Service 101: A Brief History of Tipping

history of tipping

Though tipping the waiter may feel like something that’s always been part of the dining experience in America, the fact is, the act of tipping is a borrowed custom from Europe.

According to Michael Lynn, a professor at the Cornell University School of Hotel Administration, tipping in the United States began just after the American Civil War in the late 1800’s. Lynn suggests that wealthy Americans traveling abroad to Europe witnessed tipping and brought the aristocratic custom back with them to “show off,” or prove their elevated education and class.

Tipping—which may have originated in the taverns of 17th Century England, where drinkers would slip money to the waiter “to insure promptitude” or T.I.P for short—wasn’t embraced by all Americans when the custom began to make its way into our country’s taverns and dining halls. A movement against tipping began in the late 1890’s as many Americans believed that tipping went against the country’s ideals and allowed a clear servile class that would be financially dependent on a higher class.

A servile attitude for a fee

According to an article that appeared in The New York Times in 1897, there was a movement brewing against tipping in America. The anti-tipping group believed that tipping was the “vilest of imported vices” because it created an aristocratic class in a country that fought hard to eliminate a class-driven society. In 1915 six state legislators from Wisconsin, Illinois, Iowa, Nebraska, Tennessee and South Carolina attempted and failed to pass an anti-tipping bill that would make leaving gratuities unlawful.

In 1916, William Scott wrote a stinging diatribe against tipping in his book, “The Itching Palm,” in which he stood up against the policy of paying for a service twice (once for the employer and once for the employee). He decried tips to be “democracy’s mortal foe” and creates “a servile attitude for a fee.”

In the American democracy to be servile is incompatible with citizenship. Every tip given in the United States is a blow at our experiment in democracy. The custom announces to the world…that we do not believe practically that “all men are created equal.” Unless a waiter can be a gentleman, democracy is a failure. If any form of service is menial, democracy is a failure. Those Americans who dislike self-respect in servants are undesirable citizens; they belong in an aristocracy.

Scott continues, “If tipping is un-American, some day, some how, it will be uprooted like African slavery”.

While diners and servers alike haven’t stopped grumbling about the tip system, there hasn’t been a serious legislative effort to end the practice since. What do you think?

Reader poll: Can you imagine the restaurant industry adopting a no-tipping policy or has the time for change passed?


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Brooke Burton is an Los Angeles-based restaurant professional and hospitality expert. She is a freelance food writer, speaker, and co-author of The Food Blog Code of Ethics.

50 Comments

  1. Very interesting post. I love that tipping was considered, “The vilest of imported vices.” Too funny. I worked in a restaurant for several years and was never to fond of the tipping system. If it’s done away with, then of course, the hourly wages need to go up. I don’t know many who can survive on $4.50 an hour (that was the hourly wage I made before tips). I wouldn’t mind, as a customer, paying a bit more for each order so that I didn’t need to tip at the end.

  2. I’ve been following your tipping series with interest, and it’s made me think about whether the restaurant experience might not be improved if there were no such thing as tipping.

    I’m gonna say it would be. I’m not sure it would change the experience for most diners — unless service is really crappy or truly outstanding, I automatically tip 20%, so all it would do for me is spare me the calculation. But reading these pieces made me think about it more from the server’s point of view. I suspect that knowing you’re going to make a living wage, and not be subject to the whims of jerks or cheapskates, would make service seem like a more dignified job.

    It would take a while for American diners to get accustomed to higher menu prices and no tips, but I think they’d adjust. Let’s do it. Service shouldn’t be servile.

  3. August 16
    Reply

    This is interesting! Just like anything else it can go both ways, it would be nice for servers to know how much they are getting for their work, but at the same time it is nice for the customer to decide what the service was worth. I’ve been taken care off by great servers and not so helpful ones. I am sure waiters feel the same way about customers, there’s nice generous diners and impossible to please, cheap ones.

