The U.S. custom of tipping at restaurants, from the 1800s to now

Prior to the late nineteenth century, the practice of tipping in the United States was considered
humiliating to waiters.
Image source: An 1899 edition of Their Wedding Journey by William Dean Howells.


Assistant professor of history at Washburn University

Today, when Americans go out to eat at a restaurant that provides table service, it is standard to pay the server a tip. The practice of tipping at restaurants has been the norm in U.S. eateries since the late nineteenth century. Prior to this, tipping, or “feeing” as it was then called, was considered humiliating to waiters because it was un-democratic, a vestige of a corrupt European culture and society that made one man beholden to another and degraded the dignity of labor. Indeed, when Englishwoman Frances Wright visited America in 1821 and noticed America’s prohibition on tipping, she attributed it to the “republican feelings of this community,” adding: “I honor the pride which makes a man unwilling to sell his personal service to a fellow creature.”

Another contemporary custom in American restaurants that would have been shunned in the early nineteenth century is the practice of referring to members of the wait staff as servers. The title waiter, which seems to have recently fallen out of favor because it is not gender neutral, originated from an American desire to separate and elevate the work from being a servant. For example, in Royall Tyler’s 1787 play The Contrast, Colonel Manley’s servant prefers to be called a waiter because, as he explains, “no man shall master me!” Server, in contrast to waiter, sounds, well, rather servile.

If nineteenth-century restaurant waiters were a bit sensitive it is because they had good reason to be. Waitering was an occupation fraught with status anxiety in the young republican country, where citizenship was closely tied to economic independence. Native-born white men avoided working as a waiter if they could and these jobs were instead largely filled by men who, thanks to racial and ethnic discrimination, confronted more limited occupational options: African Americans and Irish immigrants. (There were no waitresses in early American restaurants; waiters were men.) Proprietors and managers, however—especially of luxury restaurants—recognized how important securing a skilled wait staff was to the success of their establishment. Accordingly, waiters’ wages were among the highest paid to unskilled workers, especially blacks and Irishmen, and the job was thus highly sought after among these populations.

A Parker House bill of fare from January 15, 1856.
Note the manager’s request for patrons not to “fee” the waiters (bottom left).
Image courtesy: American Antiquarian Society.

In the decades after the Civil War, as Americans became more comfortable with what the sociologist Thorstein Veblen termed conspicuous consumption, tipping became in-vogue in restaurants that catered to the wealthy as a way for patrons to demonstrate their conspicuous consumption of waiters’ services and signal enhanced social status. The custom gradually caught on in more plebian restaurants.

A tip is now anticipated in every kind of American dining venue except fast-food chains. In fact, thanks to the custom of tipping, the restaurant industry is not required to pay its employees the minimum wage. Servers in some states make as little $2.13 per hour (the federal minimum tipped wage since 1991), with tips being expected to augment this income to at least the standard federal minimum wage of $7.25.

But for the last several years, a backlash against tipping has begun to resurface. The advocacy group Restaurant Opportunities Center United (ROC), founded in 2001, for example, has launched a campaign called “One Fair Wage” that aims to eliminate the lower minimum wage for tipped workers and abolish tipping altogether. One Fair Wage has been embraced in eight states and recently won the support of presidential candidate Hillary Clinton and the Democratic party’s platform.

Why is tipping once again under scrutiny? On its website, the One Fair Wage campaign points to a number of different reasons to eradicate what nineteenth-century Americans called the “tipping evil.” For example, although restaurant employers are supposed to “top off” a server’s pay when tips don’t add up to at least the minimum wage, many employers neglect to do so and rarely face penalties thanks to lax enforcement of the law. Partly as a result of this, tipped workers are three times as likely to face poverty as the rest of the workforce. This occupational hazard particularly affects women since, according to the National Women’s Law Center, today, 70 percent of restaurant servers are female. The shift to female-dominated wait staffs in American restaurants is itself related to the custom of tipping that became popular beginning in the late nineteenth century; as waiting became more associated with servility, women moved into the position in greater numbers.

According to ROC, female servers’ dependence on tips forces them to daily confront sexual harassment from their customers as an occupational hazard. 90 percent of female restaurant workers living off tips report being sexually harassed at work. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) finds that the restaurant industry is the largest source of sexual harassment charges filed by women, with a rate five times higher than in any other industry.

Opponents of tipping today would likely agree with Americans of the early Republic that the practice contributes to economic inequalities, creates a society divided between the haves and have-nots, and leads to a culture that denigrates labor. Perhaps we should take a cue from the restaurant trends of the past by once again eliminating the “tipping evil” and instead require the restaurant industry to pay its workers at least the minimum wage.


Kelly Erby is author of Restaurant Republic: The Rise of Public Dining in Boston. She is assistant professor of history at Washburn University.

Restaurant Republic acknowledges the struggles involved in the development of a modern American consumer society and demonstrates that dining can make complex, and even contradictory, impulses rational.”
—Andrew P. Haley, University of Southern Mississippi

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