History Weekend: Tales of a 19th Century Road Warrior

He was the entrepeneur who came up with the bright idea to bring fine cooking and peerless customer service to the rowdy far West, and do so on a grand scale … and as a sidebar to that feat, also supplied thousands of wives to settlers in an otherwise female-deficient part of the country. He was a Scots-English immigrant from Liverpool named Fred Harvey. He arrived in New York at the age of 17, early in the 1850s. He took up employment washing pots and dishes at a popular restaurant of the day, and within a short time had worked up the kitchen ranks to waiter and then line cook. He only remained there for a year and a half – but in those months he had learned the restaurant business very, very well. He gravitated west, but only as far as St. Louis, where he managed a retail store, married and survived a bout of yellow fever. The restaurant business called to him, though. On the eve of the Civil War, he and a business partner opened a café. Which was successful, right up until the minute that his business partner, whose sympathies were with the Confederacy, took all the profits from the café and went South.

Nothing deterred, Fred Harvey went to work for the Hannibal & St. Joseph railroad, which eventually was absorbed by the Chicago, Burlington & Quincy. He rose as swiftly in the corporate structure of that railroad as it existed in those freewheeling days as he had in that New York restaurant. His work necessitated more or less constant travel; he was in a way of speaking, an early ‘road warrior’. As such, he couldn’t help but notice that customer service in station restaurants was almost non-existent and the food available usually explored those limits between completely inedible and totally vile. The Western road food experience had not appreciably improved in the fifteen years since Mark Twain had so memorably described it in Roughing It.

“The table was a greasy board on stilts, and the table- cloth and napkins had not come—and they were not looking for them, either. A battered tin platter, a knife and fork, and a tin pint cup, were at each man’s place, and the driver had a queens-ware saucer that had seen better days … The station-keeper upended a disk of last week’s bread, of the shape and size of an old-time cheese, and carved some slabs from it which were as good as Nicholson pavement, and tenderer. He sliced off a piece of bacon for each man, but only the experienced old hands made out to eat it, for it was condemned army bacon which the United States would not feed to its soldiers in the forts, and the stage company had bought it cheap for the sustenance of their passengers and employees … Then he poured for us a beverage which he called “Slum gullion,” and it is hard to think he was not inspired when he named it. It really pretended to be tea, but there was too much dish-rag, and sand, and old bacon-rind in it to deceive the intelligent traveler.”

Fred Harvey suffered along with every other traveler – but as it turned out, he was the right man, with the right background, in the right place, and with the right friends to be able to do something about it. In the Centennial year of 1876, he struck a handshake deal with the superintendent of the Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe railroad to open and manage restaurants and lunch counters at AT&SF stations. The AT&SF would not charge Fred Harvey rent, or haulage for necessary supplies. Originally chartered to connect Santa Fe, New Mexico Territory, to the settlements in Kansas, the AT&SF cleaned up in hauling Texas cattle to the stock yards of Chicago. They would eventually reach the Texas gulf coast, reach into Mexico to the port of Guaymas on the Gulf of Carpentaria, connect up Albuquerque and El Paso, and service Los Angeles over the route which had been favored by the ante-bellum South when the prospect of a transcontinental railroad was first suggested.

And Fred Harvey’s restaurant establishments were everywhere that the AT&SF ran. There would eventually be nearly 50 Harvey House restaurants, fifteen resort hotels and thirty dining cars, attending to the needs of the traveling public. Harvey establishments were spotlessly clean, the food expertly prepared and served by staff trained to the highest standard … or else. Fred Harvey was a hands-on manager; he was noted for whipping out the tablecloth of a badly-set table, sending the plates and silverware crashing to the floor and leaving the chastened wait-staff to re-set the table correctly. But he was also passionately interested in hiring and training the very best personnel available, promoting the able and the loyal, and in providing for their welfare.

Another Fred Harvey innovation – and likely the best-remembered in the 20th century – was the wait-staff force itself; all-female, generously-remunerated, and strictly chaperoned. The Harvey organization was a respectable institution, and wanted no breath of local scandal attaching to female employees, many of whom worked in towns geographically-distant from their families. It was a sad reality that quite often in Western boom towns, those single women who came to work in eating establishments and dance halls were suspected (often with good cause) of being prostitutes or just promiscuous with their favors. Fred Harvey wanted none of that. He was going to run respectable, middle-class places. It was one of his site supervisors who first suggested hiring young women. It seemed that many of the waiters at his location were black – and too many customers who were white and Southern males were picking fights with the staff, absconding without paying for their meals and otherwise wreaking havoc. This would not do; it was bad for staff morale, hell on the profit side of the ledger and hard on the furniture.

