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Railway Giants: Fred Harvey and the Birth of the American Restaurant Car Service

Railway Giants: Fred Harvey and the Birth of the American Restaurant Car Service
photo: Atchison, Topeka, and Santa Fe Railway Company, publisher, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons/Fred Harvey
22 / 04 / 2024

The United States was one of the first countries to have a restaurant car business, which today we can hardly keep away from the railways. But how did it work and what role did the fabled 'Harvey Girls' play in it?

Voice of America

The year is 1835, and we are in England, in the city of Liverpool. It is here that a boy who will be called Fred Harvey is born into a mixed Scottish-English family. Fred is born into a period in which the whole of Great Britain is undergoing rapid change. The island country is at the height of a revolution that is aptly nicknamed the Industrial Revolution. In the process, Britain, like continental Europe, and to a large extent America, goes up in smoke.

It is the United States of America that is undergoing a process of settlement in addition to the introduction of steam power. Immigrants from various European countries are pouring into the US. They see this migration as a chance for a new beginning. In addition, the United States' asylum policy is very friendly. Given the huge size of the American state, there are interesting land allocations in previously unsettled areas for newcomers. Thus, for historical accuracy, the vast American territories have been inhabited for many years by native Indian tribes. Since the late 18th century, however, they have been systematically pushed onto reservations built for them by the US government.

However, it is not only the people whose first attempt did not go as they had hoped who are taking advantage of the opportunity for a fresh start, but also those who are still preparing to make it. Such is the case with our protagonist Fred, who in 1850, at the age of 15, leaves his native Liverpool for an experience "across the big puddle," to also try to live his own American dream. He first lands in New York, where he takes up a job at Smith and McNell's restaurant. There, he learns excellent business skills from the quirky owners, Henry Smith and T. R. McNell. They also explain to him the importance of good service, fresh ingredients, and, last but not least, a handshake agreement. Fred quickly develops his skills as a busboy, waiter, and eventually a chef.

Putting Down Roots

He will try to put his newly acquired knowledge to use in the city of New Orleans, where he will move. However, he suddenly falls ill with yellow fever. He recovers and moves to St. Louis to work in a jewelry store. He thrives in this job but begins to increasingly miss the food industry, to which he had developed a very strong attachment in previous years. In addition, he falls passionately in love with Barbara Sarah Mattas, whom he marries in 1856, and together they have six children.

Shortly afterward, the American Civil War breaks out in 1861. A conflict in which the guns of Southerners and Northerners clash, culminating in a long-running dispute over the form of US governance and ultimately the legality of slavery. During this conflict, Fred will be internally sympathetic to the Southerners, i.e., the Confederacy. During the war, Fred will work as a postal clerk for a rapidly expanding railroad company. In connection with this, he and his family will move to Kansas. Due to the nature of his job, Fred will travel a lot. As a long-time employee in the food industry, he will be immediately attracted to the trains, especially the food service, the quality of which he will find severely inadequate at the least.

Fred senses a gap in the market which he quickly decides to fill. In 1873, he starts a railway catering business. Along the Kansas Pacific Railroad, he and his associate Jasper Rico will establish 2 dining rooms about 130 miles apart. But their partnership fails soon after.

The Birth of a Legend

But Fred doesn't slack off and finds partners elsewhere. In 1876, he strikes a deal with his friend Charles Morse, manager of the Atchison, Topeka, and Santa Fe Railroad. Along the company's railroads, Fred begins to set up restaurants where the company will not charge him rent. This agreement would later prove to be a turning point. Restaurant services are supplemented by lodging services at many locations. Fred's restaurants, known as Harvey House, are frequented by the wealthiest travelers as well as the middle class. In addition, he begins operating food trucks. The quality of their product range is said to be similar to that of the brick-and-mortar restaurants. Thanks to its impeccable service, Fred soon earns the nickname "the civilizer of the West."

Wikimedia commons/  Elkman at English Wikipedia/ CC BY-SA 3.0

In addition to the quality of the food on offer, Fred is aware of the importance of having the right staff. So he begins hiring girls between the ages of 18 and 30, whom he forbids from marrying until they have worked in his establishments for at least a year. The "Harvey Girls," as the girls will be called, live in houses adjacent to the restaurants, where they are supervised, of course, to ensure compliance with the curfew and limit male visitors. In addition, he also takes care of the dress code of his employees. Their smart coats ensure that customers feel a sense of dignity. Thus, Fred creates the Fred Harvey Company, which bears his name. The company would operate a chain of hotels and restaurants under the direction of Fred's sons and grandsons until 1965.

In addition to his legendary restaurants, Fred makes history with another innovation. He pioneers commercial cultural tourism. His "Indian Detours" convey an authentic Native American experience by having actors stage a particular lifestyle in the desert to sell tickets to unwitting tourists. Fred's marketing feats don't stop with the attractions either, as he uses attractive women as guides. Canyon National Park/CC BY 2.0 DEED

Fred Harvey leaves the earthly world in 1901 at the age of 65 in Kansas, where he succumbs to bowel cancer. By that time, his company has 47 restaurants, 15 hotels, and 30 dining cars in operation. He leaves behind, in addition to a thriving business and a respectable legacy for his children, a significant legacy. His company would operate the first chain restaurant chain in the U.S., and he would earn the nickname "the founding father of American service." A Fred Harvey Museum will be established at his Leavenworth, Kansas, headquarters. In addition, his Harvey Girls become the basis for a movie musical of the same name, filmed in 1946.

Visit Leavenworth Kansas/ Public domain