Happy December! For this month’s Dining on the Rails, we thought we’d feature Harvey Girl Pancakes as well as the history of the Harvey Girls.

1890 AT&SF Route Map

Figure 1 Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe route map ca. 1890

Fred Harvey, founder of the Harvey Houses, restaurants along the Atchison, Topeka, & Santa Fe railroad, had high standards for both the quality of the food his restaurants provided and the quality of service provided by his employees. When he originally opened his restaurants (the first one in 1876), they were staffed by men who proved to be unruly for Harvey’s standards. In 1883, the first women were hired as servers at the Harvey House in Raton, New Mexico after Harvey fired all the male servers in the restaurant due to a drunken knife brawl. The women were so popular as servers—to both the community and the railroad employees—that soon Harvey replaced all the servers in his Harvey Houses with Harvey Girls.

FredHarvey

Figure 2 Fred Harvey, founder of Harvey Houses.

To recruit these young women from other states, Fred Harvey put ads in eastern newspapers stating:

WANTED—young women, 18 to 30 years of age, of good moral character, attractive and intelligent, as waitresses in Harvey Eating Houses on the Santa Fe Railroad in the West. Wages $17.50 per month with room and board. Liberal tips customary. Experience not necessary. (quote from The Harvey Girls by Juddi Morris)

Fred Harvey Lunchroom 1900

Figure 3 AT&SF Fred Harvey – Deming, New Mexico lunchroom ca 1900

Once hired, the women underwent extensive training to make sure they provided the standards of service Harvey required. The Harvey Girls signed 6 month, 9 month, and 12 month contracts and were not allowed to marry during the period of the contract. If they did marry, which was not uncommon, they lost their pay and their railroad passes for the Santa Fe line. In the book The Harvey Girls author Lesley Poling-Kempes describes the many standards the Harvey Girls had to uphold. Their uniforms consisted of modest black dresses and white aprons which had to be impeccably clean and starched. They had to follow strict rules including a curfew, and were not allowed to wear makeup or jewelry. They worked six to seven days a week, usually 12 hour shifts, and were not allowed to be seen sitting at all. When they weren’t serving passengers or guests, they were kept busy polishing all the silverware and making sure their stations were clean.

Harvey Girls in Kansas

Figure 4 Harvey Girls in front of Harvey House in Kansas.

Despite their busy schedules and the strict standards, being a Harvey Girl provided many unmarried women the opportunity for independence, both financially and through travel. The main reason the women took the job was for work. Thousands of women were hired yearly from the 1880s through the 1950s. Harvey House jobs were steady, even during the Great Depression, providing an invaluable way for young women to support themselves and their loved ones back home. In addition to financial independence, many Harvey Girls met their future husbands through their work. Though being a Harvey Girl provided many women with opportunities, it still proved to be an exclusive opportunity. Most Harvey Girls were white women, even in communities that had large Hispanic or indigenous populations.

Postcard of Trinidad, CO

Figure 5 Postcard of Cardenas Hotel in Trinidad, Colorado.

Travel by rail declined significantly in the 1950s with the rise of the automobile and air travel. Most Harvey House restaurants closed during that time, and the Harvey Girls were no longer needed. Their legacy of “civilizing” the West endures to this day.

We hope you’ve enjoyed our quick history of the Harvey Girls! The recipe for Harvey Girl Special Little Thin Orange Pancakes comes from one of the Fred Harvey restaurants in St. Louis. If you try it, please let us know how it turns out on our Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter, or in the comments below!

Harvey Girl Special Little Thin Orange Pancakes

  • 1/4 cup diced orange sections and juice (1/2 orange)
  • 1 teaspoon grated orange peel
    1 cup pancake mix
  • 1 cup orange juice (about)
  • Combine all ingredients. Bake small pancakes on hot griddle, using 1 tablespoon batter for each pancake. Serve with maple syrup, honey or jelly. Yield: 12 servings, 3 (2 3/4″ diameter) pancakes per serving.
    (from The Super Chief Cookbook, published ca. 1950 by the Santa Fe railway)

For more information on Fred Harvey, please see our Dining on the Rails blog from November of 2020: https://coloradorailroadmuseum.org/2020/11/27/dining-on-the-rails-happy-thanksgiving/

4 Comments

  1. James Bridge

    The correct measure is one Tablespoon of batter per pancake.

    Reply
    • Matt Isaacks

      Thanks for the correction James! Post edited as suggested!

      Reply
  2. Kerri

    Finally tried this recipe today. And I must say over 70 years later, it is still a big hit! Some of the comments include: “You don’t need any syrup, they are already sweet!”, “These are really good, I need your recipe!”, And “Best pancakes I’ve eaten!”. My personal take on the recipe is that it is very simple, quick, and of course delicious. The Harvey Girls had it right! I recommend this recipe to beginners and experts alike! Love the information and history included with this recipe! Thank you!

    Reply
    • Matt Isaacks

      Awesome! Thanks for sharing your experience and all the feedback!

      Reply

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Dining on the Rails September 2022: Peach Cobbler
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