the harvey girls cowgirl magazine

In 1897, twenty-year-old Mabel Sloan of Florence, Kansas, responded to an ad in the local paper.  Looking for work, she was intrigued by the notice:  “Wanted:  Young women, 18 to 30 years of age, of good character, attractive and intelligent, as waitress in Harvey Eating Houses in the West.  Good wages, with room and means furnished.”  Despite her mother’s objection of “women don’t hold jobs outside of the home”, Mabel responded to the advertisement and accepted a position as one of entrepreneur Fred Harvey’s growing number of counter girls in his restaurants across the country.  After a vigorous training period, Mabel was sent to waitress at the Casa del Desierto, House of the Desert, in Barstow, California.  

For several months, Mabel served the men and women who traveled through the area on the Atchison, Topeka and the Santa Fe Railroad.  Dressed in her neat, black dress and crisp, starched white apron, she tended to customers’ culinary needs and made sure their dining experience lacked for nothing.  

Homer Pike, a farmer in his late forties from Hamilton, Montana, was one of the patrons who visited the Harvey House in early 1898, where Mabel was employed.  Homer was known among his friends as being frugal.  He did his own cooking, washed and mended his own clothes, and refused to buy additional clothing even though the fabric was thin and fading on the garments he owned.  It was rumored he had plenty of money, but spent little if nothing on frivolity.  He showed no interest in women or marriage and spent a great deal of time by himself – that is, until Mabel waited on him at the Casa del Desierto House.    

According to an article in the May 16, 1899, edition of the Ravalli Republic, Horace was smitten with Mabel the moment she brought him a cup of coffee.  The two exchanged pleasantries, and after three days he dared to ask Mabel to take a walk with him.  She agreed, and two days later the pair decided to marry.  Mabel resigned from her position with Fred Harvey, relocated to Montana, and lived out the rest of her life with Homer, who showered her with affection and spoiled her with all the things his money could buy.

Not every woman employed as a Harvey Girl found matrimony while on the job, nor did they take on such work with that in mind.  The possibilities for the thousands of young women who answered Fred Harvey’s call for waitresses were endless.  The Harvey Girls were considered the belles of the West, and they left an indelible mark on the history of the Transcontinental Railroad. 

Historians believe the Harvey Girls played a significant role in the taming of the Wild West.  They brought culture, refinement, and romance to the frontier where buffalo herds, attacking Indians, and horse thieving was common.  The man responsible for the successful movement was an Englishman named Frederick Henry Harvey.  Born in London in 1835, Harvey was a businessman who founded a chain of eating houses along the Santa Fe Railway line.  He was living in Leavenworth, Kansas, with his wife and children when the opportunity presented itself.  Early in Harvey’s marriage, Fred co-owned a successful restaurant in St. Louis and served as a pantryman for a small café.  His duties included preparing hors d’ oeuvres, properly seasoning all appetizers before they were served, and storing food items.  

Working as a mail clerk for the Hannibal and St. Joseph, Harvey’s association with the railroad began in 1862.  By 1865, he was employed as a ticket agent for the Burlington line.  Later he became a general western freight agent traveling the rails as a representative of the rail line, Harvey transacted business with individual customers and corporations.  

During his time away from home, and his wife Sally, and her exceptional cooking, Harvey recognized the need for good food to be served to passengers making their way from one depot to another.  Most often, railroad passengers brought their own box lunches with them on their long journeys and hoped the food would last the entire trip.  They used the routine, twenty-minute stops to rush into towns where sometimes only the local saloon offered dining opportunities.  Harvey decided he was the one to furnish travelers with those much-needed meals.  He began by opening two cafes on the Kansas Pacific Railroad line, one in Wallace, Kansas, and the other in Hugo, Colorado.

