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The Tipping Point


I grew up in New Hampshire, a few miles from the state’s small, picturesque shoreline. Each summer, hundreds of Canadians descended on the beaches and sparked resentment, not solely because their skimpy, European-style bathing suits offended New England sensibilities, but also because—as anyone who worked at the Howard Johnson’s in Portsmouth could tell you—the Québécois did not tip. After juggling tables all day, the wait staff would gather in the tiny, windowless break room, eat discounted meals, and complain about the family of five, including two crying children, who complimented the waiter on his fortitude and then left a dollar. It has taken me years to overcome my prejudice against our friendly neighbors to the north.

To be fair, a tip is not solely a measure of generosity. Whether and how much a society tips depends largely on how it perceives the relationship between the server and the served. Americans generally tip well (and Canadians, I’m told, are catching up), but today’s broad acceptance of tipping was slow in coming. A little over a hundred years ago, when dining out was new for many, heated battles were pitched over whether or not to tip. Gratuities, denounced as undemocratic, became the subject of scathing editorials and the object of boycotts. Occasionally, tipping was even outlawed. The recent truce in the war against tipping hasn’t made those old anxieties go away. Now, as in the past, the presentation of the bill—the “tipping point” if you like—forces diners to take stock of their obligations, if any, toward the poorly paid underclass that waits on them.

The restaurant as we know it, with its selection of dishes served at the customer’s convenience and not at a set hour, appeared in the United States in the 1830s when Swiss immigrants opened Delmonico’s in New York. In the earliest of America’s fine dining establishments, waiters wore uniforms and were drilled like soldiers. They were expected to give every patron the same good service. The aristocratic custom of tipping had little place in the new democracy. The tipless era, however, did not last for long. As industry flourished, newly wealthy and status-conscious Americans flocked to restaurants where the menus were written in French and the dishes were prepared by European-trained chefs. The continental custom of tipping allowed Gilded Age swells to show off by slipping the waiter an extra dime for preferential treatment. Soon tipping was expected.

In the finer establishments, a good tip ensured that dinner would be a success. Most nineteenth-century American restaurants served table d’hote. For a fixed price, a patron was offered seven or eight courses, each with as many as ten selections. The expert waiter quietly assisted in constructing from this broad bill of fare a choice dinner. He (until the twentieth century, wait staff were always men) subtly guided the diner, not-ing what was fresh and recommending wines. Expert waiters would anticipate the wants of the guests, and might even bring two or three entrees to the table for the diner to choose from. In this way, a generously tipped waiter contributed to establishing one’s social standing. When Gladys Vanderbilt, daughter of the chairman of the New York Central Railroad, became engaged to László Széchenyi in 1907, the Washington Post’s society column deemed the little-known Hungarian count a worthy match because he had “the American style of tipping lavishly and appears to be a ‘good spender.’”

The count proved to be a faithful husband, but had he not, his spendthrift tipping might also have served to keep his dalliances secret. Each table was assigned a waiter who stood by, ready to serve, throughout the dinner. Invariably, waiters overheard secrets, but as a poem published in the culinary magazine What to Eat reminded readers, tips bought discretion.

I’ve seen So-and-So with another man’s wife,

I’ve seen High Society eat with its knife,

I’ve heard the worst claret pronounced “nonpareil,”

I’ve heard the best Roquefort condemned for its “smell”. . . .

I’ve bowed and obeyed, and I’ve always agreed

My business to serve is, and not to take heed;

A quarter will cause me to doubt my own mind,

And after a half I am deaf, dumb, and blind.

But even as generous tips were helping to establish a uniquely American aristocracy of wealth, the rising cost of tipping waiters was breeding resentment.

The same industrial growth that produced America’s lavish tippers also produced a middle class of bankers, lawyers, railroad managers, and corporate accountants, no less eager to engage in conspicuous consumption. For middle-class diners, the French restaurant was often beyond their cultural and economic means. They had not traveled in Europe and couldn’t read the French menus. Likewise, the cost of dining out—dinner for two at one of New York’s better restaurants might come to twenty dollars, or more than five hundred dollars today—assured that a good dinner was a special event and not a daily indulgence. But on those occasions when the middle-class screwed up their courage, put on their Sunday best, and dared to dine out, they discovered that only the wealthiest could purchase the loyalty of waiters.

