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Video: TODAY’s holiday tip guide

  1. Closed captioning of: TODAY’s holiday tip guide

    >>> lot this time of year, how much should you tip and for what? best-selling author steve deblanaca describes it as in your clutches. steve , good morning, nice to see you.

    >> nice to see you again.

    >> you were here for a your last book, after about nine years waiting tables and after that book came out, for some reason, people said, wait a second, he is a waiter, must know everything about tipping. they thought you were an expert.

    >> and that wasn't true. you know, i found out that casino dealers get tipped and i have been to atlantic city a dozen times and never tipped them. so i was like, oh oh, i don't know everything. i went on the road to find out.

    >> you started asking people in the service industry about tipping, did you find it was an emotional subject for them?

    >> it was this is how they make their living. waiters and busboys and bathroom attendants and shoe shine guys this is how they make their livelihood.

    >> we will go through some of the jobs that you think people should or shouldn't tip for. can we talk about reality for a second?

    >> sure had.

    >> we are in a recession, people are cutting back, should they be cutting back on their tipping as well or is that something that should be an island?

    >> one of the first people that get affected in a recession like we have today are tip workers. they are feeling the brunt. so ask people to tip as much as they can. and i always say if you can't give what you gave last year, give something. and if you can't give money, maybe a gift to show appreciation toward you.

    >> you say it is not just about money, equally about relationships. let's talk about waiters right now.

    >> sure.

    >> so what is common what is average what is exceptional and is it okay to cut back a little bit?

    >> when i was a waiter, what i valued the most was having customers who were nice to me and good tippers all year. if they didn't give me a christmas tip, it didn't matter so much. but then again, nothing says merry christmas like cold, hard cash .

    >> what about the guy who delivers our mail or the woman who delivers the mail? are they actually allowed to accept a gratuity or is it only up to a certain amount?

    >> postmen can't take cash and they can only accept a gift that has a value of $20 or less. a gift certificate .

    >> having said that --

    >> johnny walker is good.

    >> think people should go right up to that 20 or above it if they can get away with it?

    >> i would do the best you can.

    >> hairstylists and barbers. why would you want to, you know, shortchange your barber?

    >> i know.

    >> look at me. this is a problem, right? so, be generous with those people.

    >> always be generous and very tough for -- easy for me 'cause you just tip on the price of the cut but when some people have $200 haircuts --

    >> what do you give? what percentage?

    >> should give the price of the cut. so, my barber -- my haircut costs $25, i give as 25 tip.

    >> are you kidding me? 100% tip?

    >> yep. for christmas , once a year.

    >> okay. wow, you are a good customer. babysitters and nannies?

    >> well, live-in nannies should get a month's pay, au pairs a week's pay. babysitters are hard to get, i would give them consideration at the end of the year.

    >> what about your garbagemen? a lot of people who forget the garba garbageman, stiff the garbageman?

    >> my rule, give them 20 bucks but if you have them hauling illegal stuff away from your house all the time --

    >> i don't would you think?

    >> people doing construction. i had a relative of mine remain unnamehood to throw out a fridge, couldn't take, slipped them $20 bucks, they took it away with doing that kind of stuff, i would tip them.

    >> seems to me the garbagemen are the people you want to keep happy, don't want 11 days of garbage building up outside your house. dog groomers, walking services?

    >> dog walkers a week's pay and dog groomers the same thing as going to a barber, the price of the cut.

    >> you learned about tipping at an early age, like me, you were a paper boy ?

    >> that's right.

    >> how many papers did you have?

    >> i had a very small route when i was little, 25, 25, 30 customers.

    >> did you find that you got stiffed a lot? were people generous with you?

    >> no they were terrible and that was my first taste of being on the receiving end of bad tips. and little did i know 20 years later, going to get even more bad tips as a wear the.

    >> anyone we have left out, someone that generally doesn't get thought of at this time of year that you honestly think we should spread a little christmas cheer with?

    >> you know, the person who does my laundry. i do go to the wash and fold service and i drop it off, she does a tremendous job doing my laundry. you are getting a tip for christmas .

