Hey, Waitress! | Alison Owings

from Gastronomica 3:1

One can say this about American waitresses: despite their enormous numbers and their daily presence in American life, and despite all the stereotypes they carry (along with pad, towel, crumber, corkscrew, and tray), they have been overlooked and understudied. This paradox struck me repeatedly over the years I spent interviewing current and former waitresses while also trying to find published accounts about them. There are many more waitresses, I soon realized, than there is “waitressiana.”

At the beginning of the twentieth century, waitresses— who could not even vote!—began organizing their own unions. Their efforts reached a pinnacle in the 1950s. “No union card, no job,” was the mantra in several cities. Then, during the action years of the feminist movement of the 1970s, some waitresses won sex discrimination lawsuits. This triumph earned them the right to work extremely hard among extremely resentful men.

A third wave-making group preceded both movements. It was comprised of women who, unlike their latter-day sisters, were not politically motivated. Like those who followed, though, they took unknown risks to get a job. These were the Harvey Girls, and they endured for nearly a hundred years. Verna Welsh was one of them.

She was part of a legend, although it took her a while to realize it.

She was a Harvey Girl.

Photograph of Verna Welsh. Courtesy of Verna Welsh.

The Harvey Girls, sometimes known as the women who “civilized” the Wild West, were young Americans (wellgroomed, well-behaved, single, and white) who left family and friends to head west as waitresses for the Fred Harvey restaurants along the Santa Fe railway. Their heyday was the turn of the twentieth century; their territory covered an area from Illinois to California, with a concentration in the Southwest. Their boss was an entrepreneurial genius.

Fred Harvey, an immigrant from England, perceived in the 1870s that railroads were transforming the western United States. He also realized that, despite very long journeys, passengers and crews had little more for food than private picnic baskets or public slop.

Harvey convinced the Santa Fe management to let him open eating establishments of superior quality wherever the trains stopped. In exchange for his making Santa Fe riders happy, the railway would provide free coal, free ice, and free freight for anything Harvey’s establishments needed, from fresh fruit to fresh employees. Harvey would reap any profits. Agreed, in a handshake.1

The handshake had significance beyond the future empire of Fred Harvey and family. Some contend he started America’s affair with fast food: no Harvey’s yesterday, no McDonald’s today.

Another touch of Harvey’s genius was knowing that his vision of superior and spotless restaurants in the hinterlands would be aided by superior and spotless waitresses.

He advertised for young women “of good character, attractive and intelligent” to become “Harvey Girls,” a term he used to signify that “they were more than simply waitresses.” 2 He also knew the importance of constructing safe living environments. In 1905, upstanding girls from upstanding families (most from small towns or rural areas of the Midwest) could not be expected to take off to unknown spots like Rincon, New Mexico, or Guthrie, Oklahoma, without proper accommodations, especially given the social stigma that could be attached to working in general, and waitressing in particular. So, as Harvey Houses went from one trackrolling success to another, he arranged group dwellings for Harvey Girls, complete with curfews and other proprieties.

The waitresses’ virtue was paraded in the ridiculous 1945 movie The Harvey Girls, starring Judy Garland. (The real star is Angela Lansbury as a befeathered showgirl of dubious morality, who would not be caught dead in the silly—and unauthentic—hair bows the fictitious Harvey Girls wore on the silver screen.)

Harvey Houses soon gained a reputation as being as pristine as their waitresses. Photographs and menus from the era bespeak dazzling feasts, with a backdrop of starched linen, monogrammed plates, and polished silver, all presided over by women who were impeccably trained and immaculately frocked, no matter how their uniforms changed over the years.

In the middle of nowhere, gushed Santa Fe customers, in the middle of the desert, look at what there is to eat! One menu from 1929 listed fresh shrimp cocktail, mangoes, Blue Point oysters, broiled live baby lobster, avocado salad, Camembert cheese, frozen eclairs, and lemon sherbet. That free ice helped.

If most passengers were lured by the victuals, most waitresses were lured by the prospect of a job, not (as legend holds) an adventure.3 Among the job seekers was Verna Northcott, who was leaving Newton, Kansas, for Winslow, Arizona. What follows is her story, as told to me in 1997:

I packed my things in my two suitcases, got on the train, and headed west.” The trip was 1,200 miles; the year was 1938, or perhaps 1939.