  4. William G Holroyd
    January 13
    Reply

    Reader’s Digest posted a slanted article on ‘tipping’ in America on Jan 7, 2012 and was picked-up on Yahoo Shine – 6 days later there are over 10,900 comments! Clearly this is a subject which is totally misunderstood by both customers and servers. Americans should stop complaining about the low wages in the developing countries competing for their US jobs – it is happening in their own country in the restaurant-business. This is not a job – this is slavery and it needs to be viewed this way. Salaries for the restaurant business are regulated and in many states it is common to pay $ 2.13 /hour + tips. From the comments, this barely pays the babysitter for many waitresses.
    View the article and comments at link
    http://shine.yahoo.com/financially-fit/tipping-correctly-161000019.html#more-id

    • Thanks for coming by, Bern! I appreciate the tip on the tipping!

  5. […] mother struggling with the stroller, I focus on how I hesitated too long before I put money in the barista’s tip jar. I can avoid a nice swim in the happiness of my work, to wallow in the problems. I’ll scrutinize […]

  6. scherrcap
    September 9
    Reply

    As Rudy Vallee said in a movie many, many years ago – “Tipping is un-American!” – a belief to which I subscribe. It seems to me that tipping has created a beggar-class of citizen. Servers are put in the position of playing up to customers, hoping to increase the tip one might receive. It also seems to me that every person who works is entitled to a wage commensurate with the service performed. If servers in restaurants are paid according to their performance, a good wage would ensue for those who give good service, and those who do not would find themselves looking for another job.

    • September 10
      Reply

      I wish there was an easy way to change the industry wide system. I think the only way that could happen would be nothing short of a revolution!

  7. Sam
    January 8
    Reply

    Interesting stuff. Thank you.

    I’ve often wondered why the garage owner in the Bette Davis, Humphrey Bogart movie “The Petrified Forest” makes the point that tipping is “un-American”. So the attitude endured until at least 1936. I never understood what he meant until now.

    As a Brit, tipping is something I associate a lot more with the US than Europe; it’s more unusual to have to rely on tips just to get by here.

    This extensive NY Times article says that tipping WAS made illegal in 6 states, although it was seldom enforced and later repealed: http://www.nytimes.com/2008/10/12/magazine/12tipping-t.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0

  8. Matthew Mitchell
    March 12
    Reply

    I’m starting to realize the importance of tips when it comes to hospitality and commissions to sales, they are those extra pay for people who perform great service like cracking you a joke, or taking the time to listen to you, which is in some cases as needed as the food they served. Tipping shows your appreciation for the extra hard work that waiters, sales people, and other service people do for you. I follow the axiom that money speaks louder than words.

    • DdR
      May 27
      Reply

      Once in a restaurant down south, two business men decided to see if generous tips got them better service. After establishing themselves as regulars at a particular Australian-themed steak house, they began leaving outrageously large tips (well over the cost of their meals). After a couple months of this, they conceded that service did not improve – they still had the regular range of less than average to slightly better than average that was the norm before the generous tipping began.

  9. Peter Rowan
    April 4
    Reply

    I absolutely agree that tipping is a vile practice that creates a classist division between the tipper and the tipped. This practice encourages people who receive tips to see what should be genuine helping and giving, real, friendly and heart felt assistance to others, as a means of making income. It is likely that we all know that we can buy a waiters, drivers or other’s greater help and assistance by tipping. The other side of this equasion is often that if we do not tip we will be ignored or get lesser service. Tipping is a Pavlovian dog experience that encourages people to only give help if they are tipped, and to not to give help if they are not tipped. Employees should be paid a wage commensurate with their abilities and people who agree to pay a price for a meal or a hotel stay, or whatever service, should only be required to pay that amount, and no more. Tipping is not an ethical business practice as it requires that a person pay more for the service or goods that contracted for.

  10. DdR
    May 27
    Reply

    Wait staff receives abysmally low wages & have the mistaken attitude that they are “entitled” to tips as part of their salary, missing entirely that it is called “gratuity” for a reason. I would like to see the minimum wage policy applied to the restaurant industry and send the practice of tipping the way of the dinosaur.