    >> steve , thank you very much. the book is called "keep

TODAY books
updated 12/15/2010 12:40:39 PM ET 2010-12-15T17:40:39

The rules behind tipping are often secret and confusing. Should you tip your doorman? If so, what's the standard amount? Does your barista benefit when you drop change into the unmarked Starbucks jar?

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Steve Dublanica, best-selling author of "Waiter Rant," is back with "Keep the Change," a new book that answers the sensitive questions behind gratuity. In this excerpt, he explains how tipping went from an illegal act in several states to the cultural norm across America.  

Chapter 1
American monster: A brief history of tipping

Before I get to the strippers, let’s try to answer a basic question: Just how much of the American economy is tied up with tipping, and how did it get that way? Before I begin recounting my quest, you need to know how much cash we’re talking about here.

So how much money do Americans plunk down in tips every year? It would be nice if I had a clear answer, but when I started delving into the numbers and statistics I got thoroughly confused. (I knew I should have paid attention in math class.) In desperation, I asked Michael Lynn, a professor at the Cornell University School of Hotel Administration, to help me out. He has been studying tipping for years and has written dozens of papers on the subject. He told me that no one really knows how much Americans spend on gratuities — probably because tipped workers have an unfortunate tendency to underreport their income to the IRS. No surprise there. I know several waiters who’ve had their paychecks garnisheed by the taxman. In fact, the only income that’s more underreported than tips is money earned from illegal activities. I guess drug dealers, pimps and crime syndicates don’t know how to use Quicken software either. But Dr. Lynn gave me some guidance to help me formulate a halfway decent ballpark answer.

In 1982 the IRS commissioned the Survey Research Institute at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign to study tipping. The study is a bit dated, but the most striking feature of that report is its conclusion: that waiters rake in 70 percent of all tips paid out in the United States. Using that 70 percent as a starting point, let’s fast-forward to 2009 and extend the definition of “waiter” to include not only servers working in full-service eateries but also those employees in snack bars, coffee shops, bars, taverns and hotel restaurants who also get tips. According to the National Restaurant Association, 2009 sales at these establishments totaled almost $248 billion.

Image: 'Keep the Change' book jacket

If we multiply that $248 billion by the average tip percentage American waiters receive, we’ll come up with a rough estimate of what they’re tipped per year. Dr. Ofer Azar, an economics professor in Israel who’s also written extensively about tipping, believes this average tip percentage to be 18.8. Dr. Lynn, citing research that shows people often tip a higher percentage on lower bills, thinks Azar’s figure skews too high and suggests the tip percentage to be a more modest 15. Using both men’s numbers to represent the lower and upper range, we can roughly estimate that American servers make between $37.2 and $46.6 billion a year in tips. And since the Survey Research Institute thinks American waiters get 70 percent of the American tip kitty, if we divide those figures by 0.7, we can estimate that all the tipped workers in the United States pull down somewhere between $53.1 and $66.6 billion a year in gratuities. Now, I’m not claiming these numbers are precise, but they give us a rough idea of the amount of money involved.

For the sake of argument, let’s pick the larger of the two figures and say that American workers make about $66 billion a year in tips. That’s almost one half of 1 percent of the U.S. gross domestic product. That doesn’t sound like a lot until you realize that’s as much scratch as Bill Gates and that rich Swede who owns IKEA have, combined. With that kind of money you could buy Uncle Sam fourteen Nimitz-class aircraft carriers per year and still have enough cash left over to buy a small island nation. Americans tip a lot of f-- money.

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So how many Americans work for tips? Again, hard-and-fast figures are not easy to come by. But if you go to the Bureau of Labor Statistics website and add up all the occupations that receive gratuities as part of their compensation — waiter, hotel maid, food delivery person, etc. — you can estimate that roughly 5,021,890 workers are hustling for tips, give or take a few. That’s more than 3 percent of the entire American workforce, more than twice the size of the entire U.S. military!

