Spring 2005

Ingestion / Don’t Slice Ham Too Thin

Fred Harvey and the prehistory of fast food

Jeffrey Kastner

“Ingestion” is a column that explores food within a framework informed by aesthetics, history, and philosophy.

The story of fast food is a classic American one, evoking all the charms, and contradictions, of the country’s cheerfully unapologetic brand of gung-ho capitalism: efficient but routinized, dependable but homogenous, seductive but probably unhealthy in the long run. Its hall of fame includes maverick entrepreneurs like J. G. Kirby and Dr. R. W. Jackson who, in 1921, created the Pig Stand, the Dallas restaurant that was the first to offer “curb service,” where people were served their meals in their cars; root beer stand owner Roy Allen, who around the same time opened the first A&W drive-in with his partner Frank Wright in a Sacramento parking lot, refining the idea of “car hops” or outdoor waiters; Carl Karcher, the California hot dog vendor who started with one cart in 1941 and eventually made Carl’s Jr. one of the largest fast-food companies in the US; and, perhaps most famously, Ray Kroc, a traveling milkshake-maker salesman who used Dick and Mac McDonald’s “Speedee Service System” to transform what in 1948 was a single San Bernadino drive-in into a $20 billion per year global hamburger business that still bears the family name of its founding brothers.

Yet for all its colorful history, the roots of the fast food chain restaurant can actually be found deeper still in the American historical landscape. True, its development was tied to emergence of new forms of transportation and the social patterns these modes of travel enabled. Yet the real beginnings of the industry lay not in the rise of Southern California car culture in the first half of the 1900s, but rather a half-century earlier with the first expansion of the West and the creation of the railroads. If characters like Karcher and Kroc are fast food’s founding fathers, its great grandfather is Fred Harvey, an English immigrant who came to America in 1850 with little more than the clothes on his back and over the next half century turned a new concept for food service into a multimillion-dollar empire of nearly 50 restaurants that stretched from California to Texas to Illinois. The Harvey House chain revolutionized the idea of restaurant dining, using standardization techniques and strategic service models to replace the dangerously greasy spoons that characterized railway dining with reasonably-priced meals, served by pleasant waitstaff in clean and even elegant settings—meals expressly designed to be eaten in the brief amount of time (usually less than twenty minutes) it took for a train to make its whistle stop at a particular station.

Harvey, born in London in 1835, began his life in America as a dishwasher in New York City. After bouncing around in the food trade for a decade, he ended up in St. Louis, where in 1859 he briefly had his own restaurant. When it went under, Harvey took a job as a freight agent for the Chicago, Burlington & Quincy Railroad, where he saw first-hand the horrible quality of the food available to railroad passengers. Drawing on his former career as a fledgling restaurateur, Harvey approached his bosses with the idea of opening a series of eateries along their growing railway network. When they balked, Harvey went to the competing Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe Railroad and gave them the same pitch. The AT&SF bit, agreeing to share the construction costs and in 1876, the first Harvey House restaurant opened in the Santa Fe depot in Topeka, Kansas.

Like most successful entrepreneurial pioneers, Harvey had a missionary zeal that went beyond the basics of his business model. He would serve good food at reasonable prices in record time, but he would also do it in a way that would serve to civilize the rough denizens of the new territories. From the very first, Harvey insisted on linen tablecloths and fine table settings (the faux Wedgewood design and color of Harvey’s dinnerware is said to have given rise to the phrase “blue plate special”). Men were to wear coats in his dining rooms; a supply was kept on hand for those without. And Harvey himself was fond of making surprise inspections of his dining rooms, hunting down tarnish or dust with a white glove. But if the Harvey House settings were anomalous in the gritty environment of the frontier, the food to be found there was even more so. Because of his symbiotic relationship with the railroad, fast becoming the dominant mode of goods transport around the country, Harvey was able to bring victuals as elegant as that of any big city dining room to customers more familiar with charred steak and rotgut whiskey. One late 1880s menu, for instance, included such delicacies as Oysters on the Half-shell, Whitefish with Madeira Sauce, Young Capon with Hollandaise Sauce, Roast Sirloin of Beef Au Jus and Lobster Salad; for dessert, diners could choose from Charlotte of Peaches with Cognac Sauce, Cold Chantilly Custard and Mince Pie, as well as cakes and ice cream, a selection of fresh fruit and cheeses, and even a cup of “French Coffee.” The price: 75 cents (25 cents for railroad employees).

