Saturday, 12 November 2011


The Harvey Girls - Lesley Poling-Kempes

One of the first books I remember buying for myself was The Little House on the Prairie by Laura Ingalls Wilder - all about the story of an American pioneer family moving West towards the end of the 1800s as America itself spread west.
I devoured the whole series of these books and later as an adult read biographies and critical responses to the books and despite now being able to see their faults, racist attitudes and hidden messages, I still love them and the whole idea of the growth of the Wild West.

As I may have mentioned (!) we've just come back from the west of America and one of the things that still surprises me is how new the area is in terms of being a place where westerner live. We went to towns that were younger than my grandparents and even the state of Arizona is 100 until next year.

In a lot of the gift and book shops we visited this book kept catching my eye, and on getting home I did treat myself to a copy and it was a lovely, if a bit disjointed, social history of the working women who helped open the west of America for white migrants.

Harvey was strongly connected to the railroads and as they expanded west he made sure that he built hotels and restaurants along the lines so that where ever the trains stopped people could get consistently good food and lodging. As well as employing local people he took advantage of the growing freedom of women, and economic need, and employed women from all over the country. As well as their wages they got full bed and board and often became some of the best wage earners in their families.

The Harvey hotels are mostly gone now but the legacy lives on as his family still run some of the gift shops at some of the west's National Parks - only fitting as it was Harvey that opened the areas up to the public but building hotels and extending railway lines to encompass them!

This book is a mixture of Harvey's history, the railroad history and the personal history of the Harvey Girls and is a fascinating read if, like me, these things interest you. It is pretty niche to be honest but still fascinating and a reminder that in some places history is far more recent than in the UK!

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