So tipping is a huge deal in the United States. But it wasn’t always that way. True, records dating back to 1772 show that Thomas Jefferson tipped his slaves. And even George Washington, the guy whose face gets stuffed into millions of outstretched hands (and plenty of tight G-strings) every day, tipped his brother-in-law’s servants in 1768. But in the average commercial life of the United States during the Revolutionary period, tipping was virtually unheard of. So how did tipping get so entrenched in American culture? Before setting out on my quest, my history teacher father advised me, “If you want to know where you’re going, you have to know where you’ve been.” That’s right, everybody, it’s time for a history lesson. Don’t worry. I’ll try to keep it short.

Some scholars argue that tipping originated in the Middle Ages. 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. If you’ve ever ridden on the New York City subway and paid a bum to leave you alone, you know this dynamic is alive and well today. Other scholars believe that tipping began when those feudal lords started giving money to their subjects in recognition of good deeds, to tide them over during times of economic hardship, or as recompense for accidentally burning down their thatched-roof hovels. So tipping began as a type of charity. In fact, the Persian word baksheesh — which means to give alms, to express gratitude, to venerate, or to bribe — also means “to tip.” Tipping today is all those things.

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In the West, the earliest examples of tipping demonstrated a form of “trickle-down economics,” with the aristocracy passing money down to the lower classes. And by the time Henry VIII was busy contracting syphilis in the 1530s, visitors to private homes in England had gotten into the habit of tipping their hosts’ servants in exchange for services above and beyond their normal duties. Thus establishing, according to Kerry Segrave in his book Tipping: An American Social History of Gratuities, “the idea that a tip was given for something extra, either service or effort.”

It wasn’t long before this system of tipping the host’s servants, a practice known as giving “vails,” started to take on a life of its own. Much to the consternation of the upper classes, footmen, valets, and other household servants began to expect their vails as a matter of course, not as a reward for service beyond the call of duty. So when his lordship’s guests were getting ready to leave after a week in the country, they’d find themselves surrounded by a cadre of servants with their hands out. And if you didn’t pay, 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.

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Things got so bad that the gentry whined that it was getting too expensive for them to visit their inbred brethren, and they lobbied to have vails abolished. Some of them even suggested that masters raise their servants’ wages to make up for the shortfall. But these early attempts to corral tipping didn’t go over well, even causing the servants to riot on occasion. Lest you think the vails benefited only the servants, it should be noted that noblemen scammed the system, too. Shifty aristocrats eager to make a buck started fleecing their royal brethren by throwing large parties, with cheap entertainment to keep the overhead down, and then profited by seizing a percentage of the vails their servants received. Though the giving of vails was controversial and often a target of reform, the tradition survived to varying degrees well into the twentieth century. And by the time the sun set on the British Empire, the descendants of these cranky dukes and earls discovered that if they wanted to hang on to their drafty manors, they’d have to open them up to the unwashed masses and sell tickets at the door. Now, that’s ironic.

Tipping didn’t stay down on his lordship’s farm for long. As Europe began adopting a capitalist industrial economy, two things started happening: the number of common folk willing to be servants for the aristocracy decreased, and people flush with higher wages flocked to the cities, where they used restaurants, hotels, and mass transportation. It was then that the vail system mutated into the practice of tipping the help in restaurants and hotels. As more people became able to afford these new luxuries, they encountered more and more servants looking for tips. Whereas tipping was once an issue for wealthy people, the newly emergent middle class discovered that they now had to grease the palms of waiters, maids, and stablemen, just like their titled predecessors. Not everyone was happy with this development. After dining in a restaurant in the middle of the nineteenth century, the Scottish critic Thomas Carlyle wrote, “The dirty scrub of a waiter grumbled about his allowance, which I reckoned liberal. I added a sixpence to it, and [the waiter] produced a bow which I was near rewarding with a kick. Accursed be the race of flunkeys!” Did Carlyle have a bad attitude toward his waiter because he was an a--? Because he was Scottish? No. He had a bad attitude because he was a snob.

