The Sordid History of Restaurant Tipping

Today we take tipping at restaurants for granted.  But it wasn’t always this way.

Where did the practice come from?  You may have heard the word “tip” is an acronym for “To Insure Promptness,” but that is a myth.  Some think it either came from Europeans visiting this country, or U.S. travelers returning from Europe, but the truth is more complicated…and sordid.

Tipping originated in medieval times as part of the master-serf relationship; a servant could be rewarded with extra money for exceptional performance.  Wealthy U.S. travelers discovered this European tradition in the 1850s and 1860s and started the practice in this country to appear more aristocratic.

Initially, it wasn’t very popular.  The average diners didn’t understand why a tip was necessary when they could barely pay for their food to begin with.  There was such a movement against tipping that, ironically, it spread back to Europe, which is why there is no tipping today at most European restaurants.  According to Saru Jayaraman, co-founder and president of Restaurant Opportunities Centers United (ROC United) and the director of the Food Labor Research Center at University of California, Berkeley, “But in the States, that [anti-tipping] movement was squashed, and we went to the exact opposite direction because of slavery.”

Yes, slavery.  Although the ratification of the 15th Amendment in 1870 ended that “peculiar institution,” those who were now free had limited options for making a living.  Available occupations were mostly sharecropping and menial positions, such as servants, waiters, barbers and railroad porters.  For restaurant workers and railroad porters, many employers would not actually pay these workers; guests were expected to offer a small tip instead.  “These industries demanded the right to basically continue slavery with a $0 wage and tip,” Jayaraman says.

Although the practice grew, many were still upset with the idea.  In fact, tipping was abolished temporarily in six states in 1915.  In 1918, Georgia labeled tips as “commercial bribes” for the purpose of influencing service, and were therefore illegal.  Iowa’s initial 1915 decision said those who accepted any type of gratuity could be fined or imprisoned.  Still, tipping grew in popularity in many Southern states.  By 1926, all the negative laws had been repealed or ruled unconstitutional, according to Kerry Segrave’s Tipping: An American Social History of Gratitudes.  Restaurateurs began to realize they benefited from a system that subsidized a worker’s pay with guests’ money, says Douglass Miller, a lecturer at the Hotel School of the SC Johnson College of Business at Cornell University.  So, even though the racial situation changed, the practice spread throughout the country.

That’s how we got to the present system.  As Saru Jayaraman puts it, “It’s the legacy of slavery that turned the tip in the United States from a bonus or extra on top of a wage to a wage itself.”

For more detail, see ” ‘It’s the Legacy of Slavery’: Here’s the Troubling History Behind Tipping Practices in the U.S.” by Rachel E. Greenspan ( ).

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