The Harvey Girls

Dinging by Rail đźš‚

General History

Stretching from Portland, Oregon to New Orleans, this form of fast food became America’s most successful form of transportation and cultural enterprise. The menu above carries a minimal design to showcase the beauty of traveling by rail. The words “Southern Pacific” are printed below, in a sans serif font. The artwork on the cover is stylized and carries immense detail to showcase the Sun Tower, Golden Gate International Exposition, located on Treasure Island, San Francisco Bay. 

As a result of the railroad system, food transportation increased and aided in taking food from the farms, and to the consumer. The freight cars that held these food items, either in the dining cars or to be shipped to a store, created a new meaning to waitressing. With waitressing came sexism, however, and women’s stories were put on the back burner, and continued to be silenced by men. The railroad food industry not only aided in transportation but also aided in submission and suppression. An example of this is Fred Harvey’s contribution to sexism among railroad cuisine, which will be discussed more later in the essay. 

The Southern Pacific Railroad

 By 1885, The Southern Pacific Railroad “became one of the giants of US railroading,” and financed the world’s largest interurban electric railroad network” in Los Angeles, California ( The Southern Pacific quickly made its way towards becoming “famous for its California passenger trains” thanks to steam, until merging into the Union Pacific Railroad, as a result of declining funds. In its lifespan, the Southern Pacific brought forth immense growth in California’s economy and created memorable experiences for passengers and workers. With the help of refrigerated cars, trains were able to carry perishables on the rails and keep everything fresh for longer. “Nearly 28% of the US freight movement” is used towards railroad transportation, accounting for fertilizers, perishables, non-perishables, and more, to be transported nationwide, (

In the late 1800s, dining cars were introduced to passenger trains. Passengers were now able to sit down and eat on their way to work, but this wasn’t financially feasible for the average passenger. Traveling by train was especially popular in the 1940s and 1950s, and travelers took a liking to feel like “royalty as they gazed over menu offerings that included roast leg of lamb with mint sauce, oven-roasted chicken, or pan-fried trout. Freshly baked desserts and fine wines often accompanied dinner. Food was prepared by specially trained chefs and served by attentive uniformed waiters. Dining car tables were covered with spotless white linen, accented with a vase of fresh flowers. Meals were presented on real china with sparkling glassware and stainless-steel flatware,” ( Signature dishes were “often named the entree either for the train itself or a landmark along the train’s route,” ( Some railroad systems continue this method as a form of regional stamp for the passengers fortunate enough to dine on the railroad. Collectible menus were also common, which “encouraged travelers to take home dining car menus” as a form of souvenir, ( For 65 cents, passengers could purchase these commemorative menus. 

The Harvey Girls

Popularized from 1880 and well into 1890, The Harvey Girls became a symbol for good food and sanitary dining environments. This form of “food service branding” became a valuable image for Fred Harvey and the chain of ”Harvey House” restaurants. Fred Harvey would place “ads in Midwestern and Eastern publications, he solicited women between the ages of 18 and 30 to travel west and work as waitresses in his restaurants. Other qualifications included being unmarried and “of good character.” The “girls” signed year-long contracts and lived next to or in the Harvey Houses, under the close supervision of a Harvey Girl with the longest tenure. If they left before the year was up—the most common reason for doing so was marriage—they forfeited a portion of their base pay,” ( The goal of using single, influential women was to make the passenger experience on the rails more enjoyable. This sexist attitude not only brings forth issues but restricts what these women are able to do in order to live their independent lives. This “womanly” notion was expected of women working on the rails, and this put women in the dark when it came to credibility surrounding the development and growth of the Southern Pacific Railroad. In a Wildcat article regarding women’s role in the railroad industry, “support was not the only role women played in the railroad’s development. In order to build the railroad, Adams explained that the company first had to buy the land it would cover. In Tucson, there were female landowners who participated in these transactions. Unfortunately, women’s land was often undervalued in comparison to men’s. The land and worker support that women gave the railroad began to evolve during World War II due to a shortage of male workers, according to Adams. Women began to take on more substantial jobs as laborers and, in the last 60 years, women have been taking on skill-based positions like conductors and engineers,” ( However, many challenges were reported within the railroad work environment, stating that “most people were very kind… but some were quite sexist and…had a few negative experiences,” ( The article is a good example of the lack of intersectionality among women and men in the railroad service industry, providing perspective on how blindsided women are in terms of history and credibility. 

The Harvey Girls are no different from the average women’s experience in the railroad industry. Submission and dependability were key to the success of these women, and their hard work gave Fred Harvey a good name. Not only do Harvey Girls not receive proper credit for their involvement in the growth of the railroad industry, but society expected women to be “well-mannered,” and forced to remain underneath the man’s rule. Fred Harvey simply contributed to sexism through the creation of the Harvey Girls. 

The Harvey Girls served food on the Santa Fe railway, which brought passengers to one of Fred’s many Harvey Houses. “A photograph copied from the Santa Fe Employee Magazine showing a Harvey Girl standing by a customer who is looking at a menu.”

Above is a photograph of a group of Harvey Girls gathered together within a dining room of the Harvey House at the Bisonte Hotel in Hutchinson, Kansas.

This photograph shows a group of Harvey Girls standing in front of the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railway Company’s Fred Harvey House in Syracuse, Kansas. The young women, wearing modest black dresses with long white aprons, served meals to travelers at the Fred Harvey hotels and restaurants along the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railway line.

Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe Railway Company Harvey House - Page
This photograph shows a Harvey Girl serving meals at an unidentified Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe Railway Company Harvey House.

The 1946 Harvey Girls musical (trailer)

My Chosen Menu

The menu, in general, contains a questionable cover, and a minimal layout to display the menu options. The layout of the type is a bit confusing, and the type is a bit small, especially for someone in a rush. There are multiple fonts present, creating an imbalance, and disruption in the hierarchy. I also found it strange how the top half is structured well, but the bottom half is cluttered and confusing. Elements from the top also appear on the bottom half.

It is likely that the Harvey Girls served on these Santa Fe dining cars.

My Contribution

Passengers on dining cars aren’t spending a lot of time on the train itself, so why not have a menu that fits that purpose? One where a passenger can quickly see what’s available on the menu, point to the item they want and be on their way. For this project, I decided to create a visual menu. With this menu, a passenger is able to quickly order their food, and eat in enough time for work. This menu is meant to make the dining process faster, much like the speed of the train. I kept a modern approach to the illustrations and the layout design of the menu. The food illustrations are done digitally and contain a washed texture to imitate watercolors. The type is thin, displayed in a sans-serif font to give that modern feel. The layout itself is minimal and meant to quickly be read without issue. There is also color in my menu, unlike the original menu, just to add some character.

Close up 1
Close up 2


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