Friday, November 6, 2009

Harvey Girls

Passing through Barstow California one can visit an original Harvey House as seen in the photo above.

The origin of the Fred Harvey Company can be traced to the 1875 opening of two railroad eating houses located at Wallace, Kansas and Hugo, Colorado on the Kansas Pacific Railway. These cafés were opened by Fred Harvey, then a freight agent for the Chicago, Burlington and Quincy Railroad. The café operation ended within a year, but Fred Harvey had been convinced of the potential profits from providing a high quality food and service at railroad eating houses. His longtime employer, the Burlington Railroad, declined his offer of establishing a system-wide eating house operation at all railroad meal stops, but the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railway subsequently contracted with Harvey for several eating houses on an experimental basis. This led to the creation of the first restaurant chain ever.

In 1883, unhappy with the conduct of his rowdy male service staff (who often picked fights with the customers and arrived at work drunk—or not at all), Harvey implemented a policy of hiring only female waitresses. He sought out single, well-mannered, and educated ladies, and placed ads in newspapers throughout the east coast and midwest for "Young women, 18 to 30 years of age, of good character, attractive and intelligent." The girls were paid USD $17.50 a month plus room, board, and tips to start, a generous income by the standards of the time.
The girls were subjected to a strict 10:00 p.m. curfew, administered by a senior Harvey Girl who assumed the role and responsibilities of house mother. The official starched black and white uniform (which was designed to diminish the female physique) consisted of a skirt that hung no more than eight inches off the floor, "Elsie" collars, opaque black stockings, and black shoes. The hair was restrained in a net and tied with a regulation white ribbon. Makeup of any sort was absolutely prohibited, as was chewing gum while on duty. "Harvey Girls" (as they soon came to be known) were required into a one-year employment contract, and forfeit half their base pay should they fail to complete the term of service. Marriage was the most common reason for a girl to terminate her employment.

In a mythology that has grown around the Harvey Houses, these female employees are said to have helped to "civilize the American Southwest." This legend found its highest expression in The Harvey Girls, a 1942 novel by Samuel Hopkins Adams, and, more notably, the 1946 MGM musical which was inspired by it. The film starred Judy Garland & Angela Lansbury,it was directed by George Sidney, and introduced the Johnny Mercer song "On the Atchison, Topeka and the Santa Fe."

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