    • Natural trust
      June 5
      Reply

      Great Idea. Tipping has caused a social status gully between those who are well paid and those who have to beg for tips at the mercy of those who choose how much and who to tip.

  11. Quazi
    May 27
    Reply

    I think it is easy to see that there is a social divide between the server and the patron that tipping creates. This is especially easy to see if you are close friends with someone and they serve you, you are obviously going to tip well, because they are your friend, but if you tip TOO well then it feels like you are giving them charity because they are somehow in a “lower” job than you (even if they actually make more money than you do).

    I generally tend to over tip. Going with 20%+ depending on the service. And will also generally tip more if I’m ordering a lot of drinks as I know the bartender and wait staff generally have to share tips. I would definitely prefer if tip was included in the price of the food. I think patrons would adjust easily, especially in America. We are already willing to pay $10 for a Coke and some popcorn at the movies, with the understand that the reason is that we are actually paying that money to support the staff of the movie theater.

  12. Heather
    June 5
    Reply

    Perhaps all it takes is for a restaurant to start this change on it’s own. Charge more but state that tipping isn’t allowed or not required. Then pay their employees a proper wage. As an american in the UK, it has taken me time to adjust to not tipping like I did back home. In pubs you do not tip the bartender. If you order a meal, usually it has been included in the bill. Tipping isn’t expected as much here – cab rides or delivery service and such it isn’t expected. One thing though is it’s nice when you give a tip and it is genuinely appreciated rather than expected.

  13. […] tipping a server was a way of differentiating between them and the patron in a way that was far too reminiscent of the British aristocracy for their tastes. America was supposed to be a country which didn’t create upper and lower […]

  14. Mya
    December 10
    Reply

    I`ve never been a waitress, but I’ve been a customer many a time. Personally, I think tipping is fine. Many people think not, but being paid minimum wage is just that – the bare minimum. Tips are 1.) a good way for a waiter/waitress to see how well their service is, and to reflect and improve upon it, #2.) an easy and helpful way to earn that extra money for you only, #3.) a sign of saying “thank you.”, from a customer, thus making the customer feel good, not because he’s “giving to charity” and “ruining the country’s ideals” (come on, the country has worse problems!) but because they’re expressing gratitude (remember this saying: “actions speak louder than words”?) in a way that seems traditional, and sensible. Giving a gift to a co-worker whether a Cheryl’s cookie, or a $50 gift card, isn’t considered “ruining the country’s ideals”… so why is this? Yes, I know “you know your co-worker more than a random waitress” is your response but then why do we support beggars? A 9-year old girl wasn’t allowed to sell mistletoe at a market, to raise money for braces, becuase she didn’t have a vendor’s license, but the guard said she could BEG for it. I think the attempts to strive against tippinng are more rude and complainitive to the customer more than to a waiter/waitress. Don’t want the money? Then “donate it to charity.” We’re just trying to say thank you… is that not allowed?

  15. […] I was able to find out that the word tip is actually an acronym. That acronym stands for “To Insure Promptitude” and the original origin of the tip can be traced back to taverns in England during the 17th […]

  16. Tracy
    February 16
    Reply

    I wouldn’t mind giving up the tipping system for a higher wage at where I work some days. But that’s because the area I work in, is lower class. I’m sure other areas and other restaurants have employees who would prefer tips because they probably are able to make much more than an hourly wage would allow and they would have to work more hours to make the same amount which is hard to do physically consistently for a long period of time, being on your feet and carrying heavy trays back and forth. I cannot go any longer than 6 hours without it affecting my lower back so bad that I can barely walk after I sit down. And I’m not heavy.

  17. […] traditionally, was a rare occurrence. It was meant only as a very special nod of appreciation to someone providing a service, who clearly went above and beyond their role. Or, to ensure that […]

  18. TP
    February 14
    Reply

    I don’t mind tipping but I do mind that the business owners don’t have to pay the reguar state minimum wage. Why should we pay or pick up the slack for what should be their responsibility to the wait staff.

