Railway Paradise: How a Fine-Dining Empire Made the Southwest Palatable to Outsiders

Who were the Harvey Girls, and what were the Harvey Houses in which they worked? It's actually more innocent than it sounds, as Hunter Oatman-Stanford explains in his latest piece at Collectors Weekly. The Harvey Houses were a series of eateries and hotels run by a British ex-pat named Fred Harvey alongside the Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe railroad tracks that ran from Chicago to Los Angeles. The Girls were women from the East Coast and Midwest, imported to replace the local, often uncouth male waiters in towns like Raton and Belen, New Mexico. Together, the Girls and the dining establishments they worked in lent an air of respectability to the still-wild American Southwest at the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries, as Hunter learned when he spoke to Richard Melzer, author of Fred Harvey Houses of the Southwest.

Here's a snip from the article:

In 1883, Harvey had decided to fire the rowdy male waiters at his restaurant in Raton, New Mexico, and hire respectable young women in their place. Customers responded so positively to the female staff that Harvey began replacing all of his company's male servers, advertising for women employees in newspapers throughout the Midwestern and Eastern states.

Unlike much of the Eastern United States, in small Western outposts, it was acceptable for single young women to work and live away from their parents — though they were often stigmatized as being prostitutes or sexually promiscuous. "The Harvey Company called its servers 'Harvey Girls' — not waitresses — because the term waitress had a bad connotation: It was linked to the saloon girls," who were viewed as bawdy and indecent, Melzer says. "Fred Harvey didn't want customers thinking there were saloon girls at his restaurants, and he certainly couldn't recruit respectable women to work there if they thought they'd be working in a saloon-like atmosphere." To ensure there'd be no confusion, the Harvey Girls were always attired in a conservative black-and-white uniform, just one of many strict job requirements.

Harvey had no trouble finding suitable young women, despite the perception that the Wild West would scare them off. In fact, many women jumped at the opportunity for economic independence, adventure, and travel in an era when their prospects were greatly limited. "A lot of them came for the chance to see a different part of the country," Melzer says. "After six months at a Harvey House, you could be transferred, so even if you started in a small place like Belen, New Mexico, you might eventually get to Santa Fe or to the Grand Canyon. Others came for the money, hoping to send it home to their families, save for their education, or maybe open a business themselves someday."

However, many took jobs with the Fred Harvey Company for a more traditional reason: The high ratio of single men to single women meant they had great prospects for meeting potential husbands. Yet even with such a goal in mind, women who moved west were often required to step out of their traditional roles simply to survive.