A Harvey House lunchroom in Deming, NM, late 1800s. Courtesy Cline Library, Northern Arizona University.

As if the promise of gourmet food in elegant surrounding weren’t enough, Harvey also hit on an idea that would become the chain’s greatest selling point. After a melee among the male waiters at one of his dining rooms, Harvey decided to employ an all female waitstaff and began placing ads in east coast newspapers for “women of good character, attractive and intelligent, 18 to 30” to come west and work for the company as waitresses. The first “Harvey Girls,” as they came to be known, were paid $17.50 per month, plus tips, room and board, and free train passes. Some estimates suggest as many as 100,000 women eventually headed west, constituting one of the first and largest groups of single working women in the US. The young women brought the Harvey Houses a certain glamour—despite the rigorous behavioral codes and highly modest uniforms of black long-sleeved dresses and starched white aprons they all had to wear—meanwhile gaining an unusual degree of independence for unmarried women of the time. Living together in boarding house-style residences near the premises, the “girls” were supervised by a matron between their eight-hour-a-day shifts; nevertheless, as many as 20,000 were said to have met their future husbands on the job. Such was their fame that in 1946 MGM had a box office smash with The Harvey Girls, a musical starring Judy Garland as an Ohio girl that goes west and finds love in one of Fred Harvey’s dining halls.

In real life, the Harvey Girls were part of a clockwork operation that presaged many techniques that would come to be part of the fast food business. As a train approached a station with a Harvey House in it, the brakeman would go up and down the carriages with a menu, asking for riders’ meal choices. These would be telegraphed ahead to the restaurant, where the cooks would begin preparation. When the train got within one mile of the town, a large brass gong at the entrance to the restaurant would be rung to alert the kitchen and floor staff of the imminent arrival of the next group. As the patrons were seated, one group of waitresses made the rounds to verify menu selections and take drink orders, which they signaled for the next group of servers by a coded arrangement of the diners’ cups (right side up in the saucer meant coffee; upside down, hot tea; upside down and off the saucer, milk, and so on). The entrees, served on plates kept warm on steamers, were immediately brought out and the guests then had the bulk of their 20 minutes to enjoy their meals.

From the Girls to the table settings to the food, the formula worked and the Harvey Company continued to grow over the next twenty years. Fred Harvey died in 1901—legend has it that his last words, in keeping with his lifelong obsession with hospitality, were “Don’t slice the ham too thin!” By then, his empire had come to include restaurants (and, eventually, hotels) in 12 different states, as well as on-board rail dining cars. Yet it was already becoming clear that the twentieth-century trajectory of the company would parallel that of the railroad industry itself. Harvey’s sons shifted the emphasis of the company—the local pottery, rugs, baskets, and jewelry offered for sale at Harvey House hotels and restaurants now became a main commercial focus of the firm, which also began to promote “Southwestern adventure” tours, complete with visits to Indian pueblos and opportunities to buy real Native American crafts. Indeed, the Harvey company is widely credited with the popularization of indigenous Southwestern culture—and the development of its lucrative craft and souvenir industry—in the first three decades of the twentieth century.

By the end of World War II, the Harvey House era was coming to a close. In 1968, the company was sold. Today Fred Harvey’s name—and even his likeness—lives on in the logo of the Fred Harvey Trading Company, a division of Xanterra Parks and Resorts®, “America’s largest park and resorts management company,” which operates 52 souvenir shops around the country, including those at Yellowstone, Mount Rushmore, and the Grand Canyon. According to their website, “Xanterra’s approach to providing and exceeding guest services in our retail operations revolves around establishing exacting merchandising standards that separate us from other retailers.” Fred Harvey would, no doubt, approve.

Further reading
George H. Foster, The Harvey House Cookbook: Memories of Dining Along the Santa Fe Railroad George (Longstreet Press, 1996).
Barbara Haber, From Hardtack to Home Fries: An Uncommon History of American Cooks and Meals (Penguin Books, 2003).
Lesley Poling-Kempes, The Harvey Girls: Women Who Opened the West (Treasure Chest Books, 1991).

Jeffrey Kastner is senior editor at Cabinet.

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