  19. […] do it? Tipping may seem like a purely American tradition, but the custom is actually said to have originated in Europe. In fact, some say that the word “tip” evolved in English taverns as an acronym for “to […]

  20. […] Tipping was imported to the United States via aristocrats returning from overseas trips to show off their “worldliness”, i.e. pompousness. It grew as a practice around the time of the Civil War, but the controversy was shown in the New York Times in as “downright blackmail” and the “vilest of imported devices.” […]

  21. Jeremy
    July 26
    Reply

    I have been a waiter for 17 years and was a cook for 6 years prior to being on the floor. For the last 6 years I have been a banquet captain/server at a fine dining restaurant with a guest average of $125 per head. During my tenure as a server, I also have been a bartender and floor manager. I just wanted to put my two cents in from someone who is an experienced server as well as a foodie (although, I hate that term) who dines out often.

    First off, there is a misconception I hear a lot, which is servers are insincere when they get very chummy with guests. This is true with some servers, but definitely not all, and it shouldn’t be assumed, especially at the high level. Interacting with guests, remembering their names and preferences the next time they dine in, and making sure people know they are interacting with a person who actually cares instead of an auto-pilot order taker are my favorite parts of the job, period. And I have many colleagues who feel the same. The fact that I get a lot of request tables and 20%+ tips are a bi-product of my serving style, not the end goal.

    Another misconception is the idea that servers feel like they are begging for tips because their employers aren’t paying them enough. Even at lower tiered establishments, servers are very well compensated if you look at hourly take home wage compared to other jobs that require more formal training. I’ve only met a few servers in my life who felt like getting tips was begging or putting them in a lower class than the guests who tip them. Our hourly wage rarely makes it to the paycheck anyway because of taxes and the income we count on is purely from tips. So I am one of the few servers who is objective enough to realize that a server wage below the minimum wage really isn’t that big of a hit to my bottom line and it frees up more money to go the back of the house, where they should have more flexibility for raises. The unfortunate part is that privately owned restaurants in states with server wages tend to use the extra money freed up appropriately. It is some of the selfish, corporate restaurants who take advantage of this by going “server heavy” on the floor and doing shady little things to save labor like making the opening server do an hour of dishes while setting up the restaurant and bringing in the actual dishwasher later in the evening, for example.

    However, from a frequent diner point of view in a city that is a hotbed of innovative restaurants (Portland) and as someone who is always the main trainer of new employees, I have noticed an unfortunate trend with the upcoming generation of servers. That is a sense of entitlement to get tips just for showing up to work while absolutely doing the bare minimum. I don’t want to sound like an ageist. I work with some great younger people and there are some older servers with entitlement issues, too. But by and large, there is this pervasive mindset among younger servers that if you work at a place with farm to table food and plenty of vegan/gluten free options, then that is enough. It is almost seen as uncool to spend time on your own studying wine, food, and spirits when you’re not at work or to just try your hardest every day as a sign of personal work ethic. Very few of the new wave of servers are on the constant look out for small ways to make guests feel special or anticipate their needs. And there is a growing trend of restaurants pooling tips and no tip restaurants that further lowers the chances of a server taking personal responsibility for the guests having a great time. So often I get a server who is slow and indifferent, even though the restaurant isn’t that busy, doesn’t do the little things like being personable, grabbing glasses near the bottom, serving the lady’s first, or answering basic questions they should know without having to go ask the cook or manager. Yet you know he/she will just regard me as a cheapskate if I leave anything less than 20% and it will never cross his/her mind that it had anything to do with the service because my food arrived and I ate it. And many corporate restaurants (fortunately, mine doesn’t) encourage a style of serving based purely on robotic upselling throughout the course of the meal, generically calling everyone “folks”, and basing a good vs. bad shift purely on your wine sales instead of how great of a time your guests had. My cohorts would consider me a traitor for saying this, but I don’t feel these people really deserve much of a tip. I hate that feeling of leaving a tip when you had a really crappy, indifferent server.

