A Brief History of Tipping

Bill with tip on a table
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Tipping is ingrained in American culture but its origins are murky.  

Tipping may have begun in the late Middle Ages when a master gave his servant a few coins as an expression of good will.  By the 16th century, guests at English mansions were expected to give a "vail" or small amount of money at the end of the visit to compensate the owner's servants who did work above and beyond their ordinary duties.

 Kerry Segrave, author of "Tipping: An American History of Social Gratuities," explained that by 1760, footmen, valets, and gentleman's servants all expected vails, leading to great expense to the guests.  The gentry and aristocracy began to complain.  An attempt to abolish vails in London in 1764 led to rioting.

Tipping soon spread to British commercial establishments, such as hotels,  pubs, and restaurants.  In 1800, the Scottish philosopher and writer Thomas Carlyle complained about tipping a waiter at the Bell Inn in Gloucester, "The dirty scrub of a waiter grumbled about his allowance, which I reckoned liberal.  I added sixpence to it, and [he] produced a bow which was near rewarding with a kick.  Accursed be the race of flunkeys!"

It is not clear when the word "tip" came into the English language but some speculate that the origins of the word came from Samuel Johnson.  Johnson frequented a coffeeshop which had a bowl labeled "To Insure Promptitude," and Johnson and other guests would put a coin into the bowl throughout the evening to receive better service.

 This soon was shortened to "T.I.P." and then simply tip.

Prior to 1840, Americans did not tip.  But, after the Civil War, newly rich Americans visited Europe and brought the practice back home to show that they had been abroad and knew genteel rules.  A New York Times editor grumbled that, once tipping got hold in the United States, it spread rapidly like "evil insects and weeds."

By the 1900s, Americans considered tipping to be the norm and, in fact, were frequently criticized for overtipping.  Englishmen complained that "liberal but misguided" Americans tipped too much, leading servants to feel shortchanged by the British.  Similarly, a 1908 Travel magazine found that Americans overtipped but received poorer service because Americans did not know how to treat servants and service members.

As tipping became widespread in America, many found it to be antithetical to democracy and American ideals of equality.  In 1891, journalist Arthur Gaye wrote that a tip should be given to someone "who is presumed to be inferior to the donor, not only in worldly wealth, but in social position also."  "Tipping, and the aristocratic idea it exemplifies, is what we left Europe to escape,” William Scott wrote in his 1916 anti-tipping brochure, “The Itching Palm,” in which he argued that tipping was as "un-American" as "slavery."

In 1904, the Anti-Tipping Society of America sprang up in Georgia, and its 100,000 members signed pledges not to tip anyone for a year. In 1909, Washington became the first of six states to pass an anti-tipping law. But, the new laws rarely were enforced, and, by 1926, every anti-tipping law had been repealed.

Tipping again changed in the 1960s, when Congress agreed that workers could receive a lower minimum wage if a portion of their salary came from tips.  The minimum wage for tipped workers is $2.13, which has not changed in over 20 years, as long as those workers receive at least $7.25 in tips per hour.  Saru Jayaraman, author of Behind the Kitchen Door, explains that a minimum wage of $2.13 means that their full wage will go toward taxes and forces tipped workers to live off their tips.    

Others have noted that because waiters live off their tips, tipping in the United States is more mandatory rather than voluntary, rarely relates to quality of service, and can be based on racial and sexual discrimination.  Cornell Professor Michael Lynn's extensive research on tipping, suggests that this history and association with giving money to inferiors may be why we continue to tip today.

 Lynn posits that "[w]e tip because we feel guilty about having people wait on us."  This societal guilt was reportedly noted by Benjamin Franklin in Paris who said, "To overtip is to appear an ass: to undertip is to appear an even greater ass."

To combat many of these problems with tipping, a few American restaurants, such as Sushi Yasuda and Riki Restaurant, have made the news for banning tipping at their restaurants and, instead, paying their wait staff higher wages.  In 2015, several restaurant groups also banned tips.