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The tasks people performed for their old bosses under the vail system — carrying bags, waiting tables, emptying chamber pots — were deemed menial labor and far below the dignity of the ruling class. So, when the gentry’s former peons started having a few crowns in their pocket, they in turn began to view people who worked for tips in commercial settings as beneath them. This dynamic doesn’t surprise me. Human beings have always had an innate need to feel like they’re one rung above the next guy on the social ladder. When capitalism started making inroads and fewer people toiled inside castles, a void appeared and a new servant class had to be created to fill it. Aping their aristocratic forebears, the new middle class just had to have servants of their own. There’s an old saying: “Somebody has to dig ditches.” Well, someone always has to be the whipping boy; somebody always has to be the slave.

So from the very start of tipping, people viewed giving gratuities as an economic transaction that flowed from the socially superior downward. And if you don’t think this attitude is still prevalent today, you’re smoking crack.

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So, just how did the word tip wiggle its way into our lexicon? One popular myth suggests it originated in the eighteenth century in a London coffee shop patronized by the writer and dictionary man Samuel Johnson. As the story goes, the Fleet Street shop’s employees would put small bowls on the tables marked with the message, “To Insure Prompt Service,” and the customers would periodically throw in a few coins to keep the java flowing. According to this etymological urban legend, people took the first letter of each word in the phrase and reduced it to the acronym TIPS.

The use of the word tip actually predates Samuel Johnson’s coffee shop by at least a couple of centuries. As far back as 1509, Albrecht Dürer, the German painter and printer, wrote a letter asking one of his customers to give his apprentice a trinkgeld, or tip. And the Oxford English Dictionary gives four uses of the word tip prior to Johnson. The 1933 edition of the OED defines the verb tip as “to bestow a small present of money upon (an inferior), esp. upon a servant or employee of another, nominally in return for a service rendered or in order to obtain an extra service,” or as a slang term that originated among thieves meaning to “pass from one to another,” like a stock tip or a racing tip. So, sorry folks, you can’t lay blame for the word tip at the feet of those proto-baristas.

I think the word tip got its start in bars. Feeling guilty that some poor bar wench was working while they were having fun, patrons would assuage their conscience by tossing her a few coins so she could buy herself a drink after work. Don’t we often tell modern bartenders, “Hey, have a drink on me”? And the fact that the word tip is associated with boozing it up in so many languages seems to support this theory. The French word for tip is pourboire, from pour boire, or “for drinking.” The Spanish counterpart, propina, comes from propinar, or “invite to drink,” and the German trinkgeld and the Danish drikkepenge translate into “drink money.” If that’s not enough to convince you, the word tip translates into “drink money” or its near equivalent also in Bosnia, Croatia, the Czech Republic, Finland, Iceland, Israel, Kazakhstan, Latvia, Sweden, and even Vietnam. The word tip could also be the short form of the word tipple, which means to drink — often to excess. And if you saw how waiters use their tips to get hammered after a shift, you’d probably lean toward this explanation of the word’s origins.

So, if tipping started in the Old World, how did it end up in the New? It certainly didn’t come over on the Mayflower, if that’s what you’re thinking. Prior to the Civil War, tipping was rare in America, a fact that caused no small amount of amazement to European travel writers of the day. Ofer Azar suggests that this might have been because America did not yet have a large servant class, and waiters and coachmen considered themselves employees and so were not interested in tips. But when newly rich Americans started traveling to Europe in earnest after the Civil War, they brought the practice back home to show their friends how cosmopolitan and au courant they were. But we also have to remember that post–Civil War America rapidly became a major industrial and economic world power. And as its citizens began earning higher wages, just like their European counterparts, they suddenly had more discretionary income to spend at hotels, in restaurants, and in the new railroad system crisscrossing the United States. But it was when employers discovered that they could use gratuities to pay their workers lower or even no wages at all that tipping really took off.

