Fred Harvey and the Harvey Girls

The Harvey Girls "well groomed and carefully trained young women in spotless, white and black uniforms" worked for Fred Harvey at his chain of restaurants in the late 1800s.

Harvey himself engineered a telegraph system that allowed the train to let him know its estimated time of arrival, thereby allowing his restaurant staff to be prepared to feed the masses. While most restaurants in that era required a significant waiting period for food, guests of the Harvey House were served quickly.

And it was the Harvey Girls “well groomed and carefully trained young women in spotless, white and black uniforms” who served that food. Harvey required that the girls be 18-30 years old, unmarried, educated at least to the eighth grade and highly moral. The women saw the jobs as a way to leave the Midwest (where many were from) and set out in search of adventure. In exchange for this adventure, the girls signed a six-month contract that included the decree that they not marry during that time period. The Grand Canyon National Park Lodges website says that the “Harvey Girls brought culture, refinement and romance” to the West.

According to the Kansas Historical Society, the Harvey Girls were the first female workforce in America. In the early years, each girl would earn $18.50 per month. The salary also included room and board, which allowed the Fred Harvey Company to restrict male visitors and enforce early curfews in the dorms where the girls lived.

Initially men staffed the Harvey Houses. Journalist and historian Pam Knight Stevenson reports that it was only after Harvey found a group of male workers dirty and hung-over at the start of their shift that someone suggested: Hire women “because they don’t get drunk, they’re neat, and they’re always on time.”

El Tovar (the Harvey House in the Grand Canyon) opened in 1905. According to Stevenson, it was one of the Harvey Girls’ preferred places to work because they felt it a privilege to work in such a beautiful place. Among the Grand Canyon girls’ many visitors were WWII soldiers traveling on troop trains.

The Harvey Houses continued to be popular railroad rest stops until the 1930s, when the personal automobile became more popular. At this time, the company began to focus more on national park locations. In 1968 Xanterra acquired the Fred Harvey Company, including its location at the South Rim of the Grand Canyon.

The Harvey Girls’ reputation was captured forever on the silver screen with a movie, aptly named The Harvey Girls, starring Judy Garland and Angela Lansbury.