Capitol Museum in Phoenix titled, "Civilizing the West: Fred Harvey and His Harvey Girls."

In addition to Fred Harvey artifacts from the Grand Canyon operations, the museum displays numerous photographs and quotes from former Harvey Girls.

A 'summer experience'

Rebecca Fabos, a friend of my wife, Pat, recently divulged that she was a Harvey Girl. During the summer of 1965, after her freshman year of college, Rebecca worked at Bright Angel Lodge on the South Rim of the Grand Canyon:

"My first week or two were spent learning how to be a waitress. I was placed under the wing of a very experienced waitress who worked the night shift.

"During this stint, I was taught to memorize the day's menu, how to take orders, when to serve, proper plate placement and removal and to be pleasant and charming no matter what the circumstance. It was intense and orderly and I loved the pride exhibited by the staff.

"One incident I remember happened midway through the summer. It was the lunchtime rush and a group came in, sat at my station and one of the gentlemen requested Oyster Stew.

"The Bright Angel had a wonderful menu and the selections changed daily but there was never a mention of Oyster Stew. I had to tell this man that Oyster Stew was unavailable. He looked at me and said, 'Just go ask the chef if you might have Oyster Stew.'

"So I did just that, and imagine my surprise when the chef looked at me and said, 'Of course. Tell him it will be ready shortly.' To me, that emphasizes the quality of the Bright Angel and its service to customers.

"Fred Harvey treated its employees well and they loved working for the company. For me, it was a wonderful summer experience."

Editor's note

This is the second in a series.

Writer Bob Ring had this to add regarding last week's article: Stephen Fried reminded me that there were three additional Fred Harvey hotels in Arizona: the Escalante in Ash Fork, the Havasu in Seligman and the Fray Marcos in Williams (which is still there).

Copyright 2014 Arizona Daily Star. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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