The company that may have been most responsible for the ubiquity of tipping in America is the Pullman Palace Car Company. Founded by George Pullman in 1867, the company built and staffed luxurious sleeping cars that enabled passengers to ride the country’s expanding railroad system in comfort and style. To cater to these passengers in the decades after Emancipation, the company hired thousands of ex-slaves to work as porters. By the early 1900s, Pullman was the largest employer of black people in America. But George Pullman wasn’t exactly a civil rights leader, mind you. Always seeking to bolster his bottom line, he paid his workers low wages and forced them to rely on tips to survive. And if a porter complained about his compensation, he could quickly find himself out of a job. After the Financial Panic of 1893, a time when many businesses found themselves unwilling to pay any semblance of a living wage, and cut jobs and salaries to keep profits as high as possible, the Pullman Company led the way in 1894 by slashing its employees’ wages by 30 percent. Eventually Pullman’s workers went on strike and, with support from the American Railway Union, led by Eugene Debs, paralyzed the nation’s railways. This caused President Grover Cleveland to send in the army to bust the union, resulting in the deaths of thirteen strikers. After George Pullman died in 1897, the new president of the company was even more antilabor and wage-stingy than his predecessor.

The Pullman Company is one of the earliest examples of a large American company using gratuities to subsidize its workforce and bolster its bottom line. In 1915 the Pullman Company employed 6,500 porters, who made $27.50 a month in wages — bad money even back then. If the porters hadn’t received tips, the company would’ve had to increase their wages to $60 a month just to keep them above subsistence level — which would have added $2,535,000 a year to Pullman’s payroll costs. There wasn’t a snowball’s chance in hell of that ever happening. And even with their tips, Pullman’s porters never came close to making $60 a month.

The Pullman Company shafted their porters because they were poor, black, and easy to exploit. If you think I’m exaggerating about this racist attitude, just read what a Pullman executive said when asked why his company exclusively hired blacks from the South: “The southern Negro is more pleasing to the traveling public,” he said. “He is more adapted to wait on people and serve with a smile.” And if that wasn’t bad enough, the company cynically made sure its passengers knew the porters were underpaid and depended on tips to survive. This led the St. Louis Republic to editorialize, “Other corporations before now have underpaid their employees ... but it remained for the Pullman Company to discover how to work the sympathies of the public in such a manner as to induce the public to make up, by gratuities, for its failure to pay its employees a living wage.” The editorial concluded, “It was the Pullman Company which fastened the tipping habit on the American People and they used the Negro as the instrument to do it.” And can you guess the name of the guy who succeeded Pullman and continued to slavishly force thousands of African American men to rely on tips? Robert Todd Lincoln, the son of the Great Emancipator himself, Honest Abe. You can’t make this stuff up.

Since we’re on the subject of Abe Lincoln, let me put forth a pet theory of mine. Prior to the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation, tipping was rare in this country. But a scant fifty years after the Thirteenth Amendment was enacted, five million American workers were making between $200 million and $500 million in tips. In other words, it took centuries for tipping to develop in Europe, but when it got to America it exploded like the Ebola virus. Why did that happen? Azar, the economics professor, is somewhat incorrect in his suggestion that America didn’t have a large servant class prior to the Civil War. Sure we did — we had slaves. But after they were freed there was suddenly a dearth of cheap labor, and something had to fill the vacuum. And that something was tipping. So when the traveling upper classes imported this nouveau riche habit from Europe, employers such as Pullman were quick to realize they could play on public sympathy to use gratuities to shift part of their payroll burden onto the backs of the American consumer. And since the public had already been conditioned by centuries of slavery to having low-cost servants in their midst, the stage was set for tipping to take hold. It should come as no surprise that the first workers forced to depend on gratuities were ex-slaves. And when millions of immigrants began crashing onto America’s shores in the late 1800s — becoming waiters, barbers, bellhops, and the like — the new system of tipping was in place to exploit them.

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Equating the sudden rise of tipping with the end of slavery may sound controversial, but I’m not the only one who sees this correlation. In 1916 William Rufus Scott, in his antitipping book “The Itching Palm,” wrote, “If it seems astounding that this aristocratic practice should reach such stupendous proportions in a republic, we must remember that the same republic allowed slavery to reach stupendous proportions.” Bill and I are on the same page here. “Whereas the form of servitude is different,” Scott goes on to write, “the slavery is none the less real in the case of the tip taker.”