“I never did write it down.” To supplement her memory, she later penned an account of the trip itself. “First I was very excited as I watched the rolling hills of Kansas go by,” she read from her notes, “and then we climbed higher as we reached Colorado and traveled through the mountains. Going into New Mexico, we soon came into the barren desert and the Indian lands. I could see a hogan here and there, but that land looked so dry and desolate I thought to myself, ‘What have I done? Where am I going?’” The only creatures she saw were sheep. “It was too late to change my mind. My ticket was only one way.”

She related her tale from Winslow, where she has lived since 1938, or perhaps 1939. She is an affable, buxom woman, a few months shy of eighty, with curled hair, spiffy glasses, and a pastel outfit. One boon of the westward rides, including returning from visits to Kansas, were the sunsets. “One of the most beautiful sunsets I ever saw” stayed with her. “I can still remember how kind of awed I was, because the sun came down through the clouds and the rays came down, just as if Christ was coming back through that.”

Verna had no celestial welcome when she first arrived in Winslow. She was twenty, give or take a year, and she had been hoodwinked.

She had never meant to wait tables for Fred Harvey. In Newton (coincidentally a Harvey terminal), she had waited tables for a few months at the Harvey House and at a hotel owned by a relative and had also been a private waitress serving dinner parties at the home of a well-to-do couple. She attended college one year “with the limited funds I had saved,” in the hope of eventually being a schoolteacher, but she quit to earn more funds before going back.

To that end, she was working in Topeka at a job she liked, as a clerk in the Hotel Registration Division of the state government. Then she was voted out. “The Democrats were defeated” in Kansas, as her old Harvey House boss, a Mr. Wright, had predicted, and Verna found herself jobless. She recalled Mr. Wright saying that if she wanted to work at the place he was going to help run—La Posada, in Winslow, Arizona—he would help. She wrote to ask whether he needed a hotel desk clerk. His answer was a one-way ticket. Her parents felt that Arizona was a long way to go for work but that it was her decision.

In Arizona, Verna arrived at a virtual oasis that was a monument of architectural grace. La Posada, the last grand Fred Harvey hotel (now on the National Register of Historic Places), was built in 1929 by his major architect and designer, Mary Elizabeth Jane Colter. La Posada, which took up eight acres by the Santa Fe tracks, was meant to recall the colonial Spanish ranchos of the area. It has elegant archways and long halls, a tile roof and stucco walls, and was decorated by Colter in her customary blend of roughly hewn local furniture and imported antiques. Even today, after decades of use as railroad offices before being abandoned (although it was being renovated as a hotel when I visited), it exudes coolness and serenity, amid seemingly perfect proportions. La Posada was said to be Colter’s favorite creation.4

Verna happily walked through it with me, admiring carved bedroom doors, wall crannies, wrought-iron fixtures, the sweep of it all. On her first trip, though, she was not in a mood to admire anything. Mr. Wright told her there was no job available on the hotel desk. She could be a waitress, he said.

In other words, he had brought her there under false pretenses! He had snookered her. “He did. He did,” she agreed. “I was really upset at first. But I had a ticket one way. There was no going back. And I had worked for him in Kansas for a couple of months and he knew my folks. He was a nice gentleman. But,” she sort of laughed, “it wasn’t what I wanted to do at the time.” She may have said nothing. “We were taught to respect our elders.”

Before long, “I guess I just accepted it for what it was. And the other girls, the waitresses and everybody, were very nice, and it was a job, and I was out on my own, and I was getting to see the West.”

Bound by the rules, she lived in a dormitory and had a dorm mother. She said her room, long vacant and layered in red dust and dirt (many of Winslow’s streets were then unpaved), held only a bed, a dresser, and a chair. She went to J.C. Penney as soon as she could, bought yards of cretonne in a green print, sewed a curtain and pillow covers, and eventually had a place she called “homey.”