The small venture proved to be successful.  Harvey presented an idea for a system of restaurants tied to railroad stops to executives at the Burlington Railroad, but they refused to see the value of his plan.  Undeterred, Harvey brought the business opportunity to officials at the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railroad.  The rail line executives were enthusiastic about Harvey’s proposition and entered into an exclusive contract with him on May 1, 1889.  Harvey would manage and operate all the dining and hotel facilities along the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railroad west of the Missouri River.

Passengers traveling the rail line poured into the Harvey Houses along the route.  The immaculately kept establishments featured delicious food served with silver and china atop fine Irish linen tablecloths.  “Meals by Fred Harvey” meant travelers would be cared for in style.  Railroad executives quickly realized an increase in ticket sales and attributed it to the Harvey Houses.  Advertisements for the railroad capitalized on the popularity of the Harvey lunch stands and hotel facilities.  “Fact 1 – the Santa Fe Railroad continues to sell tickets to most points on earth at reduced rates,” an advertisement in the March 22, 1890, issue of The Topeka Daily Capital noted.  “Fact 2 – the Santa Fe Route runs elegant, new reclining chair cars on its Denver train, and its eating house service (Fred Harvey’s, everybody knows what kind of meal Fred Harvey gets up) is a drawing card.”

Harvey was pleased the eateries were so well received, and he was dedicated to upholding the stringent standards he had introduced at his establishments.  He routinely visited every one of the Harvey Houses to inspect the food, service, and cleanliness of the dining halls.  Early on, Harvey had recognized that the high quality he expected could best be realized by a primarily female staff.  Rough, unrefined men residing in remote rail towns could not maintain the expert service required by Harvey and expected by his customers.  In 1883, he began a broad campaign recruiting women to work for his expanding company.  

More than 20,000 women applied for work at the Harvey Houses across the frontier.  The same pioneering spirit that sent restless young men into the West drew the Harvey girls.  Many were school teachers lured West by the excitement of the unknown and a chance, perhaps, for romance.  They were single and selected from good homes in the East.  Once approved, new hires were asked to sign a six- or nine-month contract and agreed to go to whichever Harvey dining hall they were assigned.  The girls were housed in dorms presided over by housemothers and had a ten-p.m. curfew.  They were looked after as carefully as boarding school students at “female seminaries” in the East.  The girls were paid $17.50 a month plus board, room, and tips.  The uniform of a Harvey Girl resembled that of a nun.  They were plain, starched, black and white skirts, bibs, aprons, high collared shirts, black shoes, and no makeup.  Harvey wanted the girls to be as respected as sisters from the church.  Harvey Girls had to adhere to the fundamentals set forth by the company:  Number one, have a sincere interest in people.  Number two, like all your daily contacts with guests.  Number three, radiate cheer and make guests feel at ease and at home.  

All Harvey Girl recruits began their thirty-day training period in Topeka or Emporia, Kansas, working without pay during that time.  The list of duties was extensive, and women had to learn on the job the proper way to serve many customers during the rush of trains stopping at the busy depots.  The frantic pace quickly separated the strong, take charge girls from those who struggled to keep up with the sea of travelers passing through.  Those who did well were rewarded for their competency with promotions to head waitress.  Harvey Girls who stayed after the contracted obligation, were rewarded with silver brooches indicating the length of time they’d been with the company.  

The average work day for a Harvey Girl was twelve hours and the average work week was six days.  When the girls weren’t serving meals, they were taking care of the dining hall itself: scrubbing floors, cleaning tables, and laundering the fine linens used daily.  They also polished the silver and made sure the windows and counters were spotless.  

Harvey meals included as many as seven entrees with “seconds and all for seventy-five cents.”  Menus were coordinated to avoid duplication on a trip.  If you had prime rib at one depot stop, you had chicken at another.  Those Harvey Girls taking orders for coffee, tea, or milk arranged cups according to a code, and the “drink girl” immediately following served accordingly.  The cup’s position was the key.  Right side up meant coffee, and upside down was hot tea.  Upside down and tilted meant ice tea.  Upside down and away from the saucer signaled milk.  

