Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Frontier Food at Its Finest (Fred Harvey and His Girls, Part 2)

Businessman and restauranteur Fred Harvey was willing to try anything once. Despite the success of his Harvey Houses that lined the tracks of the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railroad route in the 1880s, he had major staffing issues. His waiters, who were all men, would more often than not come to work drunk or hung over or perhaps not show up at all. They were known to insult the customers and throw the dishware. Not exactly the ambience Fred was looking for in his establishments.

So after considering a suggestion from his newest manager, Tom Gable, he ran a series of advertisements in the major eastern newspapers and hoped for a response.


Young women, 18 to 30 years of age, of good moral character, 
attractive and intelligent, as waitresses in Harvey Eating Houses on the 
Santa Fe Railroad in the West. Wages $17.50 per month with
room and board. Liberal tips customary. Experience not necessary. 
Write Fred Harvey, Union Depot, Kansas City, Missouri.

He did not have to wait long. Women responded in droves and before long Fred had replaced most of his staff with female employees. 

Each woman signed a contract for six, nine, or twelve months agreeing to learn the "Harvey way," described by some as more difficult than boot camp. An intense orientation period of thirty days was required, and not all new hires made the grade. Pay did not start until training was completed. A Harvey Girl had to follow all instructions, obey employee rules, go wherever she was assigned to work, and remain single during the length of her contract. Uniforms were required and consisted of black dresses with black bow ties under white collars, black shoes and stockings, a white pinafore and white hair ribbon. 

When not serving customers, the girls were expected to clean the dining rooms, shine the chrome-plated coffee urn, silverware, crystal glassware, and pastry cases, and fold napkins. According to Harvey Girl Ruby Douglas Kuntz, in the summer they "fought clouds of dust, and in the winter it was mud that clung to shoes like glue." Each waitress was also responsible for keeping up her station up to standard putting away everything that had been used after the patrons left.

Fred Harvey's vision was for passengers to have identical, exceptional experiences no matter where they stopped along the railroad line. According to on traveler, Fred was a success:

"My first Harvey House meal was in the Chicago Depot, and I especially noticed the attractive uniforms the Harvey Girls were wearing. It never varied the rest of the trip to Los Angeles. At every stop they wore the same uniforms and looked just as neat and tidy as those at the last one. Finally, the third day, I felt like I new those girls even though it was a different restaurant, hundreds of miles from that first one in Chicago. You never thought you were slumming when you ate at Harvey House, they were class establishments, even in the oddest little places, largely, I think, because the girls were so spunky and special. Most of them could have succeeded at anything they tried to do."

High praise indeed.

Harvey Houses continued to operate well after Fred passed away in 1901, but the Great Depression forced the closure of many restaurants. Few people had money to travel, and even the rich were tightening their belts. World War II gave the failing organization a bit of a boost because the railroads were the main troop transport. Many of the girls who had been laid off in the 1930s came back for the duration of the war. 

The last restaurant closed in 1969, signaling the end of an era.

A freelance writer for over ten years, Linda Shenton Matchett is the author of Love's Harvest and Love Found in Sherwood ForestOn the Rails: A Harvey Girls Story is now available! Under Fire, the first book in her trilogy about WWII War Correspondent/amateur sleuth Ruth Brown, will be released on July 25, 2017. Visit Linda at www.LindaShentonMatchett.com


  1. Thanks, Linda, for a great post. I never had the chance to personally visit a Harvey House but I knew about the Harvey Girls because of the movie!

  2. Thanks, Linda, for a great post. I never had the chance to personally visit a Harvey House but I knew about the Harvey Girls because of the movie!

  3. Thank you for sharing about the Harvey Houses. I do not often read non fiction books outside of a parenting or devotional book these days, but I am intrigued and might have to do some informational reading now!

  4. Very interesting. I love the era of traveling by train.

  5. Thanks so much for sharing. I really enjoyed it.

  6. Great informative post about the Harvey Houses and traveling by train. Thank you for sharing.