Friday, April 9, 2010

Fred Harvey: The man who invented waitresses

Posted By on Fri, Apr 9, 2010 at 12:00 PM

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Without Fred Harvey, there wouldn't be "Flo"
Author and journalist Stephen Fried spoke to a standing-room-only crowd at Kansas City's National Archives last night about his new book, Appetite for America: How Visionary Businessman Fred Harvey Built a Railroad Hospitality Empire That Civilized the Wild West (Bantam, $27). The book is the first in-depth history of restaurateur Fred Harvey, his family and his dining empire that was based, during its glory years, in Kansas City.

Harvey's accomplishments in creating America's first restaurant company are legendary. And Fried pointed out that Harvey didn't just change the way Americans ate outside of their own homes -- he reinvented the American work force.

Before Harvey began hiring women as the tidy, well-coifed Harvey Girls in his restaurants in 1883, most servers in American restaurants were male. Between 1883 and 1950, the Fred Harvey Company hired more than 100,000 female employees.

As it turns out, racism was his motivation for creating the Harvey Girl.

"When Fred Harvey began opening restaurants in the West, particularly New Mexico," Fried explained, "he learned that a lot of Southern sympathizers and Civil War veterans had moved to the West after the Civil War."

These men had taken their prejudices with them, and the African-American waiters working in Harvey House restaurants were constantly threatened -- or worse. "Many of these waiters began carrying guns with them while they were working," said Fried. "In order to calm the hostility, Fred Harvey moved the black waiters to other roles in the company and began hiring young women from the Midwest -- they were trained in Kansas City and Chicago first -- and bringing them to the restaurants in the West."

The waitresses were required to live by a strict moral code and lived in dormitories -- Fried calls them "barracks" -- above the restaurants. They would be on-call 24 hours a day. Harvey didn't hire local women for his restaurants, believing they had too much connection to their towns. Harvey Girls were completely focused on their role in the restaurants and even signed a contract promising that they wouldn't marry while working for the company.

"When historians write about feminism in the United States," Fried said, "they rarely go back as far as the Harvey Girls."

 

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