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

Fred Harvey knew an opportunity when he saw it. Railroads were bringing travelers to California and the West Coast, but the desert in between was still seen as the rough-and-tumble Wild West. The trips took quite a few days, and the trains made many stops in small towns along the way. That’s how Harvey House restaurants became familiar to travelers. They were large, clean, and respectable, unlike so many of the desert’s earlier facilities. Beginning in 1876, Harvey and the Santa Fe Railroad opened around 100 restaurants along the railway, which made him a pioneer of the chain restaurant business.   

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.

Other innovations included orders telegraphed ahead from trains, local dishes, multilingual employees, and eventually, hotels. Read about the Harvey House phenomenon at Collectors Weekly.

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