Why does America tip so much? 7 states once tried to ban tipping
- Some Americans have said they're suddenly being asked to tip everywhere they go.
- Tipping wasn't always common in the US — in fact, it seems to have originated in Europe.
Like it or not, the United States is a tipping country.
In addition to the waitstaff at restaurants, customers are now being asked to tip food-delivery workers, Uber drivers, Starbucks baristas, Chipotle employees, and mechanics. Customers have also said they've been asked to tip even when they use self-checkout machines at cafés, sports stadiums, and airports.
Many of them are not happy about it. After The New York Times published a story last month about gig workers' struggles to get tips, readers responded with over 3,800 comments. The most popular pushed back on the idea that customers should have to step up their tips to supplement these workers' incomes.
But tipping wasn't always so prevalent. Though historians don't universally agree on one story of the rise of tipping culture in the US, there's a general consensus around the broad strokes of the narrative — and it's one that will likely comes as a surprise to most Americans.
Americans imported tipping culture from Europe
While the origins of tipping are uncertain, historians say it likely began in Europe during the Middle Ages, when many people lived under a feudal system. Tipping emerged as a master-serf custom in which masters would tip their servants for good service. By the 1700's, tipping in Europe had evolved from masters tipping servants to customers tipping service-industry workers.
In the US, historians say tipping was almost nonexistent prior to about 1840. But in the years leading up to the Civil War, many wealthy Americans discovered the practice on their travels to Europe. When they returned, some began tipping as a way to signal their status and show off their worldliness. At the same time, many Europeans began immigrating to the US, bringing the custom of tipping with them.
Initially, most Americans didn't take to tipping whatsoever, in part because they said it encouraged classism and further distinguished the wealthy from the common person.
"They found it distasteful and un-American because it was feudal," Nina Martyris, a journalist who has written about the history of tipping in the United States, told NPR in 2021. "And when you give a tip, you establish a class system. By tipping somebody, you rendered him your inferior, your moral inferior, your class inferior, your social and economic inferior."
Anti-tipping sentiment persisted in the decades to come, but the practice took hold in some parts of the country when the Civil War came to a close. As many newly freed slaves began finding work in the hospitality sector in positions such as servants, waiters, and barbers, some employers began looking for ways to avoid paying these workers. The new custom of tipping was a convenient way to accomplish this.
"These industries demanded the right to basically continue slavery with a $0 wage and tip," Saru Jayaraman, the president of One Fair Wage and the director of the Food Labor Research Center at the University of California, Berkeley, told Time in 2019. According to Jayaraman, the workers who earned tips in the early days were almost exclusively Black.
One of the most famous examples came from the Pullman Company, which employed many newly freed Black Americans as porters. The company paid these workers a meager wage and expected to earn the rest of their income through tips.
Seven states passed anti-tipping legislation in the early 1900s
By the early 1900s, early grumblings about tipping had escalated into full-fledged anti-tipping movements.
In 1904, the Anti-Tipping Society of America was founded in Georgia, and its 100,000 members pledged to not tip anyone for a year. Some St. Louis restaurants posted signs that said: "No tipping! Tipping is not American!"
"Tipping, and the aristocratic idea it exemplifies, is what we left Europe to escape," the writer William Scott wrote in his popular 1916 book, "The Itching Palm," which criticized the practice of tipping.
In 1908, William Howard Taft, the Republican presidential candidate at the time, publicly announced that he never tipped his barber, a declaration that led The New York Times to call him the "patron saint of the anti-tip crusaders" — Taft won the election later that year.
In 1909, the state of Washington became the first of seven states in the nation to pass anti-tipping legislation that was intended to abolish the practice in most or all forms. The Washington law classified giving or receiving tips as a misdemeanor.
While the idea that tips were "not American" partially drove these bans — the majority of which were in southern states — white customers not wanting to give extra money to Black workers also gave them momentum, Jayaraman told The Washington Post. The intention was not to advocate for a wage structure in which workers could make a living wage without relying on tips, which is what some anti-tipping advocates push for today.
In 1915, Iowa passed legislation that said anyone convicted of accepting a tip of any kind would be fined or imprisoned for a maximum of 30 days. In Arkansas, any waiter found guilty of accepting a tip was fined $10. South Carolina, Tennessee, and Mississippi passed similar bills of their own, while a seventh state, Georgia, made "commercial bribes" — or tips intended to influence service — illegal.
But in 1919, the Iowa Supreme Court ruled that the state's anti-tipping law was unconstitutional, and other states followed by striking down or repealing their own similar legislation. By 1926, all anti-tipping laws were off the books.
While the anti-tipping movement hadn't disappeared, the practice of tipping had gained momentum among many Americans, and even before courts officially struck them down, the laws were rarely enforced.
Tipping persists in the US today
Despite originating in Europe, tipping has become deeply ingrained in American culture. In 1938, the first federal minimum-wage law was passed, but restaurant workers were excluded, which effectively made it legal for these workers to be paid entirely through tips. Today, it's still legal to pay tipped workers as little as $2.13 per hour in the US.
Across the pond, however, according to Jayaraman, the early 1900s anti-tipping movement did accomplish one thing: It spread anti-tipping sentiment to Europe and is among the reasons tipping is much less common there nowadays.
"What we started here spread there and actually killed it at the origin in Europe," Jayaraman told The Post.
Today, while many Americans aren't fans of tipping, and some restaurants have tried doing away with the practice, tipping is unlikely to be banned anywhere in the US anytime soon. Instead, some lawmakers have called for the end of the subminimum tipped wage, which would make restaurant workers entitled to at least the federal minimum wage of $7.25 per hour.
In the meantime, some business owners that have embraced tipping might respond similarly to the way a general manager of the Pullman Company did when a federal commission asked him about his company's tipping practices in 1915.
"The company simply accepts conditions as it finds them. The company did not invent tipping. It was here when the company began."
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