So Fred Harvey opened an office in Chicago to interview potential employees, and advertised widely in the eastern and mid-western newspapers: young unmarried women between the ages of 18 and thirty, who would sign a contract to work for a set period of time (usually a year). They would have to be literate, well-spoken and accustomed to hard work – and willing to go west, to wherever they were needed. Some estimates have it that over the next thirty years, 5,000 women worked as Harvey Girls, everywhere from Kansas to California. Their working uniforms were plain black dresses with narrow white collars, black shoes and stockings, with white aprons, and their hair tied with a white ribbon. They were not allowed to wear makeup – which likely only became a real trial in the 1920s. Fred Harvey paid wages of $17 monthly; generous indeed at a time when laborers were lucky to earn $11 a month. The Harvey Girls lived in company-provided dormitories, their uniforms were often provided to them, and they were entitled to perks like free transportation on the AT&SF, and after a period with the company could request a specific location. Seniority in the Harvey organization could be accrued – unless a Harvey Girl chose to marry, as many did – she could work her way up to senior waitress or even manager.

(to be continued. Crossposted at my book blog and at www.ncobrief.com)

9 thoughts on “History Weekend: Tales of a 19th Century Road Warrior”

  1. I remember them well but it was AT&SF railroad. There were still Fred Harvey restaurants in 1956 when I took the AT&SF to California to college.

  2. Mom: You probably know this, but there is fairly recent book out about Fred Harvey:

    Appetite for America: How Visionary Businessman Fred Harvey Built a Railroad Hospitality Empire That Civilized the Wild West by Stephen Fried [Bantam, 2010]. My nephew was Fried’s research assistant for the book.

    The author maintains a blog “about all things Harvey”: One Nation Under Fred.

    And, there are movies. A documentary that was broadcast by PBS: The Harvey Girls: Opportunity Bound

    There was also a 1946 MGM movie musical “The Harvey Girls” starring Judy Garland. Wikipedia Entry Amazon.

  3. slightly ot

    This past Tuesday evening I was sitting in a classroom at the University of Central Florida engaged in a rather lively discussion about valuing assets. A big part of the debate was about times when it is more appropriate to value assets using historical cost than using current fair market value. As an example of when the historical value is not appropriate, the professor decided to use an example of a railroad with ownership of highly coveted real estate purchased a century ago and still being valued on the books at that 100-year-old price. To introduce this example, the professor asked the class, “Who hear has heard of the Atchison, Topeka, and the Santa Fe?” Thanks to the audio programs available at SteynOnline, I knew this one. I raised my hand and said, “Johnny Mercer wrote that, I believe.”

    The class just sat there. The professor blinked a few times before my answer registered, and then he did a half grin and said, “No, I’m don’t mean the song, I’m talking about the actual railroad.”

    I was glad no one asked me any follow-up questions, because I couldn’t remember any of the lyrics.


  4. @Michael – I was thinking of the same movie.

    Sgt Mom – I wonder if you could consider this the first chain of restaurants? Worked out well for the railroad and well for Fred and the customers. Were the meals the same offerings or I wonder if different restaurants had their own specialties? Regardless I think you could legitimately claim this as the first chain.

    I vaguely remember these from my childhood in the 50s – I wonder when they sadly disappeared. Before I look it up I’m betting the 1960s.

  5. Thanks, Robert – yes, that’s one of the books about Fred Harvey that I now have … for research purposes. The heroine of an upcoming book will be a Harvey Girl in the mid-1880. I didn’t know about the blog, but that will be more fodder for that book. (First chapter here, BTW. I’ll be working on two books at a time, which is nice because when I get bored of or stuck on something, I can switch to the other.)

    Bill, it definitely was the first national chain. I am inclining to think that they probably did have a standardized menu, or at the very least, a common recipe book – they did have a single source for their coffee served in all their establishments; it was a special blend, just for Harvey Houses.

    It seems that some of the early restaurants actually lost money at first – but it didn’t matter particularly, because the enterprise was a loss leader for the AT&SF. They were a lure to get people to travel on their line by offering superior food. What they lost in the restaurants, they gained in rail fares. So far, what I have read is that the Harvey House chain began to loose ground when people turned to traveling long distances by automobile rather than the rails, post WWII – so you and Mike remembering them still in operation in the 50ies would be about right.

  6. I think air travel had a lot to do with the end of the Harvey chain and with passenger travel on trains at about the same time. I think my first trip to California, which was by train and sitting up for three days, was also my last by train. The next time I flew.

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