Although uniforms were less cumbersome in the late 1930s than in previous decades and standards less rigorous (the Depression changed some rules, as World War ii would later change others), it is notable that Verna skipped the once-mandatory month of training. Neither at the Harvey House in Newton nor the one in Winslow did she ever learn the famous Harvey coffee cup placements her predecessors used to show the coffee pourer whether, or how, customers wanted their brew (for instance, an upside down cup meant no coffee).

On Verna’s first day, her “most outstanding recollection” was that one of the railroad men, “a smart aleck” named Brian, used insulting language about her. He was “talking about the new waitress” and “this and that.” She still looked pained during our interview and would not reveal specifics. “I was pretty young and innocent.”

A major difference between Harvey work and other restaurant work was that Harvey Houses were always open, to accommodate the trains. “As a Harvey Girl, we worked shifts, and the shifts were round-the-clock; six a.m. to two, and then two to ten, and then ten to six. We rotated. I preferred the two to ten. Then I could sleep late. I didn’t care for the night shift.”

Verna remembered clearly the rush of serving the Santa Fe’s crew and passengers during the standard thirty-minute stops. “The passenger trains that came through stopped for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. And the preparations were made [by the kitchen] before the train arrived…so they had food they could get out in a hurry. Usually they would tell them they had thirty minutes to eat, [but] it went a little bit longer than that. If people were still eating or if there were more people and they couldn’t get waited on in that particular amount of time…the train wouldn’t go off and leave them, is what I’m trying to say.”

It helped to be prepared. “Before the trains would arrive at a station, the conductor or brakeman would go through and ask the people how many wanted to eat, and they’d send the message on ahead so that the different Harvey Houses would know how many people to prepare for.” No matter how fast the rush, “as far as serving the guest, we had to do it properly—serving from the left, picking up the dirty dishes from the right. We were to anticipate any extra needs. If people needed more water, more coffee, more bread or butter, we were to serve that without them having to ask.” The trick was “to have a keen eye and keep an eye on what’s going on at the tables that you’re waiting on.”

As far as she recalled, her customers never needed to cry out. She might have, however, from fatigue. La Posada’s stunning proportions meant waitresses had to carry food long distances. Furthermore, as in other restaurants, the work called for more than serving. “We were required to do what we called side work, which was polishing the silver,” probably silver plate, she figured, “but it all had to be polished. And, of course, they have the counters and all underneath there were shelves. We had to keep those clean. The coffee urns had to be washed every day, which was a job that we didn’t any of us relish. And there was always the folding of the napkins.” They were large, white, and linen.

“You probably have read what they said about the Harvey Girls coming west,” she said, picking up notes she had written earlier to refresh her memory. “They brought culture, refinement, and romance.” Refinement indeed. “We also had to serve finger bowls.” Yes, with a slice of lemon in them, exactly as she had served them in Newton. Harvey Girls, she continued reading, “were required to serve friendly, extraordinary, and perfect service to hungry, friendly, or grouchy train travelers.”

A famous and frequent customer was La Posada’s own architect, Mary Colter. “When I knew her, she was a very elderly lady. She had gray hair, and she pulled it back, kind of poofy like, on the sides. She wore glasses, and we knew she had false teeth because she always clicked her teeth,” she laughed. “You would remember something like that. Mary Colter thought that she owned La Posada. That was her baby, see, and she thought everybody should cater to her, so to speak. I hate to tell you, but you know how things stick in your mind: she would never tip a waitress. So we didn’t care whether we waited on her or not.”

Colter was also demanding or, in Verna’s word, “precise,” about her food. “She always had soft-boiled eggs for breakfast, but you didn’t dare break the yolk. If it was broken one little bit, back to the kitchen it went. She knew what she wanted. But she was a smart woman and very talented.” She paused, smiling. “I can still see her sitting at the table on the south side, right by the window.”

The Harvey organization was almost as strict about the waitresses’ time off the job as it was about on-the-job behavior. “As Harvey Girls, we were not permitted to really visit very much with the guests, and when we were off duty, we had to leave the premises. Occasionally we did go into the gardens and walk around, but they really didn’t want us doing that, either. By the time I came along, the rules and regulations were not as stiff. They didn’t lock the door at ten o’clock like it tells in the books.”

