The Harvey Girls – Women Who Opened the American Wild West

Frederick Henry Harvey

Frederick Henry Harvey (June 27, 1835 – February 9, 1901) became known as “the Civilizer of the West” when the West was still wild. He is credited with creating the first restaurant chain and promoting tourism in the American Southwest in the late 19th century.

Fred Harvey immigrated to the United States from Liverpool, England in 1853 and found work in New York as a busboy at Smith and McNell’s restaurant. It was here that he learned the importance of quality service, fresh ingredients and the handshake deal.

In 1856 he married Barbara Sarah Mattas, with whom he had six children.

He was the kind of immigrant who made America what it is today – innovative and prosperous.

As a freight agent in the 1870s Fred Harvey spent time traveling via train in an era before dining cars to experience first-hand the difficulty of finding good food.

Harvey Hotels and Restaurants

In 1876, Fred Harvey struck a deal with Charles Morse, the superintendent of the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railroad when he opened restaurants along the railroad, and was not charged rent. His first depot restaurant opened in Topeka, Kansas and two years later opened his first hotel/restaurant in Florence, Kansas. The deal was sealed with just a handshake.

By 1891, 15 Harvey House restaurants were in operation and at their peak, there were 84 Harvey Houses which catered to wealthy and middle-class visitors.

Visionary Entrepreneur

As a visionary innovator and marketer, Fred Harvey recognized a business opportunity.

Harvey House lunch rooms, restaurants, souvenir shops, and hotels served rail passengers on the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railway, the Gulf Colorado and Santa Fe Railway, the Kansas Pacific Railway, the St. Louis-San Francisco Railway, and the Terminal Railroad Association of St. Louis.

Over a 90 year period, Harvey House employed over 100,000 young women to work at Harvey Houses that were located about 100 miles apart from each other at rail stations.

Fred Harvey diners provided a more enjoyable experience in dining. They provided wholesome food and service by attractive staff for passengers on their cross-country train journeys. Railroad staff would notify the restaurant via telegraph, so that each Harvey House of a train’s arrival time and how many people they would have to feed.

Fred Harvey also employed Native Americans to demonstrate rug weaving, pottery, jewelry making and other crafts at his Southwest hotels.

During World War II, they served troop trains filled with hungry soldiers.

The Harvey Girls

The Harvey girls were pioneers of the West in search of income and independence.

The 19th century was a time when working women were often scorned unless they were teachers or nurses other than the traditional, wife and mother.

Fred Harvey hired women between the ages of 18 and 30 with “good moral character” who worked six days a week and 12-hour shifts at his rail station diners. They earned $25 a month plus room and board which allowed them to save or to send money home to their families.

Harvey girls resided in housing adjacent to the restaurants and had a strict 10pm curfew. A dorm supervisor would routinely do bed checks as Fred Harvey did not want his female staff to be confused with local prostitutes.

The Harvey girls uniform consisted of a long black dress, a starched white apron, black stockings and black shoes. This image was popularized in a 1946 namesake movie, The Harvey Girls, starring Judy Garland.


The Fred Harvey Company which operated the hotel and restaurant chain was continued by his sons and remained in the family until the death of a grandson in 1965.

Fred Harvey’s sandwiches of ham or cheese with an extra slice of bread for 15 cents were famous throughout the West for their value.

Harvey’s reported last words to his sons before he died were “Don’t cut the ham too thin, boys.”

Another reported account of his last words were “Cut the ham thinner, boys.”

Pungky Dwiasmoro Hiswardhani

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