Remembering the Harvey Women of the West »Albuquerque Journal
SANTA FE, NM – The first days of the women’s movement were measured in cups of coffee and copious pieces of cake served by the fresh-faced and flawless young ladies with flair who ventured into the west when ladies rarely ventured far from home and convention .
To help hungry travelers in the early days of rail travel across the American border, thousands of these bright young women answered calls to go west, seek their fortune, serve food, and give up the rigid roles of their gender by playing Harvey Girls became.
“Back then, women had very few job opportunities. Waitresses were on the lower end of the social scale, barely a step higher than a prostitute, ”said Carolyn Meyer, Albuquerque author of about 60 historical novels for young adults. “Yet here were these brave young girls who went to heaven for what was still in the Wild West.”
The job of a waitress may not seem like a feminist achievement, but it was monumental by the 1880s and for nearly seven decades. The Harvey Girls brought class to the once nefarious cast, iconic style to the Harvey House transcontinental railroad restaurants and hotels where they served, and an adventure their corsetted and often impoverished lives had not previously made possible.
You have come a long way, baby, in more ways than one.
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Meyer said she was intrigued by the story of the Harvey Girls while researching her latest novel, “Waitress’s Diary: The Not-So-Glamorous Life of a Harvey Girl,” which is due to be published next month. During her research, she came across “The Harvey Girls: Opportunity Bound”, a documentary by filmmaker Katrina Parks, an alumna of the University of New Mexico. The documentary premiered in the summer of 2013; Meyer caught it in Belen in November and met Parks.
“I asked Katrina, are you going to have a premiere in Albuquerque, for Christ’s sake?” Meyer recalls. “Next I know, I’m planning the premiere.”
To say the Albuquerque event held at the KiMo Theater last November was a success is an understatement. All 650 seats in the Downtown Theater were occupied, some with ex-Harvey girls. About a hundred other disappointed guests were turned away.
“We knew we had to repeat that,” said Meyer.
And they will this May.
This time, however, Meyer said she wanted to invite as many former Harvey girls and their families as she can attract.
“We want to make a big fuss about her,” she said.
Former Harvey Girls are invited to bring photos and memorabilia that will be scanned and archived by the Albuquerque Department of Cultural Affairs and the New Mexico History Museum. Parks, the filmmaker, would also like to meet the “girls”.
This Harvey Girl apalooza event also includes a reception, musical entertainment by guitarist Frank McCulloch, recitation of a new poem for the occasion by City Poet Prize winner Jessica Helen Lopez, and a panel discussion with Meyer, Parks, local historian Richard Melzer and New Meredith Davidson , Curator of the Mexican History Museum.
Mayor Richard Berry and Governor Susana Martinez have already declared May 23rd to be Harvey Girls Day, Meyer said.
Seats are reserved this time to avoid overcrowding, but the Albuquerque City sponsored event is free.
More details will be announced as the event approaches, but Meyer said she will post the news early so that as many Harvey Girls as possible can make plans to attend and email them in advance at [email protected] ( or by phone) you can contact me and I will share your information).
The pioneering idea of hiring young women originated here in New Mexico when hotel magnate Fred Harvey was looking for a way to stop the brawl between rowdy customers and beleaguered waiters, mostly black men, at a Harvey house in Raton passed, occurred again and again.
Surely the clientele wouldn’t hit a woman, especially if Harvey made sure his Harvey Girls lived up to high moral standards, he must have thought.
He was right.
Between 1883 and the late 1950s, approximately 100,000 women, ages 18 to 30, were hired by Midwestern farms and East Coast towns to serve in the hundreds of Harvey House locations, 17 of which were in New Mexico.
“You will be amazed at the number of people I’ve met who say, ‘My grandmother / aunt / second cousin was a Harvey girl,'” said Meyer.
Most of the Harvey House locations have long since disappeared – the Alvarado Hotel in Albuquerque, for example. The chain broke long ago when rail traffic gave way to highways and airplanes. The last Harvey girl hung up her apron 60 years ago.
It’s worth noting that these women did more than just serve cake. They shared a pioneering spirit and shaped a path for the working woman and a place on the American border.
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