Discouraged from socializing with guests, Harvey Girls’ romances centered on Harvey boys—that is, the male employees—and on railroad workers. It was a railroader, L.D. Welsh, who won Verna’s heart. In Winslow to visit his grandparents, he spent an evening at a café, where a mutual friend introduced him to Verna. “I wasn’t too impressed.” She hesitantly revealed why: “I never did care for a man with a mustache.” Once he shaved it off, they started dating.

Harvey Girls “didn’t have any place to entertain our gentlemen friends or anything, and L.D. and I still laugh about how he’d get my attention.”When he arrived for a date, he would throw rocks up on the roof of her dormitory room. “That’s how I knew he was there. We laughed that by the time I quit work, there were quite a few rocks up on the roof.”

Both she and a Harvey Girl friend, Virginia Graff, married railroad men who also became friends, working the Santa Fe’s Winslow to Gallup run. The friendship among the four is approaching sixty years, thanks to Fred Harvey.

The empire started by the clever, gentlemanly entrepreneur drastically changed when World War ii broke out. The Harvey House staff went from opening fresh oysters for tourists to dishing out far meaner fare to thousands upon thousands of U.S. troops. (The staff, more integrated than it had been, served both white and black segregated units equally.)5

Winslow, later popularized in the Eagles song “Take It Easy” (“…standing on a corner in Winslow, Arizona…”), became a major stop of troop trains heading to California and the Pacific. Verna Northcott Welsh, who married L.D. in January of 1941 and had their first daughter by December, was no longer a Harvey Girl by then, but her longtime friend vividly remembers serving the troop trains, two-to-three-hundred young soldiers at a time.

“My heart ached for ’em,” said Virginia Graff, for the “boys.” One reason was the not-up-to-muster Fred Harvey service. Silverware and china were gone, as were linen tablecloths. So were the good cooks, she said, all gone to war. She cringed that the soldiers had to use paper plates and “horrible tinware.” Also, the “food was not desirable. Powdered eggs.”

She remembered a Harvey Girl named Jenny Sterling, a “Polish woman with a sense of humor,” who cracked up a dining room full of soldiers. Jenny took one young soldier, a “little red-headed guy,” by the ear and said loudly, “Does your mother know you’re here?”

Then the little red-headed guy was gone.

Verna Welsh never again waited tables at La Posada, which closed in 1957, as travel by train lost favor to travel by car or plane. The closing was part of the gradual demise of the Harvey empire, whose economic remains and name his heirs later sold.6 The reason Verna Welsh quit work, however, was her husband. “After we were married and we started our family, he did not want me to work. He felt he was the breadwinner and he was to take care of his family.” Verna did as he wished. When the couple wanted to enlarge their small home, though, “I finally talked my husband into letting me go to work, to make a little extra money so we wouldn’t be too much in debt.” She found a job waiting tables in another Winslow restaurant, to which the two of us headed for dinner.

It was so un-Harvey-like—from Muzak playing “True Love” to a waitress asking us, “How you guys doing?” to slapdash service—that Verna began getting a little giddy. She managed to talk some about Harvey House etiquette. “We always were required to pick up a glass to refill it with water.” Demonstrating, she showed that picking up a glass not only deters spillage but also helps the person pouring, who doesn’t have to stretch as far. Then a large fly began assaulting us and our food. When it persisted, and she jokingly asked the waitress for a fly swatter, and the waitress returned to the table, set a fly swatter down, and walked away, Verna started laughing so hard she could barely stop.

The élan Fred Harvey brought to town has gone. Here, as in other such railroad stops, though, Harvey Girls or their descendants remain. Verna Northcott Welsh, for one, now realizes she was part of a significant institution in American history. “For years it was nothing. To me, being a Harvey Girl was just another job.”


1. Lesley Poling-Kempes, The Harvey Girls: Women Who Opened the West (New York: Paragon, 1989; New York: Marlowe, 1991), 35, 36. 2. Text from the Harvey Exhibit at the Arizona Hall of Fame, Curated by Maxine T. Edwards (Phoenix, 1996), 33. 3. Ibid., 83. 4. Ibid., 189. 5. Ibid., 195. 6. The buyer was amfac Corporation, in 1968 (Ibid., 209).