Tipping has become a hot-button issue again lately. The confluence of raising minimum wages and the uncomfortable nature of tipping’s history has led to many major restaurateurs to drop tipping from their restaurants. This hasn’t gone the way that those business owners would have liked. There’s a lot at play here — from a deeply rooted cultural and societal norm to economic molds that are near impossible to break.
We want to take a step back and get a little perspective on tipping as a societal and economic practice (in restaurants). Is it something that deserves such a revered spot in our culture? Or is it time to move on to a better, more egalitarian system?
WHERE TIPPING CAME FROM
Overall, tipping as we know it today started out in Old Europe. The British started giving ‘tips’ around the 1500s for extra services at Inns for the cleaning staff and servers down at the tavern. It literally meant to give a small present of money. The French used a ‘gratuité’ (gratuity) for the same purpose around the 1500s. The Germans gave people bringing them their beer ‘Trinkgeld,’ which translates to drink money. The house got the price of the beer, the server got the Trinkgeld. What we’re saying here is that tipping goes way back.
Interestingly, tipping was not a part of the American psyche at all for the first 100 years of the nation. Americans largely viewed tipping as something the hierarchy of the Old World gentry class partook in. It was looked at as a way to bribe people to get something better or more. It was an unequal advantage. It was British and we’d thrown that yoke off. It’s was wholly un-American.
That all changed when African slavery ended. That monumental event coincided with the explosion of rail travel. Railroad tycoon George Pullman spearheaded sleeper car train travel that required porters, servers, and concierges on the trains as the barreled from coast to coast. Pullman decided to staff his trains with freed slaves without really paying them. Instead, he suggested a system where the payment to the staff fell upon the passenger. Amazingly, being a Pullman Porter, or a ‘George’ colloquially, was a success (within the context of a fundamentally racist system) and almost single-handedly kick-started the black middle class in America.
Cut to the 1920s. By that time tipping had actually been outlawed in six states. Mostly due to the ravings of the Anti-tipping Society of America. It’s easy to say that a lot of this came from the initial hatred of tipping in pre-Civil War America. But the truth is that it was more racism in a racist country: Tipping being almost exclusively an interaction between black and white Americans, there was a segment of society that didn’t want to feel pressured to tip black workers.
Then Prohibition came along and changed almost everything about America. The service industry was nearly destroyed by their inability to (legally) sell alcohol. Restaurant managers literally couldn’t pay for both inventory and staff. So hotels and restaurants adopted the Pullman Porter system and stopped paying their staff with the promise and insistence that patrons leave tips. Then the Great Depression happened. That economic nosedive solidified the need for service industry staff to be paid in tips as a more direct form of economics. And, for the most part, we haven’t looked back.
Ironically, after World War II while the British were reevaluating their society and largely leaving the gentry and their ways behind, they also abandoned tipping. So, today, the country where our initial hatred of tipping was born is the one without tipping, while we’ve embraced it to the nth degree.