The Futile War on Tipping

tags: tipping



Stephen Mihm, an associate professor of history at the University of Georgia, is a contributor to the Ticker.

Pete Wells, the New York Times' restaurant critic, may be best known for his hilarious, scathing takedown of Guy Fieri’s American Kitchen and Bar. But this week he took on a far more powerful and venerable institution: the custom of tipping. He labeled it “irrational, outdated, ineffective, confusing, prone to abuse and sometimes discriminatory.” His conclusion: "Tipping doesn’t work, and it doesn’t feel very good anymore, either.”

All true, but judging from tipping’s tangled history, it never felt good. Leaf through the Times from 100-plus years ago, and you’ll find the same debate, except these earlier critics of tipping make Wells look positively weak-kneed by comparison. “However strongly entrenched,” proclaimed one contributor in 1899, “I believe, at least in this part of the world, there is enough manhood left to boldly face and uproot this vilest of imported vices.”

Strange as it may seem, tipping wasn't customary in the U.S. before the Civil War. According to Kerry Segrave, author of a book on the custom’s curious history, tipping originated within the elaborate play of manners of the European aristocracy. To tip someone was as much about establishing a hierarchy between superior and inferior as it was about compensating a waiter, valet or servant. Giving a tip was a power play, and accepting one was a sign of servility. Such affectations didn’t sit well with Americans....




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