Wednesday, October 28, 2020

History of the Harvey Girls by Donna Schlachter

Outside a typical Harvey House c.1900
While Fred Harvey and his company changed how folks traveled the west from 1876 until the mid-1950s, perhaps the thing most folks recall are the waitresses in his restaurants, who came to be known as The Harvey Girls.

Dining cars were implemented in the 1880s, but food was expensive, and most passengers opted to purchase their meals at the train depots, which usually provided only sandwiches and coffee. Mr. Harvey felt there had to be a better way.

After building a string of hotels along the rail lines to serve for passengers who
were stopping over, he soon added dining rooms with full service guaranteed in half an hour.

Originally, Mr. Harvey hired only men to serve the meals, but in 1883, he had to fire his entire staff at one of his houses in New Mexico. His manager recommended he hire women because they were less likely to get into drunken brawls.

However, a ready supply of young, reputable women was in short supply west of the Mississippi, so he advertised in the east for women willing to train in Kansas City then travel west to their new home for at least the next six months.

Each Harvey Girl signed a contract and affirmed she wouldn’t date other employees, would observe the dress and conduct codes, would wear and maintain her uniform, and would generally do as she was told. In exchange, she received room and board, was introduced to a better class of patrons, and was paid an above-average salary while living in a part of the country she’d unlikely have had the opportunity to ever see otherwise.

The classic Harvey Girl uniform c. 1900
At first, the concept of a woman working outside the house engendered criticism, mostly because of past experience with employers and situations of low repute, including saloons and brothels. Mr. Harvey countered this disapproval by using stark uniforms reminiscent of a nun’s habit, forbidding makeup, enforcing curfews, and hiring women with good references.

The Harvey Girls worked six or seven days a week, often twelve or more hours a day, serving meals to train passengers. Food orders were telegraphed ahead so meals were ready when the train pulled in, since the stopover was most often only thirty minutes. In those days, other restaurants and dining rooms served bad food at exorbitant prices, so the Harvey House standards were much appreciated.

In fact, Mr. Harvey insisted that his chefs be professionally trained, and he limited the number of dishes available to customers to streamline both the ordering and the preparation of the meals.

Many young women replied to his ads, and records indicate that more than 100,000 women worked for him over the eighty years of business until the private automobile spelled the decline in train travel.

Harvey Girls taking a sun break c. 1900

Perhaps one of the most endearing facts about the Harvey House and its “Girls” is that many of them started working for Mr. Harvey in hopes of meeting a rich passenger from a train who would marry them and take them elsewhere. However, most ended up renewing their contracts many times. And even when their contract was done, more than half of the women stayed in the area, married and having families, helping to settle the Wild West. One of the longest-serving Harvey Girls worked for the company in excess of 40 years.


About Donna:

Donna writes historical suspense under her own name, and contemporary suspense under her alter ego of Leeann Betts, and has been published more than 30 times in novellas, full-length novels, and non-fiction books. She is a member of ACFW, Writers on the Rock, SinC, Pikes Peak Writers, and CAN; facilitates a critique group; teaches writing classes; ghostwrites; edits; and judges in writing contests.


  1. I love these stories of the Harvey girls, thank you so much for spotlighting them. In fact I'm going to Google this subject and see if there are any movies based on them! Have a great day!

    1. So I found the 40's musical starring Judy Garland, but there is also a documentary that I'm trying to find out if there's a way to view it. Youtube also has interviews with some of the Harvey girls so if I can't find that documentary I will view those.

    2. Hi Connie, thanks for your comments. I found a documentary video on Amazon that I bought a couple of years ago. And I found a fictional recounting of a Harvey Girl Waitress that seemed to line up with what I'd researched about that time, too.

  2. I really enjoyed this post, Donna. Love those pics. :)