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”.

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Service 101: When Gratuity is Included

Service includedIf a diner is unhappy with service at a restaurant they can voice their concern to the management or leave less tip for their waiter. As I mentioned recently about a recent poll on CNN’s food blog,, 49 percent of the people polled said they have left nothing for waiters, while another 34 percent said they have left a very low tip–as little as just a penny–to show their dissatisfaction with service. The amount of a tip, many respondents explained, gives financial reward to waiters for good work and punishes the bad ones.

But what happens when a restaurant eliminates the tipping structure out of their business model entirely? Does service improve or get worse?

Jay Porter, the owner of The Linkery in San Diego, says that his front of house staff and kitchen workers’ performance improved once his restaurant stopped accepting tips. The small neighborhood restaurant began its “no tipping” system in 2004 when they instituted a flat 18 percent “table service fee” on the final check for diners who eat at the restaurant.

“No other profession has the customer adjusting your pay scale according to performance,” says Porter. “That’s just not a circumstance when people do their best work.” Porter says this unique payment model brings his restaurant in line with other American industries. “It’s good for our staff to be seen as professionals, just like every other profession in America. No other profession other than the restaurant industry has people evaluating your work and basing payment on that.”

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Service 101: Service Not Included

service not included

One thing is for sure, if you’ve ever paid a restaurant tab you have are more than likely to have a strong opinion about tipping. Maybe you always tip 20% of the total bill. Maybe you think a 15% tip is sign enough that you’ve gotten good service. Or maybe you consider tipping a kind of frosting on the cake. Poll a random group of diners on their thoughts about tipping and within seconds you’ll feel the temperature rise as ardent responses come hurling back at you. No matter what you think about tipping, just about everyone has an opinion about what constitutes a good or bad tip.

I’m always amazed at how downright heated discussions become when the topics of service, tipping, and restaurant policies are brought up. People who have never worked in the restaurant business, lifetime servers, part time waiters, and frequent diners all seem to have strong views on the subject. For someone like myself–a restaurant professional who has worked in the industry for decades–I definitely come at this subject from an insider’s point of view. Not only do I write about service, I also read quite a bit about the subject. What surprises me the most is the ardent online chatter (nay, SCREAMING) about restaurant service.

Recently, CNN’s new food blog, Eatocracy, polled their readers on their view on tipping. Practically overnight, 45,000 opinionated readers responded with votes and lengthy ALL-CAP rants discussing exactly why they thought it was right or downright wrong to leave no tip if bad service is rendered by the waiter.

49% of voters said they left servers no tip after receiving bad service

29% left a low tip for bad service

15% said they would never leave nothing, and would never leave anything less than 15%

5% said they left a penny, just to prove a point

to Find Out Why Tipping Isn’t Optional »

Service 101: Why Servers Don’t Get Any Respect

I respect restaurants. I respect people. So why is it that so many diners don’t respect me when I’m dressed in a waiter’s uniform?

The answer is simple: many customers don’t believe waiters to be professionals and therefore don’t merit their respect.

As a server and bartender, I am expected to be friendly, courteous, and skilled at my job–regardless of how poorly my diners treat me. If I greet a table with a smile and they glare at me with hate, I must pretend that their attitude doesn’t affect me. If a guest barks because they feel uncomfortable not understanding the menu, I am required to empathize and respond with kindness. If a patron interrupts me while I am helping another guest, I am obligated to defend the other diner’s right to service while maintaining good communication with the impatient one. If a dish comes out of the kitchen that a particular guest doesn’t like, I am expected to apologize and assuage their anger—regardless if I am accused of intentionally trying to ruin their big night out.

Fine. I’m a professional. I can handle big expectations. But what is expected of the guest? Surely human kindness should be on the list.

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