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Great Gratuity: A Brief History Of Tipping In America

Dave Dugdale / Flickr

Dave Dugdale / Flickr

Sacramento eatery Magpie Cafe has introduced an extra line on its receipts so customers can tip the kitchen as well as wait staff. This simple change has ignited a furious discussion on social media. It got us thinking: When and where did the practice of tipping take root and how did it become so prevalent?

Americans do a lot of tipping. We tip servers, cab drivers, valets, hairdressers, bellhops, hotel maids ... the list seems to be growing. Author Steve Dublanica estimates in his book Keep The Change that American servers make between $37.2 billion and $46.6 billion a year in tips.

When did so much of the US economy get tied up in this custom? Dublanica says some scholars trace the practice back to the middle ages in Europe.

“During feudal times, when lords and ladies traveled dirt roads frequented by wealth-redistribution advocates dressed in green tights and armed with longbows, they’d toss these guys a few coins to ensure their own safe passage,” wrote Dublanica.

Other scholars say it started as a gift from the feudal lords to their subjects during hard times.

What we know as tipping today probably started around the 1530's when visitors to places like Downton Abbey would give the servants a little money when they went above and beyond -- a practice known as giving “vails.” Soon, servants expected vails even for standard service.

“And if you didn’t pay,” writes Dublanica, “it wasn’t uncommon for your horse to suddenly develop a sprain, your tapestries to go missing, or a footman to mutter he’d drop ‘gravy on your breeches.’ Seems like punishing bad tippers started at the tradition’s inception. Scullery maids probably spat in their lordship’s tankards of mead.

The United States didn’t adopt tipping until the early 20th century, viewing the practice as inconsistent with values of equality and democracy. Kerry Segrave writes in his book, Tipping: An American Social History Of Gratuities, that business owners considered the practice akin to a bribe.  

Thoughts on tipping shifted rapidly with the passage of Prohibition in 1919. Restauranteurs saw revenue from alcohol sales dried up and began accepting tips as a way to ease the financial pressure of paying employees.

The argument that tipping originated to supplement low wages is actually fallacious, Marc Mentzer reported in the International Journal of Management. Mentzer writes that waiters at the time were actually paid very well.

Since the 1920s, tipping has become a solid social norm in this country. But America is in the minority of countries practicing this custom. Some people believe it shouldn’t be the norm. Steve Levitt and Stephen Dubner of Freakonomics explore the idea of banning tipping on their podcast:




Even the comedy site College Humor joined in the debate with this video:


Regardless of where tipping came from, it’s now a big part of the service industry and many servers couldn’t imagine their jobs without it.