The more the middle class tipped, the higher the wealthy raised the bar. Where once a quarter bought exceptional service, now a dollar or two was required. In 1912, the Southern Hotel Journal worried that the rich, “who, in their eager desire to show off the acquired wealth, stoop for the envy or admiration of their servants by lavishing tips,” had driven up the cost of dinner. If the “pernicious practice” continued, cautioned the Living Age in 1908, “only the rich would be able to purchase in certain restaurants the brief gratification of the waiter’s smile or immunity from the terrible look.” One disgruntled diner warned that “unfortunate citizens will have to leave, and seek a cheaper country.”

Early in the twentieth century, a movement to eliminate the tip gained supporters. Salesmen, forced to dine out as they crisscrossed the country, organized short-lived boycotts. Waiters, preferring a stable wage, went on strike. Etiquette guides, seeking a compromise, suggested the ten percent tip. But it wasn’t just about the money.

Anti-tipping advocates often championed an egalitarian vision of capitalist consumption in which both consumer and employee would benefit. Tipping, they maintained, undermined the dignity and independence of citizens in a democracy. “Let us not congratulate the servants on their gain,” one writer admonished, “for no servant takes a tip without losing something of manhood or womanhood.” Another argued that to accept a tip “is to enter into a relationship of dependence to the giver and by implication to acknowledge his superiority.” Frank Crane, a syndicated columnist, contended that the tip put waiters “into a class with the beggar, or the receiver of a bribe.” And Alvin Harlow, a historian popular at the time, wrote: “What, may I ask, is more un-American than tipping? It doesn’t belong in American society; it doesn’t belong in a democracy. It is a product of lands where for centuries there has been a servile class.”

Of course, not all waiters were anxious to be liberated from their tips. Some fought back—or so the tip withholders suspected. Rumors spread of servers who spit in the soup of parsimonious diners and doctored the food of known opponents of the tipping system. Some diners, imagining they had been poisoned by disgruntled waiters, petitioned local district attorneys for redress. In January 1908, the New York Times invited readers to caption a cartoon in which an anti-tipping advocate asks his dinner companion, “Why don’t you refuse to tip waiters?” Nearly all the published responses expressed the fear that waiters accustomed to large tips would seek revenge. F. Bain, for example, was apprehensive because waiters “hold too much over my head.” W. Robbins worried about his cleaning bill: “Tipping is a game that two can work at and this is my only suit.”

As tensions mounted, politicians, eager to court the burgeoning middle class, took action. Congress considered a bill in 1910 that would have ended tipping nationally, but ultimately (and ineffectually) managed only a ban on tipping in Washington, D.C., and then openly flouted the new rules in the Senate restaurant. State legislators also stepped in to address the “tipping evil.” Anti-tipping legislation was passed in Washington in 1909, Mississippi in 1912, Arkansas in 1913, and Iowa, South Carolina, and Tennessee in 1915, and at least four other states considered similar laws. Iowa’s law imposed fines of between five and twenty-five dollars for offering, receiving, or facilitating a tip. But the states were no better at enforcement than the federal government, and within ten years every anti-tipping law had been repealed.

One remnant of that era is still going strong: the self-service restaurant. At the height of the anti-tipping crusade came the first wave of automats, cafeterias, and buffets. Some entrepreneurs even hoped to wed tipless dining with upper-class luxury. In 1908, Henry Erkins and John L. Murray, an architect and a restaurateur, announced plans to build the world’s largest restaurant, with a grand dining hall featuring waiterless table service (food would have been delivered by an elevator in the center of the table). Five years later, John F. Daschner, a well-known maitre d’hotel at the Hotel Statler in Cleveland, Ohio, told readers of The Steward of his plans for a similar restaurant: “You look over the bill of fare, mark your selections with a pencil, and then press the button. . . . Lo, the center part of the table with the bill of fare goes down [and] a screen automatically closes like a Kodak shutter. . . . Before you are over your surprise—in less than a minute—the dish ordered appears on the table.” Daschner’s waiterless tables were installed in a few establishments (including the Warren Hotel in Worcester, Massachusetts) as novelties in the 1930s and 1940s.

