Nov 28, 2011

Harvey Girls, Trains, and Culinary Exploits

On The Atchison, Topeka And The Santa Fe
By Harry Warren and Johnny Mercer

Do yuh hear that whistle down the line?
I figure that it's engine number forty nine,
She's the only one that'll sound that way.
On the Atchison, Topeka and the Santa Fe.
See the ol' smoke risin' 'round the bend,
I reckon that she knows she's gonna meet a friend,
Folks around these parts get the time o' day
From the Atchison, Topeka and the Santa Fe.
Here she comes!
Ooh, ooh, ooh,
Hey, Jim, yuh better git the rig!
Ooh, ooh, ooh,
She's got a list o' passengers that's pretty big
And they'll all want lifts to Brown's Hotel,
'Cause lots o' them been travelin' for quite a spell,
All the way from Philadelphiay,
On the Atchison, Topeka and the Santa Fe.

This lively number may have been written for a Hollywood Musical, but it wasn't just blowing smoke! The movie was heralding a marriage between America's railroad and a burgeoning hospitality industry. Although, the movie had more to do with a love story surrounded by grand musical numbers and a fuzzy plot, it did salute the ambition of one impoverished Englishman who came to America to make good of himself.

I read Stephen Fried's book, Appetite for America: Fred Harvey and the Business of Civilizing the Wild West--One Meal at a Time. The title is a mouthful, and appropriately so since food played a major role in refining our country. I was introduced to Stephen and his book when I heard him interviewed by Lynne Rossetto Kasper, Host of APM's The Splendid Table. I had watched The Harvey Girls, the MGM motion picture starring Judy Garland, multiple times and never knew that it was based on factual events.

Fred Harvey | 1835-1901
The life of Fred Harvey, founder of The Fred Harvey Company, truly was a rags-to-riches story. It was during the summer of 1843 in Liverpool, England, that Fred Harvey saw his father, Charles Harvey, suffer the public humiliation of Bankruptcy Court as he was declared "insolvent." Consequently, the family endured a depleted life under hardscrabble conditions. In those days, legal notices were made public, this one appearing in the Times of London. Many found great pleasure in watching hardworking people sink into the abyss of poverty.

Fred Harvey arrived in America when the Wild West was anything but tame and wild frontiers were being rapidly swallowed up by settlers. The Union and Confederates were preparing for a showdown, modern inventions were redefining how people had lived for centuries, and the prosperity of a town could plummet with the simple rerouting of a train.

There is a small discrepancy as to when Fred left England for America. Fred told others that his departure from England was in 1850. An 1851 London census suggests that Fred was still living in England, so some speculate that he sailed for New York in 1853, via steerage. And, his journey was well-timed. New York was holding it's first world's fair and was attracting opportunity-seekers from all over the world.

Clam vendor. 116th Street and Second Avenue, New York,
July 16, 1936. Photograph by P. L. Sperr.
Smith and McNell's Hotel
Smith and McNell's was an affordable, 24-hour restaurant located at the The Washington Street Market, which was directly across from the docks for European steamships. It was well appreciated by customers — one of which was Thomas Edison. It also happened to be the only place to dine! It was here that Fred Harvey landed his first job: a dish washer, or in his words, a pot walloper.

“Delmonico’s, Fifth Avenue at N.E.
corner of 44th Street.” Photograph by
Wurts Brothers, Photographers, 1907.
The restaurant business was still a child. In 1830, Delmonico's — just blocks away — had evolved from a coffee shop into a full-service restaurant. This became a new adventure for Americans since they were not accustomed to ordering from a menu.

So it was that Fred Harvey had his initiation at Smith and McNell's, into what would be his life's calling. The owners "had strong ideas about fresh ingredients, handshake relationships, and the redemptive power of cash," Stephen wrote. It was here that Fred learned the restaurant business from the ground up.

Later, Fred began working for the railroads, gaining increased favor. He then returned to the restaurant business during the Civil War only to have his business partner, a Southern sympathizer, take off with their savings. This would not be the first of Fred's culinary ventures gone sour; however, he kept bouncing back. Since he travelled regularly on trains and found the food to be pitiful, he began looking for innovative ideas to solve the problem.

Harvey Girls at Work -
Eventually, Fred began opening Harvey Houses along the railroad, mostly accommodating the Southwestern and Western United States. He offered upscale meals, catering to wealthy and middle-class guests. The dining experience was meticulously timed and managed, and the food was served by Harvey Girls. Everything about his hospitality was top drawer. Exquisite linens, china, crystal, and cutlery were imported from the finest European and American manufacturers. He was even instrumental in the upgrading of dining cars on trains, introducing elegant cuisine that most passengers never expected to find in train travel.

The Ga-Ga Guest -
Saloons had dominated the Wild West, so it wasn't a surprise that saloon girls resented the advent of Harvey Girls. Fred Harvey carefully selected white women, 18 to 30 years of age, who were educated, well-mannered, comely, and who had agreed to live by rigid standards. Single men were elated that they now had marriageable options along the beaten paths of their sojourns.

This is how Wikipedia describes the uniform and restricted lifestyle of a Harvey Girl: "The women 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 forfeited 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."

Curio Room in Fred Harvey's Alvarado Hotel
At the height of The Fred Harvey Company's success, there were 84 Harvey Houses. He also operated bookstores, news stands, and created elegant postcards with the assistance of the Detroit Publishing Company. He was known for cultivating tourism; developing an appreciation for Native American culture, arts, and artifacts; and celebrating the majestic splendor of natural wonders such as the Grand Canyon. He is also credited for taming the Wild West and for launching America's first restaurant chain.

Fred Harvey Hotel in Gallup, New Mexico
Vintage Postcard
After Fred Harvey's death, his son, Ford, and then his grandson, Freddy continued the Harvey legacy and tradition. However, in the scope of Harvey family history, there was probably more tragedy than most of us will ever face. 

Early on, Fred Harvey suffered from a near-death bout with Typhoid Fever which left permanent damage to his gastrointestinal system. His first wife died soon after giving birth to their second child. Fred then remarried and lost his 2 young sons to Scarlet Fever just prior to Abraham Lincoln's assassination.

Ford Harvey became ill in 1928 with what resembled an ordinary cold. He became a statistic in what was later identified as a deadly flu epidemic.

Then, in 1936, daredevil Freddy Harvey and his stylishly chic wife, Betty, were killed when the private plane he was piloting lost control and smashed into the side of a mountain. Stephen Fried remarked on how the local Johnstown Democrat displayed a total lack of tact: "'Plane Crash Nightmare,' the banner headline read. 'Kansas City Rail Leader and Wife Burned to Crisp.'"

I strongly recommend this book! It is a wonderful slice of American history as seen through the entrepreneurial exploits of Fred Harvey and his family. I was not only inspired by the tenacity of the Harvey's, but I learned a great deal about American history in the process.