Here at the History Rhyme, we have come to the Summer vacation season. This is the time to get away from too much serious stuff and have a little fun. Unfortunately, it is the time when kids have way too much free time and start driving their parents crazy with a constant droning of “I am bored,” or “this is so boring.” After a few attempts to get the kids to do something educational like reading a book or going to a museum, it is not long before the idea of a vacation somewhere comes up. Depending on one’s budget, this could entail a flight or it could be a car ride. In any case, unless you are having a “stay-cation,” there will be some traveling involved. I do not know about all of you out there, but I do not want too many surprises when it comes to issues of food and facilities. Simply stated, I want to go from place to place and know that I will find safe food, clean bathrooms and friendly attendants. In other words, I want consistency. Thankfully, it is far easier to find that than it has been in the past. I tell myself that this has occurred recently in the Midwestern United States because of the expansion of Iowa-based convenience store chains like Casey’s and Kum & Go (yes, that is its name), but this Iowa boy is very biased. However, this trend of a safe food, clean facilities and friendly staff predates all of us. In fact, our modern idea of travel convenience dates back to the post-Civil War period. So, without further adu, in this month’s History Rhyme, we ask that you give us a tiny bit of our summer to help remember a pioneer in the type of consistent and convenient traveling experience that we have come to expect (and comment about on websites if we don’t) – Fred Harvey.
According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary (you knew this was coming, didn’t you?), one of the definitions for “convenience” is “freedom from discomfort.” When it came to traveling to the Southwestern United States in the decade or so after the end of the Civil War, the situation was anything, but discomfort free. When traveling on the rail lines across the region, it was very hard for a traveler to find a good meal and a clean place in which to eat it. Instead, it was not uncommon to find rancid meat and stale bread in dirty rail cars or at shacks along the tracks. Fred Harvey, a traveling freight agent with a background in the restaurant industry, recognized that something needed to be done and he felt he had the answer – provide clean and safe food prepared in a consistent manner, presented in attractive dining halls, and served by a well-mannered staff. That may sound rather obvious to us, but at that time it was a revolutionary concept. In 1875, Harvey was able to convince the head of the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railroad (AT&SF) to allow him to open a couple of eating houses along their tracks in Kansas. In 1878, he opened his first official “Harvey House” in Florence, Kansas. Eventually, he would branch out into operating AT&SF dining cars and even had a few Harvey House hotels. The Harvey Houses were a great success and Mr. Harvey’s methods were so consistent and admired that his method of operations was known as the “Harvey Way.” By the time of his death in 1901, Harvey had opened 47 Harvey House restaurants and 15 Harvey House hotels across the 12 states that the AT&SF covered, and operated 30 AT&SF dining cars. At its peak, there were 84 Harvey House locations. Harvey Houses continued to offer the service for which it was famous until the 1960s. (see note below)
The reason why this story is suitable as a History Rhyme is because some of the elements introduced by Fred Harvey and his company have strongly influenced our opinions of what a convenient and pleasurably travel experience should be. The most important of these elements are in the areas of logistics and hospitality. Just like any modern chain of restaurants, hotels or convenience stores, a consistent and reliable logistics plan is required. In our modern era in the United States of interstate highways, a logistical network is possible due to the vast fleets of trucks that supply locations. The reason why the Harvey House concept was possible was because of Harvey’s strong relationship with the AT&SF railroad which provided Harvey the ability to move meat and dairy products to the various locations at little or no cost. If not for the network of tracks upon which the Harvey Houses were originally located, the rapid growth of the first restaurant chain in America would have been immensely more difficult.
The other main aspect of the Harvey House story that has an influence on our modern world concerns Mr. Harvey’s ideas on what kind of people should be serving his safe and clean food in his attractive locations. He needed a work staff that was reliable, civilized and consistent. Starting in 1883, Harvey’s answer was to put advertisements in newspapers across the United States seeking young, single, white women to become what was eventually known as his “Harvey Girls.” These women were to be of good moral character, well mannered, and have at least an eighth grade education. These women were meant to serve as a civilizing influence on the region and their black and white uniforms were designed to purposefully minimize the feminine form. It can be argued that this was an early form of “branding” that is such an important aspect for companies in our modern consumer society. This concept was so successful that the “Harvey Girls” were the subject of a 1942 novel by Samuel Hopkins and an MGM movie in 1946 starring Judy Garland and Angela Landsbury. Of course, there are elements of the “Harvey Girl” concept that are at the very least problematic to modern eyes (e.g. discriminatory hiring practices, and the total control the company exerted over the girls lives while employed), but that does not change the fact that the Harvey Girl model was innovative for its time and its emphasis on professionalism of service has been emulated to this day. So, as you are traveling along the roads this summer and you are looking for a place to stop for some food or a place to sleep, remember the efforts of Fred Harvey and his army of Harvey Girls. If not for their efforts, the “freedom from discomfort” that so many of us crave when we are hungry, tired, or just simply in need of a clean bathroom, might be less convenient to find.
NOTE: For more information on the development of Harvey Houses, there are several websites devoted to the subject. Examples are the Harvey Girl Historical Society, A Harvey House Home Page, and Harvey House Restaurants.
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