Why Do We Have to Tip?

A short history of gratuity

Photo: Nan Palmero

At first I thought it was confirmation bias: Tipping seems to be a lot in the news lately. As a service worker (bike messenger) I pay a lot of attention to tipping. But when I read that one in three workers are now employed in the service sector, I realized the answer went well beyond me and spoke to a sweeping change in the composition of the American work force.

But why is tipping a thing in the first place? Why does it happen? And why does it have to? And why should I have to pony up a few extra bucks every time I want to have a sit-down meal?

In the most common origin story, “tip” stood for “to insure promptitude,” an explanation almost assuredly false as it dates no further back than 1909. Yet tipping itself reaches quite a bit further back, at least to the 14th century. As a show of good manners, guests at an inn would invite the tavern servants to share a drink with them and pay for it out of their own pocket. In many languages the word for “tip” is still literally ‘drink money:” Trinkgeld in German, for example, and pourboire (‘for drink’) in French. As for why we say “tip” in English and not ‘drink money’ or, say, “booze cash,” it’s possibly from an Old Norse word meaning ‘to adorn,’ as in, to adorn with favors.

By the 17th century at coffeehouses in England, patrons were tipping their servers left and right, even though globally we were still a long way yet from a macchiatto. However, that practice of tipping was almost exactly the reverse of how it’s understood now. Back in those merry olde days, rather than tip for excellent service after the meal, customers tipped servers before ordering so as to cut the line and get served ahead of anyone else. This is just further proof that as fond as the English are of queueing, they’re equally keen on finding ways around it.

Moving forward in time, America did not embrace tipping at all for the first several centuries of its own history. Though to be fair, those founding fathers on the run from Olde England were largely of three classes: religious zealots, financial opportunists, and criminals, often all three, presumably all of whom may have had some use for coffee but scant use for tipping.

Tipping is a symptom of aristocracy. The American system of government was one of principled egalitarianism, and it was hard enough just to survive in the struggling early days of the colonies to boot. Or at least until slaves could be forcibly imported and the indigenous population exterminated. Those two accomplished, America could then go about successfully replicating the entrenched class divisions of the old European countries it sought to distinguish itself from. And this is where we start to get to a system of tipping much more like it is now.

After the American Civil War, freed slaves and poor whites, both of whom had extremely limited job prospects, offered themselves out as servants to restaurants, hotels, and luxury cars on railways. However, businesses were often reluctant to employ blacks on equal footing with whites, or to take in poor whites as hired help, which smacked too much of old European serfdom for the taste of the “land of the free.” The solution was to allow such people to work, but for tips only. Which meant that porters on the train, or servers at restaurants, bellhops, and barkeeps, were not actually paid by the railway, the restaurant, the hotel, or the bar, but by the patron himself.

A patron could, of course, not pay their server — despite the 13th Amendment insisting that slavery was now unconstitutional — but that seemed unnecessarily cruel. Even though their servers were not directly employed by the business which the patron had already paid, customers felt some obligation to offer something.

And that’s pretty much how we got to where we are now, from tipping being an aristocratic convenience to that sinking sense of guilt you feel for not throwing down a dollar every time the waitress tops off your coffee, knowing that you have to pick up a slack the employer is legally allowed to drop. I’m in the position that I can afford a few extra dollars to pay the server directly, but why should I have to?

It seems like tipping is something that has always been there (and perhaps may always be), yet even as late as 1916, the practice of tipping was viewed as incompatible with American ideals. “It is democracy’s deadly foe,” wrote William Rufus Scott in his 1916 pamphlet, “The Itching Palm:”

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.”

I’m not sure I agree with all of Scott’s points — he rather memorably equates “waiters, hotel employees, barbers, and allied classes” with the pirates of the Barbary Coast — but he is addressing a point that has resurfaced in recent years: that tipping leads to inequality. Rather than assuring a fair and minimum wage, tipping pushes the responsibilities of the business onto the patron, and makes a customer pay twice from the same pocket while having an employee work for an insubstantial though legally allowable wage. (As low as $2.13 an hour in some states)

By Scott’s time, tipping had become culturally entrenched in the United States and labor laws were beginning to support it quite strongly, as it was seen then — and still is — as favorable to business. This position was finally cemented in 1996, when Herman Cain, then the CEO of Godfather’s Pizza, successfully lobbied Congress to fix the federal minimum wage for tipped workers at $2.13 an hour, where it’s been stuck at ever since. (Presumably tips will keep up with inflation, even if the wage won’t)

So what’s to be done with all this history? The solution seems easy. Get rid of tipping. Raise wages for workers and include the cost in the customer bill. Many restaurants have done as much.

Yet tipping is so entrenched in American culture, that to discontinue it wholesale would grossly and unjustly affect only one group of people: service workers themselves. And that would be the one class least able to afford it.

So in the meantime, if as a patron you can afford to get coffee out, or order dinner in, get your nails buffed, or your hair professionally cut, you can probably afford to leave some change behind.

Unless, of course, you don’t believe in change.

Cirrus Wood is a bike messenger and freelance writer/photographer. He lives in Berkeley and works in San Francisco

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