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Grandma Was A Harvey Girl

Family memoirs indicate that she was a Harvey Girl. That doesn't mean that her maiden name was Harvey, but refers to her occupation.


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Family memoirs indicate that she was a Harvey Girl. That doesn't mean that her maiden name was Harvey, but refers to her occupation. Basically, she was a waitress.

Fred Harvey came to the United States from England and began working in the restaurant business in New York. Eventually he moved westward and was involved in the railroad business. In 1870 Harvey was in Kansas. He combined both interests by providing food for railroad passengers. The food was good, cheap and served in clean restaurants through the Southwest along the railroad line. By 1885 there were seventeen Harvey Houses and at one time there were eighty-four.

Women were recruited through newspaper ads from all over the United States. There were rules for being hired. They had to be of good moral character, display good manners, be neat and articulate and have at least an eighth grade education. Those hired signed a six month contract and agreed not to marry. For many this was a way out of poverty and to also experience adventure. Most jobs for women during this time period were as domestics (servants) or teachers.

Harvey Girls were paid approximately $17.50 per month with free room, board and clean uniforms. When Fred Harvey passed away in 1901, his sons took over the company and operated it through the 1930s. With the improvement of roads and air travel, the business began to decline. This was further hindered with the depression. However, during World War II there was a surge of need and interest in the Harvey Houses.

The Fred Harvey Company had restaurants, lunchrooms and hotels in California, Arizona, New Mexico, Kansas, Oklahoma and Texas. Later they were in Chicago and St. Louis. When the Santa Fe Railroad began including dining cars in the 1890s, Harvey got the contract to serve food on the dining cars.

If you have family lore about the Harvey Girls, be sure to scout out information. You may be able to locate advertisements for the era in leading newspapers. Women who moved away from home to become Harvey Girls, often met their future husbands in the new location.

The Harvey House web site at has an excellent collection of photographs and comments about various Harvey Houses in Arizona, California, Colorado, Kansas, Missouri, New Mexico, Oklahoma and Texas.

These early chain restaurants have resulted in movies and novels, including The Harvey Girls starring Judy Garland in 1946. The movie won an Academy Award for the best song, "On the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe."

Fred Harvey's contribution to the railroads and restaurants in the United States provided work for many women through the years. It is definitely a part of our history ... and maybe it will be a part of your ancestor's history.

Source Information: Tracing Lines, New Providence, NJ, USA: Genealogy Today LLC, 2010.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Genealogy Today LLC.

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