Passengers had plenty of time to eat their meals.  The girls were quick to refill travelers’ cups and serve desserts as soon as the meal concluded.  Five minutes before the train was ready to get on its way again, a signal was given to alert those lingering over their last delicious bite.  Total time allotted for meals was thirty minutes.

According to the book The Harvey Girls by Lesley Poling-Kempes, more than forty-five percent of the women employed by Harvey were from rural America.  These girls were given the opportunity to travel the country and expand their horizons outside the farms and small towns where they were born.  During their vacations, the Santa Fe Railway provided them free transportation anywhere along the line.  Many of the women who enjoyed venturing into unknown areas in Arizona, New Mexico, California, and Texas, eventually decided to settle there, marry, and start a family.  

For those women interested in attending college, they found the Harvey Company to be more than accommodating.  Their daily schedules were adjusted so they could go to classes.  Holding down a full-time job and being a full-time student wasn’t an easy task, but many Harvey Girls graduated from the University of New Mexico with degrees that propelled them into careers beyond waitressing.  

There were Harvey Girls who took advantage of their respected position and entered beauty contests, competing to win cash and trips to Niagara Falls and Canada.  Others made newspaper headlines when they joined forces with bank robbers, fleeing locations where they stole money and solicited the help of Harvey Girls to get away from the law.  

Harvey Girls were strictly forbidden from becoming romantically involved with other Harvey employees.  They could not fraternize with the busboys or chefs.  If caught, they were immediately dismissed.  There were also rules in place for dating customers.  It wasn’t forbidden, but it was discouraged.  Harvey Girls were subjected to unsolicited attention by men from all walks of life.  Women were scarce and men plentiful in the West.  Some cowboys would eat six or seven times a day just for the pleasure of gazing at the Harvey Girls.  Dollar tips were plentiful, and girls received more than twenty requests for dates daily.

According to the August 15, 1948, edition of the American Weekly, between 1883 and 1905, eight thousand two hundred and sixty Harvey Girls were reported to have married railroad men, ranchers, cowboys, and fellow employees – chefs, busboys, clerks, and cooks.  Legend has it that by the early 1900s, more than three thousand babies had been named Fred or Harvey or both.  “Fred Harvey offered the first means by which respectable young women could go after the young men who went West,” the American Weekly article read.  “Fred probably did more to tame and civilize the great open spaces than did any other one man – by simple means of turning civilized young women loose in them.”  

A newspaper account from 1905 reported that the number of Harvey Girls going to the altar had created a severe shortage in waitstaff at Harvey Houses on the Santa Fe Railway line.  “These establishments have been drained of their table help,” the article proclaimed.  “A special sort of girl always has been demanded by the Harvey management, and as the service pays from $25 to $35 a month, with board, room and laundry, along with scores of social privileges, it has been little trouble to keep the supply of help equal to the demand. 

“Lately, however, matrimonial fever appears to have swept along the Santa Fe from La Junta to Needles, and as fast as girls are hired they are gobbled up by bearded stockmen, miners, railway men and others, some of whom regard the girls in the light of angels sent to the desert for the express purpose of throwing the influence of womanhood around their lonely lives.  As a result, justices of the peace in New Mexico and Arizona have recently struck a mint acting as marriage parsons, and Fred Harvey is anxious to pay bonds for waitresses with proper qualifications.”

More than twenty years after Fred Harvey established the first of his dining halls along the Santa Fe Railway line, the corporation was routinely basking in success.  In 1915, the restaurants and eating rooms fed some 5,000,000 travelers, and the commissariat furnished over 500,000 pounds of butter; 750,000 pounds of chicken; 4,500,000 pounds of flour; over 5,000,000 pounds of potatoes; and more than 1,500,000 pounds of sugar.  It cost the Harvey system $1,000 a day for milk and cream, and the small items like polishes and cleaning materials took $30,000 a year.  

