How the Harvey Girls Won the West
Fred Harvey opened the first Harvey House in Topeka, KS in 1876. For the first few years, men worked for him as waiters. The Harvey Girls joined Fred Harvey’s empire along the Santa Fe in 1883. The first waitresses were hired in Raton, New Mexico, when Harvey fired all of his waiters because of poor service. Fred Harvey decided to hire young women to work as waitresses. These waitresses were the first respectable women many of the cowboys had ever seen, aside from their wives or mothers.
Harvey’s new waitresses were so popular in the community and among railroad passengers and employees that he decided to replace all the waitresses on the line. Harvey advertised in midwestern and eastern newspapers and women’s magazines for “young women 18 to 30 years of age, of good character, attractive and intelligent,” to go west to work. Skeptics said the kind of women Harvey wanted would not work for him, but they did.
The women who answered his ads did so for many and varied reasons–economic considerations were the most prevalent, but adventure, a change of scene, and life in a new territory were also factors in young women’s decisions to join Harvey in the West. With the regimentation of an army boot camp, Harvey initiated the Harvey Girls into service along the railroad. Harvey had no shortage of applicants–thousands of women applied and were accepted every year from 1883 until the 1950’s.
There were great variations and many exceptions to Harvey’s rules over the years, but the women who were Harvey Girls were consistently good workers who charmed and impressed passengers on the Santa Fe for three-quarters of a century. —The Harvey Girls-Women Who Opened the West by Lesley Poling-Kempes