Unfortunately, it's not gonna happen unless I somehow get hold of a time-traveling DeLorean. I would've had to be in my late teens or early twenties at any time between the 1880s and the 1940s in order to get a job with the Fred Harvey company. But what a life! I used to wish I'd been young in the 1920s so I could be a flapper. Now I wish I could've been a Harvey Girl.
"But who were
they?" you might well arsk. Well, I'm getting to that. In the second half of the 19th century, when the railroads were pushing out across the western United States, the technology (as it tends to do) got ahead of the social infrastructure. Railroad workers and passengers on the Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe were pretty much on their own when it came to meals on their journey. Many towns along the railway were little more than a depot and some cattleyards. Cafes would frequently cheat the passengers who stopped there to eat, by taking their money up front and not managing to have the food ready before the customers had to get back on the train. If the food did come, it was greasy and barely edible. Coffee was fresh once a week. Passengers could always bring food along from home, but in a hot railroad car crossing the desert it didn't keep very well. What to do?
A visionary restaurateur named Fred Harvey had the answer. He contracted with the Santa Fe to build a series of restaurants, one every 100 miles, along the railroad line. He would provide quality meals and service for the railroad's passengers and employees, and the railroad would give his company a deal on tickets and freight charges. Thus the Harvey Houses were born. This was a revelation to me: I thought the first example of a chain operation ensuring uniform quality service to travelers was Holiday Inn in the 1950s, but Fred Harvey beat Kemmons Wilson by more than seventy years. Harvey House restaurants were located in the depots or very close to them, and they ran their businesses by the railroad schedules. Each Harvey House knew when a train was coming in, and they had the food cooked and ready when it arrived. They served their special blend of coffee, and if the local water had a strange taste, they'd bring in water in tank cars to ensure the coffee's quality. Passengers could count on delicious meals in elegant and comfortable surroundings, served impeccably by... the Harvey Girls.
They were waitresses, but very special. They were hired to high standards and trained to be cheerful, efficient, dignified, and professional. They wore spotless uniforms, long black skirts and white blouses, and wore their hair parted in the center and pulled back. They lived in a dormitory with a house mother who looked after them. They earned decent wages, but with practically no living expenses they could save it all or send money home to their families. They worked hard, six days a week, serving several trains a day, but the working conditions were excellent: a supportive, family atmosphere, and an appreciative customer base. They could do whatever they wanted on their days off -- many Harvey Houses were in big towns with lots to do, but even in small towns the Harvey employees would do things together, such as have picnics or go riding.
And being a Harvey Girl was an adventure! The American West was still wild in those days, travel was difficult and expensive, and women had little opportunity. But a Harvey Girl could apply in Chicago or Kansas City, get hired, and immediately be whisked off to New Mexico or Arizona for a new life. The girls signed contracts for six months or a year, and had to work that long at their original posting. After that, they could transfer to other Harvey Houses all over the west. Some of these were quite plush, and included luxury hotels. They had vacation time each year, with free rail travel.
And if an enterprising husband was what a girl wanted, the Harvey system was the way to go. There were rules against dating other Harvey employees, but how strictly this policy was enforced depended on the management of the individual House. Some Harvey Girls married chefs, busboys, or even managers. However, more of them married railroad men -- brakemen, engineers, telegraph operators, even railroad executives. These were their regular customers, after all. The West was a land of opportunity then, and railroad men and their Harvey Girl wives were founding fathers and mothers of several western towns. There was a mystique about these women, having to do with their training, their professionalism, their mobility -- so unusual for females back then -- and the self-assuredness that resulted from all this. It reminds me of the stewardess/flight attendant mystique, beginning in the 1960s when air travel became affordable; in fact there are many parallels. Flight attendants are airborne waitresses, but the mystique comes from their training, professionalism, and the exotic setting in which they work. There's also the aura of the unattainable, the sexually desired, and I'm sure the Harvey Girls evoked this feeling as well -- but as subtext, not displayed openly due to the social mores of the times.
The Harvey system continued through the Depression, but began to wane in the 1940s. World War II revived it while also straining it nearly to the breaking point: with troop trains crossing the country, Harvey Houses were so full of soldiers that they had to put up tables on verandas, porches, and courtyards in order to serve everyone. In many towns they were no longer able to serve locals, and some even had to turn away civilian travelers and serve only troop trains. Retired Harvey Girls were enticed back to work, closed Houses re-opened, and still they could barely handle the volume of customers. But when the war ended, it wasn't long before the Harvey Houses ended too. It was the era of automobile travel, and then air travel, and rail travel declined concurrently.
If this sounds like something you'd like to read about, I can direct you to the book I've been reading -- The Harvey Girls: Women Who Opened the West
by Lesley Poling-Kempes. It's chock full of reminiscences from actual Harvey Girls and their descendants, and I found it so enthralling I could hardly put it down. I love my life, and my job and my world, but if I had to choose another era to live in, I'd want to be a Harvey Girl.
Labels: american west, history, railroad