In addition to the chain of restaurants from Kansas to California, the Harvey Company had invested in hotels along the same train route.  Tourism was on the rise, and executives at the company believed they could offer the same quality overnight accommodations and service travelers had come to expect at the dining halls.  Just like the restaurants, the grand hotels would be staffed with Harvey Girls.  Patrons flooded the Harvey Company office with complimentary letters about the women who worked at the facilities.  “Half the pleasure of the meals at the Harvey Houses are the Harvey Girls,” one customer raved.  “A Harvey Hotel without a Harvey Girl would be like a home without the wife or mother.”  

Harvey Hotels did take local boarders, but their first duty was to serve the traveling public.  When the gong sounded alerting the hotel employees of the coming train, the Harvey Girls, drilled thoroughly in their duties, took their places to await the tourists.  According to the July 2, 1916, edition of the Atchison Daily Globe, the hospitality was so genuine and agreeable that travelers “immediately felt refreshed in spirit as well as body.”  The Harvey Girls moved about as other railway employees for the Santa Fe Railway from hotel to dining hall, but not so frequently as to be called “migratory.”

They were fixtures, becoming units of the communities where fortune located them.  In plains and mountain countries, where population was sparse, they were active members of local society.  Harvey Girls left such a lasting impression on those who traveled the Santa Fe Railway that some penned poems to express their gratitude.  One of those poems appeared in the November 16, 1911, edition of the Albuquerque Morning Journal.  

“The Santa Fe – that great railway

From sunset to the break of day,

Both rare and bright, while trains speed on

With tireless flight.

Still, as they whirl, with many a swirl

I’m thinking of a Harvey Girl.

She’s here and there, just everywhere.

She’s ready with a welcome rare.

She’s trim and neat and often sweet.

She’ll see you get enough to eat.

Her cheerful smile, will quite beguile

Away dull care for many a mile.

Her smiling face will hold its place

All the while the train speeds on apace,

But, ah, how vain when stops the train

At station next she’s here again.  

She’s here and there, just everywhere.

She’s ready with a welcome rare.

With silken curls and teeth like pearls –

The dainty, dimpled Harvey Girls.”

The Harvey Company managed a number of Grand Hotels along the Santa Fe Railway route.  The El Vaquero in Dodge City, Kansas, was one of the most elegant on the line.  The duties of the Harvey Girls employed there were the same as the other establishments.  They were required to maintain the strict code for cleanliness, including cleaning gas-powered lighting fixtures; dusting furniture and woodwork, including baseboards, door frames, and ceiling fans; washing and pressing all linens; providing guests with extra amenities; and keeping rooms neat and comfortable.  

The first Harvey House in Dodge City was installed in 1896.  The establishment was expanded and remodeled in 1913.  The magnificent transformation of the combination depot-hotel structure made it one of the “very best hotels” on the Santa Fe system.  The lobby and dining room of the El Vaquero was compared favorably to the finest and highest priced hotels in the country.  The rooms were equipped with private baths, and the atmosphere of luxury was characteristic of the high-grade establishments in metropolitan cities.

Dodge City was the favorite stopping place for hundreds of commercial travelers and railroad ticket buyers.  The El Vaquero was the most sought-after hotel in the region.  The building was beautiful and included many high-end features, but guests cited the reason for the hostelry’s first-class status was the exceptional work done by the Harvey Girls.  “They saw to our every request,” Mrs. Gerald Fields, a Santa Fe Railway passenger wrote in a letter to the Harvey Company in late 1916.  “I’m convinced the Harvey Girls would make even a stay out on the open prairie a delight.”

