It might appear that the custom of tipping your server at a restaurant or the concierge at your hotel is an ancient tradition, but that is not so.
In Cincinnati, tipping was uncommon before 1900. A book of manners, published in Cincinnati in 1855 makes absolutely no mention of the practice. The first newspaper articles about tipping, in the 1870s, are clearly intended to warn travelers about this horrid European ritual taking root in New York City. The Cincinnati Daily Times [24 November 1871] described the penalties for not tipping in Gotham:
“If you fail to ‘tip,’ you are very soon a marked man among the fraternity. In vain will you shriek for patties or salad. Foodless you will remain while those around feed merrily.”
A writer for the Cincinnati Gazette [3 June 1874] describes the horror of dining in England under the “iniquitous European system of ‘Tips’”:
“The waiter who brings me a single cup of chocolate in a cake shop hangs about my presence as if responsible for the one spoon with which I sip the beverage, till I bethink myself that I am in the Land of Leeches and give him his expected ‘tip.’”
The Cincinnati Commercial Tribune [27 August 1881] described tipping as a primarily British invention likely to infect passengers on ships bound for English ports:
“It commences the moment you leave the dock at New York. You have paid a very large sum for your passage – enough to entitle you to every comfort that money can buy. But there sets upon you immediately a horde of blood-suckers who never let go, till, gorged, they drop off at Liverpool.”
The Daily Times [23 May 1873] was not alone in blaming the origins of this habit on the plentitude of European servants. Gentlemen, rather than increasing their servants’ salaries, encouraged anyone who enjoyed their services to chip in by tipping:
“Does a friend drive you about town . . . in his carriage, etiquette wills that you present his coachman with at least two shillings; nor do gentlemen offer the least objection to this open tipping of their servants in the street, while the latter reckon upon it as a supplement to their wages, although a coachman earns from sixty to ninety pounds a year with free lodging and liveries.”
By 1891, tipping reached the tonier restaurants and hotels in Cincinnati and at least a couple of establishments had begun to hire waitresses instead of waiters. The young women, it seems, did not expect tips like their male counterparts.
By 1900, tipping was more or less universal in the Queen City. The Cincinnati Post [27 October 1904] even recorded a new slang term developed among the waitstaff at the local eateries:
“Lobster: A man who prefers poor service to giving the waiter a reasonable tip.”
Ah, but what was a reasonable tip? That was a point argued in the newspaper columns for decades to come. The same Post article that introduced “lobster” suggested that a man dining by himself could leave a 10-cent tip. Not 10 percent; 10 pennies. A man dining with his wife might leave a quarter.
This was an era in which many people lived in hotels and ate at the in-house restaurant. Jaques Scheid, head waiter at the old Sinton Hotel, told the Post [21 March 1910] that regular guests did not tip at every meal.
“At the end of the month, as regularly as their monthly bills are checked out, the waiter receives his little check, never less than $1 and ofttimes as much as $25.”
The idea of tipping as a percentage of the bill kicked in around 1920. A columnist in the Cincinnati Post [17 March 1923] recommended 10 percent for waiters, barbers and hairdressers, except at higher quality places, where 25 cents should be considered the minimum.
Throughout this gradual incursion, Americans understood that there was a racial component to the very idea of tipping. Although they blamed Europe, and especially England for promoting this custom, Americans intuitively understood that tips were a symbol of subservience. Gunton’s Magazine [July 1896] described this in an article on the economics of tipping:
“During the last few years, however, the tipping habit has been gradually on the increase among a certain class of laborers. The occupations in which this system is chiefly practiced are domestic servants, coachmen, barbers, waiters at hotels and restaurants, and porters on railway trains. It will be observed that these occupations are nearly all filled by foreigners and negroes who for the most part have been reared under the patronizing and semifeudal influences of paternal or ante-wage conditions. The colored people represent the remnants of menialism resulting from centuries of slavery.”
John Gilmer Speed, writing in Lippincott’s Monthly Magazine [June 1902] made the racial connection even more obvious:
“I remember when I came North for the first time I had never known any but negro servants. Negroes take tips, of course; one expects that of them—it is a token of their inferiority. But to give money to a white man was embarrassing to me. I felt defiled by his debasement and servility. Indeed, I do not now comprehend how any native-born American could consent to take a tip. Tips go with servility, and no man who is a voter in this country by birthright is in the least justified in being servile.”
No wonder tipping makes some folks uncomfortable.
This article was reposted with permission from Greg Hand, editor of Cincinnati Curiosities.