Today’s fast-food chains make customers provide more and more of their own service. At McDonald’s you fill the drink cup yourself. Upscale coffee shops like Starbucks make patrons stand in line, effectively waiting on themselves. It is not as fun as an electric table that mysteriously delivers your food to you, and the experience is sometimes disrupted by a tip jar at the counter, but it is more democratic than the service at a sit-down restaurant.

In a full-service establishment, much of the work done to produce a meal is invisible. Even when the kitchen is on display, the show is carefully staged so that we see only the heroic feats of men spinning pizzas and women flambéing scallops. The daily grind that starts hours before when steaks are cut, salads are composed, and plates are polished remains hidden, as does the long chain of corporate suppliers who cut and tenderize the meat, the agricultural workers who pick and package the lettuce, and the overseas laborers who cast and glaze the plates. This is in part what makes dining out such a luxurious event; not only do we not have to do the work, but we do not have to see the work. The most gifted servers at the finest restaurants help to hide the evening’s labors. The glasses are filled as if by magic and the dirty plates disappear without a sound and everything runs smoothly. But even in the best restaurants there comes a moment when the curtain is pulled back and the illusion is shattered and for a second we see that dining out is work. That moment comes when we are presented with the bill and have to evaluate the quality of our service.

In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, when the professional middle class, the public restaurant, and the tip were relatively new, the debate was not over how much to tip, but whether tipping itself was so destructive to democracy that it could not be allowed to continue. Many opposed the tip and some refused to tip, but there were others, perhaps a majority, who despite their intense dislike of tipping felt that punishing the waiter was unfair. As William Dean Howells admitted in his 1916 autobiography, it was one thing to oppose the “grudge-stained middle-class tip” and quite another to deprive a hardworking waiter of his livelihood. “I have never again been able to deny a tip, or to give so little as I would often like to give . . . perhaps because, though I loathe tipping, I do not believe any fellow creature, ‘as meek and mere a serving man’ as may be, would take a tip if he were paid a just wage, or any wage, without it.”

In the century that followed the rise of the middle-class restaurant, Americans embraced Howells’ pragmatism and made their peace with service. By 1947, studies showed that sixty-eight percent of diners approved of tipping and ninety-six percent tipped regardless of their opinion about the practice. While a majority still wished that tipping could be replaced with a fair salary, most Americans, like Howells, were unwilling to deny restaurant employees just recompense. And that is probably a good thing for those who wish to avoid indigestion. Even if we prefer not to acknowledge the “distorted social interaction, where one group of people . . . must necessarily be obsequious to those distributing the tips,” as Daniele Archibugi writes in a 2004 essay in Dissent, tipping remains a practice fraught with inequities that contradict our democratic aspirations.

The minimum wage laws established during the Great Depression did not govern restaurant servers. When servers were included, in 1966, their wages were pegged to a much lower rate than other workers in the expectation that they would receive a tip based on the quality of the work they did. (Today, servers are paid a minimum of $2.13 plus tips and are supposed to receive higher rates if their tips do not match the full federal minimum wage.) Yet the social science research on tipping suggests that quality of service and a sense of responsibility for the server’s welfare are not the only factors that determine the size of a tip. While the evidence is far from conclusive, it seems that men tip more than women (although women claim they tip more than men), former wait staff tip better than those who have never served, the old are more likely to punish poor service than the young, white servers are more likely to be rewarded for good service than black, and a mint at the end of dinner or a smiley face on the check will often result in a higher tip. Some have even claimed—in widely disputed studies—that tips can be affected by the weather.

All of which is to say that while our hearts are in the right place, tipping is a pretty arbitrary way of assigning a wage, and these small and arbitrary variations can make a real difference in earnings. Bureau of Labor statistics indicate that outside of the upscale restaurants, where high tips lead to a quality standard of living, the average server in the United States earns only a little more than minimum wage. The poverty rate among waiters and waitresses is twice as high as in the workforce as a whole. Yet few question this system. Americans have resigned themselves to tipping and, based on the standards that have evolved, tip well. We like to pretend that the system is fair because to do otherwise would destroy the magic that is a night on the town.

ANDREW P. HALEY, A91, is an associate professor of American cultural history at the University of Southern Mississippi. His new book, Turning the Tables: Restaurants and the Rise of the American Middle Class, 18801920, has received the 2012 James Beard Foundation Book Award for Reference and Scholarship.

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