The El Garces in Needles, California, was another Harvey House with a stellar reputation.  It was not only a desired destination for railroad passengers but for Harvey Girls as well.  The El Garces was named after the early Spanish missionary, who came to Needles in 1771.  It was often referred to by patrons and employees alike as “Santa Fe’s Best.”  According to the July 4, 1909, edition of the The Topeka Daily Capital, “the hotel is a magnificent house, large and elegant, with every convenience.” The article called attention to the one hundred degree plus temperatures at the location and noted how comfortable the dry heat was while staying at the El Garces.  “No one could mind the heat while admiring the sight of the purple mountains beyond the Colorado River running close to the hotel.  The reading room there is unusually large and commodious, is arranged with a swimming pool, gymnasium, and games.  Whatever is lacking, the Harvey Girls will try to correct.  Here, all is right with the world.”

The El Ortiz Harvey Hotel and lunchroom in Lamy, New Mexico, was known as the “littlest hotel in the littlest town” in the Southwest.  The village of Lamy was the transfer point for passengers heading to Santa Fe.  The Mission Revival style depot was built by the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railroad in 1909.  The Harvey Company constructed El Ortiz in 1910.  Among the well-known guests who stayed at El Ortiz were Owen Wister, author of The Virginian, and Buffalo Bill Cody.  

In January 1911, Cody was passing through the area on his way to Tucson when he decided to spend a few days in New Mexico.  According to the January 23, 1911, edition of The Santa Fe Mexican, Cody believed the hotel would make a perfect place for himself and his performers, but only if the Harvey Girls could be a part of the Buffalo Bill Cody Wild West show cast.  Cody was “greatly impressed with the Spanish style of the El Ortiz Hotel,” The Santa Fe Mexican article read, “and after he had viewed the placita and seen the various rooms, and toasted his shins in front of the immense fireplace on which reminded him of the frontier day, the great scout and hunter said with a sigh of pleasure, ‘Gee, but this would make a cracker jack ranch house.’”

By mid-1910, competitors of the Santa Fe Railway had introduced their own quality train service, but most travelers agreed no other railroad in the world had a system of dining and lodging that could compare with the Harvey Company.  No matter what any competing rail line could offer, they would still be minus the Harvey Girls.  It was that workforce more than any other factor that promoted passengers to travel the Santa Fe Railway.  An article in the July 24, 1911, edition of the Arizona Republic further explained ticket buyer’s preference.  

“A three day trip across a continent is calculated to wear the novelty of travel threadbare, and the relaxation of stopping to have breakfast, luncheon or dinner in an attractive dining room, and stretch one’s limbs in a short stroll about a depot, and a well-designed hotel always planned to conform to the prevailing style of architecture, makes a trip which might be otherwise exceedingly tedious a veritable pleasure and a treat to be long remembered.

“So careful have been the managers of the system in placing these houses at the points where they are most needed that there is at present not a single city or junction point of importance along the entire line of the Santa Fe where the sign “Fred Harvey” does not appear before a dining or lunch room and every one of these establishments is tastefully fitted up and decorated and thoroughly equipped.

“No description is adequate to the taste used in the construction of the Harvey Hotels, and the exclamation of the travelers alighting tired and travel worn to find themselves before a hotel capable of giving a service not surpassed in the country’s largest cities, furnish the most eloquent and convincing praise of the architect, the building, and above all of Harvey himself, who had the foresight to realize the need of such a system and the initiative and ability to perfect it.  

“Traveling over the line of the Santa Fe a few days ago, the waiter found himself held over at Lamy, a junction point on the main line.  Three hours of waiting were staring him in the face, and a drizzling rain outdoors made the prospect a little worse than dismal.  On sight of a Harvey House with a peculiar sign before it marked “El Ortiz” he picked up courage to believe that the evening might be pleasant in spite of the murky weather.

“A cold wind had come up with the rain, and the glow of a log fire in the open fire place of the huge hotel living room gave a cordial welcome that caused the rain and the hours of waiting to be forgotten.  Lights in well- designed mission style fixtures gave the room its illumination, and a number of men and women who had entered to enjoy the warm comfort of the attractive room seemed very little concerned about the hour at which their train was scheduled to leave.

