Welcome to my first post on my new blogging day, Vintage Sunday! For my first two Victorian novels, I decided to write about a little known slice of American history, the Harvey Girls. Now, whenever I tell people I am writing about them, they usually assume they are associated with an old time saloon, so I thought I’d write a brief post on these brave women.
Who were the Harvey Girls?
Wanted, “Young women, 18 to 30 years of age, of good moral character, attractive and intelligent to waitress in Harvey Eating Houses on the Santa Fe 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. ”
In the 1890’s, there were not many respectable jobs for women, so when Fred Harvey created his chain of fine dining restaurants, single women without an education or in need of earning their own way were given a chance to earn an honest wage without the speculation that they offered anything but food as a service. These ladies were not just ordinary waitresses. They became known as the Harvey Girls, the ladies who tamed the Wild West with fine china, good pie and exceptional service with complete propriety along the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railroads.
While the East had limited jobs for unmarried women, the West proved to hold more opportunity for young women and Fred Harvey was among the first to offer these young women a chance to work without being suspected of immoral behavior.
What set them apart? As Harvey Girls, the young ladies were expected to follow a rigid code of conduct set by Fred Harvey himself. They were to live in the Harvey House and to respect curfew. If they were caught out and about after curfew, they could be dismissed.
They were not allowed to flirt and to avoid the idea that the Harvey Girls offered anything but food service, Fred Harvey designed a uniform to dress them as modestly as possible in austere black dresses from toe to high collar, giant white aprons and large white hair bows. The Harvey Girls were not allowed to wear make up or jewelry and could only wear the approved Harvey uniform. All of this was done to protect the most important thing that a woman had, her reputation.
(Harvey Girls in uniform)
With these rules in place, the women were given their independence while still maintaining their good name and place in society under the protective, fatherly arm of Fred Harvey.
While the Harvey House was built to serve the needs of the passengers on the rail to encourage tourism in the west, the railroad workers and local townsmen also dined at the restaurant, but usually at the lunch counter. At a time when men filled towns and women were scarce, inevitably, a railroad worker or townsman would expressed interest in marrying a Harvey Girl. In order to marry, she would need to fulfill her work contract or risk paying a fine of a month of salary. The fine was set in place to insure that Fred Harvey would have enough workers and that he wouldn’t simply train a girl to have her shipped to a town of bachelors and leave him without a waitress.
Harvey Girls Romanticized. There have been very few books written on the Harvey Girls, but Tracie Peterson’s The Westward Chronicles is my favorite Harvey Girl series and inspired me to write my own stories of fictional Harvey Girl heroines.
And even a movie by the beloved Judy Garland, which I watched countless times as a child and no doubt sparked my interest into reading Tracie Peterson’s books!
There is so much more I could write about these fascinating ladies and their contributions to society, but I hope you enjoyed this taste of history on the Harvey Girls!
(Top) Photo Cred: Unsplash.com