America imported tipping from Europe — and then took it too far Our tipping obsession has exacerbated inequality.


After the Civil War, tipping began to infiltrate the American economy, and many viewed it negatively. Critics saw tipping as an unwelcome European import from aristocratic traditions where servants, servers, or porters were tipped. Such practices, they argued, had no place in a democracy as they echoed established classes and hierarchies. Kerry Segrave, in his book "Tipping: An American Social History of Gratuities," notes that by 1905, it was not uncommon to see "No Tipping! Tipping is not American!" signs in large city restaurants, including those in St. Louis. Ten years later, author William R. Scott published "The Itching Palm: A Study of the Habit of Tipping in America," declaring that every tip given undermined America's democratic experiment. He believed that tipping suggested an aristocratic mindset at odds with the principle that "all men are created equal."

In the 21st century, tipping has become deeply ingrained in American culture, akin to pickup trucks, Walmart, and backyard barbecues. Americans face decisions about tipping everywhere, from restaurants and bars to ride-hail drivers and even self-serve kiosks at airports. Nearly three-quarters of American adults believe tipping is expected in more places than it was five years ago, according to a recent Pew Research Center survey. This phenomenon, often termed "tipping fatigue," extends beyond mere fatigue to confusion, anxiety, frustration, and hostility about how much to tip and in what situations. Various guides have emerged to help consumers navigate this complex tipping landscape.

A YouGov survey revealed that while 51 percent of Americans in April found it "acceptable" to leave no tip after bad service, in practice, only 30 percent would leave nothing. Additionally, Americans frequently reduce tips for reasons often beyond the wait staff's control: poor food quality, overpriced menu items, long wait times for seating, and unclean restaurants. 

Tipping practices remain a way to shift labor costs onto customers, especially in states with a sub-minimum wage for tipped workers. Historically, this practice has roots in the Pullman Company hiring formerly enslaved Black individuals and requiring them to live predominantly off tips from White travelers.

The current American public's tipping behavior often reflects a "reward or punishment" mindset for experiences within a restaurant, reminiscent of historical attitudes. The 1933 Oxford English Dictionary defined a "tip" as a "small present of money given to an inferior," a definition still echoed in the 1989 edition and online in 2024.

Despite America's progress towards equality, remnants of hierarchical attitudes persist when it comes to tipping. Elizabeth Banks openly admitted in a 1905 New York Times piece that she viewed those who accepted tips as inferiors. Although society refrains from such blatant hierarchies today, some persist in using tipping to assert superiority when service doesn't meet their standards, as evidenced by a YouGov survey where 45 percent of Americans would tip less for a perceived lack of enthusiasm from staff. This suggests that while we may not talk in hierarchical terms, the behaviors remain ingrained in the act of tipping.  

Server August Hayes in the dining room at STK in D.C. (Deb Lindsey for The Washington Post)
The attitudes that we carry into restaurants can carry dark undercurrents. Many of us, I suspect, have seen the reports that Black servers are tipped less than their White counterparts, and female servers are sexually harassed on the job — by diners who somehow feel entitled to such behavior. And who can forget how, in the middle of a pandemic, male diners frequently asked women to remove their masks — requests that put servers at risk but increased their odds for a decent tip (when tips were hard to come by).
One activist organization has made the argument that discriminatory tipping, in which people of color earn lower wages than White people, is a violation of the Civil Rights Act. If you read up on its history, tipping has frequently resulted in lower pay for servers who aren’t White. In 1903, an informal survey showed that Black waiters earned between $18 and $22 per month, including tips, while White servers averaged $30 to $35 per month, Segrave wrote in his book.
Tipping, in short, was basically broken from the day it was adopted.
Many people and organizations have tried to fix this broken system. It’s a system that much of Europe, that trailblazer of tipping, has already discarded in favor of living wages or service charges, with tips added on top, if a diner is so inclined.
Americans have been railing against tipping from the start. William Howard Taft was “the patron saint of the anti-tip crusaders,” according to the New York Times. The Anti-Tipping Society of America, formed in 1904, asked its members “not to give a tip to anyone for 12 months,” according to Segrave’s book. Little more than a year later, the society went dormant. In the early years of the 20th century, several states created laws that penalized employees, patrons, and sometimes employers for accepting or giving tips. All of these statutes were dead by the Roaring ’20s, if not earlier.
More recently, before he stepped down as chief executive of Union Square Hospitality Group, famed restaurateur Danny Meyer eliminated tips in 2015, only to walk back his decision five years later during the pandemic. Groups such as One Fair Wage are working to end the sub-minimum wage for tipped workers, with some success. The Raise the Wage Act of 2023, introduced by both chambers of Congress, would gradually increase the federal minimum wage to $17 an hour over five years; the current federal minimum wage — $7.25 an hour — has been in place since 2009. The act would also gradually phase out the tipped minimum wage without eliminating tips.
President Biden has supported the Raise the Wage Act and its efforts to end a sub-minimum wage. Former president Donald Trump, on the other hand, recently said he would eliminate taxes on tips during a campaign stop in Nevada, a state that relies heavily on service workers.
Any effort to eliminate the sub-minimum wage will be an uphill climb. Too many rely on it, not the least of which is the U.S. hospitality industry. The National Restaurant Association has pushed back repeatedly on attempts to eliminate it. So have many servers, who fear diners will tip less if the price of their meal increases as a result of higher payroll costs. Then there’s the whole mess of service fees, which many restaurants have adopted in places that have started to phase out the tipped minimum wage. Consumers are confused and frustrated about these fees — and who benefits from them, even though restaurants are often required to explain where the money goes. One Instagram account in Washington, D.C., tracks how well restaurants are doing in explaining their fees.
But I think it’s important to differentiate between a tip that’s necessary for someone to survive — and a tip that’s a little extra on top of a server’s full pay. The former is a cruel theater of the absurd, where patrons pay only if they like the performance. The latter is a thank you. I’m pretty confident we can live without the former, no matter how painful it’ll be to get there.

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