“The late comers had not recovered from the astonishment produced upon their entrance into the living room and looking around at old Spanish engravings on the walls, exquisite pieces of hammered copper decorating the stone fire place, rare old furniture made of brass, leather, and Flemish oak, and at the low ceiling crossed and divided into coffers by heavy beams of oak, they exclaimed again and again, ‘Who would have expected to find such a beautiful room, and such a building in this isolated place.’  As no one had expected it, except those who knew the perfection of the Harvey system by previous experience there were no replies advanced to those wondering interrogations.

“At one end of the room, a wide arch gave one a glimpse into the lunch room, where, behind polished counters, neat waitresses dressed in the inevitable Harvey black and white, passed back and forth, presiding over their domain in a manner of quiet and polite assurance that can scarcely be discerned in the manners of any other corps of waitresses in the United States.  Taught by the directors of the system to be courteous, quick, and above everything else, neat, they have a respect for their employers and a respect for their employment that would not be possible in a less orderly environment.  

“The waitresses of the Harvey system are not servants.  They put plutocrats to shame at times by their unfailing politeness and their refusal to notice the condescending airs of such would-be-aristocratic travelers, as are occasionally transported over the most respectable railroads, caused Hubbard to describe them as ‘girls who are never fly, flip, nor fresh, but who give you the attention that never obtrudes, but which is hearty and heartfelt.’

The Great Depression and motorization of America in the late 1920s resulted in a substantial decline in people traveling by train.  Men and women were driving their own automobiles to various destinations across the United States and had the ability to stop and eat and sleep wherever they chose.  They weren’t relegated to the Harvey establishments along the Santa Fe Railway line.  Luxury trains featuring their own dining cars were introduced, and Harvey lunch counters were no longer necessary.  By 1939, numerous Harvey Houses were forced to close.

Small towns in the Southwest that were built around the railroad depot and thrived because of the Harvey dining halls and hotels as well as the Harvey Girls who lived and worked around there ceased to be.  Like the prairie schooner, the pony express rider, and the old cattle trails, the Harvey House system of the Santa Fe was doomed as a part of the passing show.  Newspapers across the country lamented their closing.  

“The Harvey Houses served a long-felt need in the middle and far west, and their fame was as wide as the Santa Fe,” an article in the April 8, 1940, edition of the Clovis News-Journal reported.  “They were distributed across the country at distances just right for meal time…for trains and even motorists.

“For years the Harvey Houses were the rendezvous of those who liked good accommodations on their travels.  Few travelers passed them up for even as little as a good cup of coffee.  And those good accommodations brought travel to the Santa Fe.  Countless miles out on the desert the traveler suddenly ran into a little town, and there, in the midst of drab surroundings was a magnificent hotel where a New York meal might be had for the asking…and rather stiff payment.  

“But, like many changes that have taken place in other things along the way, the Harvey Houses are being supplanted by the dining car service…a service that is cheaper than operating the big hotels, and more to the liking of travelers.

“So the Santa Fe, or its subsidiary, the Fred Harvey System, is one by one closing the famous Harvey Houses, each of which bore a distinctive name….a name that was linked with history of the West.  Many have been closed already, and others are slated to go soon, if reports are true.

“I kinda hate to see the Harvey House close, although I’ve cussed ‘em many a time for chargin’ ten cents for a cup of coffee and a dime for a cookie to go with it.  Food came high to other than railroad employees at the Harvey Houses.  The price was almost prohibitive…but we patronized them anyway and were proud of them.”  

The era of traditional Harvey Girls ended at the conclusion of World War II.  The service of the Harvey Girls and the influence they had on the American railroad was the subject of a 1946 motion picture starring Judy Garland and Angela Landsbury.  The MGM musical entitled The Harvey Girls centered around a cheery crew of young women traveling west to open a Harvey House restaurant in order to provide good cooking and wholesome company for railway travelers.  The film won an Academy Award for the song “On the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe.”