    My prediction is that within 10 years, tips will basically be a thing of the past, aside from guests leaving a cash tip when they get really great service. In turn, service will be a lot less personable, except at high end establishments. This is for a few additional reasons. First, lower end restaurants are already putting little tablets on tables to expedite service and cut out the need of waiters to interact with guests as much. I believe this will creep its way to the higher end restaurants over time as we gradually get used to it. The minimum wage increase will also force the business model of restaurants to change in order to survive, especially privately owned ones who don’t have a ton of money backing them and don’t want to cut corners the way the corporate restaurants do to adapt. People don’t realize how tight food costs are and what a big deal it is if even one prime grade steak is overcooked and a new one needs to be cooked, for example.. Realistically, a lot of privately owned restaurants are going to shut down in the next five years. And service is already trending to fall somewhere inbetween fast food and fine dining of the past.

    Just my two cents. Sorry for the long novel. Cheers, Everyone!

  22. Lil
    January 19
    Reply

    The bit about it originating in England is nonsense – Ancient Romans tipped slaves to allow them to save money to buy their freedom. And apart from thet, in England, one would say ‘To Ensure Promptitude’. Though I doubt we would say promptitude. In any case, it would be ‘tepping’ instead of ‘tipping’.

    • Bill W
      March 30
      Reply

      Nailed it. Imagine if you had to tip first, that would be amazing, then service would be based on tip.

  23. Eugene Allen
    February 6
    Reply

    Things should be changed by law but no one seems to really care. The business should pay their help not the customer. We enjoy tipping good servers because we choose to not because we feel we have to pay them because they are being cheated by their business.. The law needs to be changed to where the waitress is paid just like the rest of the staff. When is someone going to change this with lawmakers?

  24. […] is some dissension about where tipping originated. One argument is that it originated in 17th Century England taverns where customers would give their server extra money “to insure promptitude” or T.I.P. […]

  25. KL
    March 16
    Reply

    I enjoy serving and working for tips. I’ve waited tables for 20 years at a variety of establishments and I enjoy this occupation because I get to connect with a variety of people every day. What other occupation allows one to help people to make special memories with family and friends in the same way? I’ve served so many different people as they have celebrated birthdays, anniversarys, baby showers, marriage proposals, I could go on and on. Sure it can be challenging at times but I like to help others to celebrate their lives and to enjoy dinner with family and friends. Think about the friend or relative who you have a difficult time going out with, as a server I try to pick up on that immediately so that you can have a nice time. That’s part of how I make the money in tips that I make. It’s not just taking orders and knowing the daily special that makes a server it’s knowing people and reading the guest and the type of experience they hope for. Think about a memorable dining out experience you have had. Wether it was at a casual small cafe or a nice high end establishment. Likely a good server or someone who enjoyed their profession played a big part in that wether it was obvious or not. Some people tip based on a percentage of the bill they receive at the end of their meal while others give based on their overall experience. I enjoy my place of employment, the family I work for, and the clientele. I’ve studied food, beverages, and service over the past 20 years and will continue to work on my craft. I enjoy working for tips though personalized service. Tips feel like a gift and working in this way has taught me to be thankful and optimistic every day. I don’t mind making low wages from my employer. Really I don’t mind minimum wage or minimum wage with a tip credit and I understand this may sound strange to most people. When people say they want to ‘eliminate tipping in restaurants’ like it’s a thing just brush off on to the floor like a pile of crumbs that makes me sad. I know not everyone who waits tables for a living sees this as a career or is as passionate about what they do as I but if tipping waitstaff is eliminated I can’t imagine the people who really care to cater to your dining out experience will stay in the profession because I don’t know of a restaurant who could pay me an average of $50 per hour 35 hours per week and if you by chance know of one please contact me.
    Also I’m wondering if people think eliminating tipping in restaurants is ok which group of professionals who cater to their customers or clients personally while receiving tips for their service will be next in the discussion of eliminating tipping, hair stylists? Massage therapists? Nail technicians?

    Thank you

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