Unless you grew up in the Southwest and can remember back to pre–World War II days, you may have never heard of Fred Harvey and the Harvey Girls. But if you spend much time in northern Arizona, you’re likely to run into quite a few references to the Harvey Girls and their boss.
Fred Harvey was the Southwest’s most famous mogul of railroad hospitality and was an early promoter of tourism in the Grand Canyon State. Harvey, an English immigrant who was working for a railroad in the years shortly after the Civil War, developed a distaste for the food served at railroad stations. He decided he could do a better job, and in 1876 he opened his first Harvey House railway-station restaurant for the Santa Fe Railroad. By the time of his death in 1901, Harvey operated 47 restaurants, 30 diners, and 15 hotels across the West.
The women who worked as waitresses in the Harvey House restaurants came to be called Harvey Girls. Known for their distinctive black dresses, white aprons, and black bow ties (which women servers at Winslow’s Turquoise Room in the La Posada hotel still wear for period effect), Harvey Girls had to adhere to very strict behavior codes. In fact, in the late 19th century, they were considered the only real “ladies” in the West, aside from schoolteachers. So celebrated were they in their day that in the 1940s, Judy Garland starred in a Technicolor MGM musical called The Harvey Girls. Garland played a Harvey Girl who battles the evil town dance-hall queen (played by Angela Lansbury) for the soul of the local saloonkeeper.
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