Sep. 9 (Bloomberg) -- 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 He labeled it “irrational, outdated, ineffective, confusing, prone to abuse and sometimes discriminatory.”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.
Nonetheless, sometime in the Gilded Age tipping came to America. At the time, critics blamed wily European waiters who had immigrated; others simply pointed to the influx of immigrants -- people whom one letter writer to the Times described as “the scum and carrion of Europe’s southern borders, where begging is an art.” Sneaky foreigners had lured the good-natured, big-hearted American people into tipping -- or so the story went.
In reality, the culprits were wealthy Americans, who traveled to Europe in the late 19th century. They aped the aristocrats they met, and sometimes went farther by out-tipping Europeans, prompting complaints that the American nouveaux riches were spoiling the servants. When these travelers came home, they showed off their newfound sophistication by leaving generous tips for waiters, porters and others. The practice spread down the culinary food chain, as middle-class Americans imitated their social superiors.
Not everyone embraced tipping across the board. Racists deemed tipping blacks acceptable: it was a way of establishing a hierarchy. But they drew the line at tipping fellow whites. “To give money to a white man was embarrassing to me,” one Southerner transplanted to the North confessed in 1902. “ I felt defiled by his debasement and servility.” (Today the situation may be curiously reversed, one recent study showed that black servers consistently get lower tips than white servers.)
As the “tipping evil” gained, it soon attracted a sustained, well-organized counterattack. Organizations sprang up to stamp out the practice: the Anti-Tipping Society of America, which required members to take an Alcoholics Anonymous-style pledge to not tip anyone for 12 months; and the Commercial Travelers’ National League, which began a campaign against tipping in 1911. It was joined by the Society for the Prevention of Useless Giving, founded in 1912.
Polemicists also published articles, pamphlets, and even books against tipping. William Rufus Scott, author of "The Itching Palm: A Study of the Habit of Tipping in America" (1916) fulminated that “tipping, and the aristocratic idea it exemplifies, is what we left Europe to escape. It is a cancer in the breast of democracy.” The campaign against tipping, he promised, would help America “reach the very pinnacle of republican society -- the destiny toward which 1776 started us.”
These campaigns yielded results: In the early 1900s, a number of municipalities and states passed anti-tipping laws. Washington State was the first, in 1909, making it a misdemeanor to accept a tip. Five states followed suit in the 1910s. Nonetheless, these laws were rarely enforced and tipping proved impossible to eradicate. In the end, courts ruled most such laws unconstitutional.
Unions and other organization within the labor movement also hated tipping. They rightly complained that it was a means for restaurants to shift the burden of paying waiters and other workers onto customers. But they, too, failed to make headway against the practice.
When the Great Depression hit, tipping went into decline, and for a brief moment it looked as though it might disappear. In 1933, President Franklin Roosevelt created the National Recovery Administration, arguably the most heavy-handed intervention into the workings of the economy in U.S. history. In an effort to halt the deflationary forces eating away at the economy, the NRA sought to set prices and wages for a range of industries, including the restaurant business.
The NRA initially sought to count tips as part of wages, but backed down when unions threatened to strike. In the end, the unions got their minimum wage. But tips remained on the table. Frustrated by this intractable, informal method of compensation, New York’s NRA administrator, Grover Whalen, proposed that tipping be abolished and replaced with a flat 10 percent service charge that was predictable and, presumably, taxable. The idea went nowhere.
And so it remains today. While there are signs of change on the horizon -- the Internal Revenue Service announced this week that it would henceforth require that so-called “automatic gratuities” in restaurants be counted as wages -- the likelihood that tipping will vanish is remote. Pete Wells can fight it all he wants. Or he could surrender, as one writer in the Times did in 1899, when he concluded “there is no escape” and half-jokingly recommended that “over every restaurant might be emblazoned: ‘Prepare to tip all ye who enter here.' ”
(Stephen Mihm, an associate professor of history at the University of Georgia, is a contributor to the Ticker. Follow him on Twitter.)