Arizona history: Who were the Harvey Girls?
Harvey Girls were hard-working waitresses who served meals at the Fred Harvey Hotels and restaurants along the Santa Fe Railroad. These young women waited tables in several Arizona hotels, including the Escalante in Ash Fork, La Posada in Winslow, El Tovar at the Grand Canyon and the Havasu in Seligman. Hired for their ability to provide excellent service and for their moral character, they brought increased respect to the position of waitressing while also aiding in the development of tourism in the Southwest.
The meals provided by the Harvey hotels were a major improvement from food previously available to train passengers. Because trains did not offer meal service, travelers had to fend for themselves, often enduring poor food for high prices along railroad lines. Fred Harvey established a series of restaurants to allow passengers to dine for a reasonable price in clean surroundings.
The Harvey Girls were recruited from towns across the nation. Required to sign a six-month contract, they agreed to remain unmarried and abide by all company rules while employed. Once hired, they were given a rail pass to travel to their new place of work. Fred Harvey stipulated that the women be articulate and neat in appearance, educated at least up to the eighth grade and well-mannered. The young women typically lived in dormitories nearby or on the upper floors of hotels where they worked, so they would be available on short notice, when trains arrived. Matrons supervised their comings and goings. Most of the waitresses were in their twenties and had never been married, although as decades passed, more married, widowed or divorced women were hired.
Cora Mathis Scott, who was born in Wisconsin in 1901, traveled to Ash Fork after her 18th birthday to work at the Escalante Hotel. Her sister was already working there. Her father had forbidden her to leave home until she turned 18, so she waited to move until after her birthday in 1919. Following a week of training, Cora began waitressing in the lunch room. Staying in a dormitory with other Harvey Girls, she enjoyed meeting new people: “It was different, you know, and the cowboys…They were real cowboys then. They weren’t those that go around dressing like them. They were really working with the cows,” she recalled in an oral history interview.
Cora worked hard: “You didn’t walk, you ran,” she said. She and other Harvey Girls always knew when the trains would arrive and were ready to serve meals quickly. After waitressing for seven months in Ash Fork, she moved to San Diego for nursing school.
The Harvey Girls wore uniforms consisting of black dresses with white aprons, black stockings and shoes. During the early twentieth century, their skirts hung no more than eight inches off the floor. They commonly pulled their hair back, tied with a bow and restrained in a net. Makeup was not allowed. The waitresses were required to keep their uniforms spotless; Harvey Houses provided laundry services.
Luz Delgadillo became a Harvey Girl in Seligman during World War II. Working at the Havasu, she served soldiers who came through town on troop trains. In one shift, the Harvey Girls served as many as seven troop trains, each carrying 200 soldiers. The work was strenuous, but Luz enjoyed the camaraderie and felt that she was contributing to the war effort. “We were kind of like soldiers,” she said. “The rules were very strict.”
Following World War II in 1946, Marie Zismann, a married woman, began working in the Escalante Hotel. Her daughter was also employed there at the time. Although Marie had no waitressing experience, she learned quickly. In an oral history interview, she recalled, “They were very strict. And you were never allowed to write anything down. You could not write down orders, regardless of how big they were.”
While the work was demanding and rules were strict, Harvey Girls had the freedom of living in new surroundings and the ability to move to different locations. Many ended up marrying local men, beginning families and helping to settle the West.