Still, tipping wasn’t exactly welcomed with open arms. Believing this aristocratic practice was antithetical to the egalitarian ideals of our Founding Fathers (conveniently forgetting that they not only owned slaves, but tipped them!), some do-gooders openly agitated against the practice. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, antitipping leagues with names like the Society for the Prevention of Useless Giving, the Anti-Tipping Society of America, and the Commercial Travelers National League, called upon hotel owners and restaurateurs to end this “pernicious practice” and start paying their workers a living wage. And while some establishments experimented with service charges and “tipless” restaurants and hotels, they were not exactly keen on the idea. “Please do not tip unless you feel like it,” one such “reforming” hotelier wrote in a circular he gave out to his guests. “But, if you do tip, let your tipping be yielding to a genuine desire — not conforming to an outrageous custom.” Sounds kind of wishy-washy to me.

To be fair, I’m sure some of those owners were genuine in their high-minded ideals — but I suspect most of the others were not. Tipping was popular not just because it allowed operators to lower labor costs, but also because it gave them an opportunity to line their own pockets! Remember how those dukes and earls in Europe stole vails from their servants? The same thing started happening the moment tipping appeared in America. Take bellhops in New York City hotels in the early 1900s, for example. Back then most hotels didn’t keep bellhops on the payroll to take care of the guests’ luggage; they outsourced the work to a private contractor, a head porter, who supplied all the baggage carts and hired the personnel. So the bellhops worked for the head porter, not for the hotel. The head porter paid the bellhops a measly twenty-five dollars a month to work twelve-hour days and provided them meals from the hotel restaurant. In return, however, the bellhops were forced to give the head porter all the tips they received from guests — even though the guests operated under the assumption that the bellhops kept the money. If a bellhop kept a tip or committed the faux pas of handing a tip to the head porter in front of a guest, he could be fired. This cozy arrangement allowed the head porter to make scads of money while his workers toiled for less than a dollar a day. Eventually the bellhops got sick of this system, unionized, went on strike, and forced hotels to put them on the payroll and let them keep their own tips.

Another tip-stealing scam occurred in hotel coatrooms. In 1906, outside concessions would pay hotels more than $300 a month to check guests’ hats and coats, and in return, the concessionaire got to keep all the tips the checkers collected. Again, guests tipped a coat-check girl assuming she would keep the gratuity. But just like those head porters, the concession owners were keeping all the tips for themselves and paying the girls a pittance. As Segrave notes, in order to make sure they Hoovered up every last nickel, it was a common practice for owners to give an appointed “head” a leather pouch in which he or she would deposit all the gratuities received for checking coats and hats. This head also spied on the coatroom workers to ensure that every dime they got in tips went into the pouch. Nice, huh? What would they have thought about video cameras? And if this wasn’t enough, they issued the girls uniforms with no pockets so there was no chance they could squirrel away a tip. I hope some of them stuck coins in their bras.

The same greedy shenanigans occurred in restaurants. In the 1920s, waitresses at Alice Foote’s McDougall Coffee Shop in New York not only received no wages, but they had to pay the establishment ten dollars a week for the privilege of working there, and subsist on tips alone. By the time they paid out their weekly bribe, they had little left for themselves. Some restaurateurs helped themselves to all the waiters’ tips and paid them back a fraction of what the customers gave them. The practice became so pervasive that in 1939 the state of Nevada passed a law requiring employers who took tips given to workers to publicly post signs to that effect.

While modern labor laws are a bit fuzzy, it’s generally illegal for tips to be diverted from workers who earn them to pay the wages of those who don’t. For example, in many states it’s verboten for a restaurant to use a portion of their servers’ tips to pay individuals not directly involved with waiting tables. But it happens all the time! I know a restaurant in New Jersey where the owner uses the threat of termination to force his waiters to kick back a percentage of their gratuities to the kitchen staff. And I know another well-regarded restaurant just outside New York City where the owner paid his brother’s managerial salary by giving him a full cut from the waiters’ tip pool. Both of these owners flagrantly violated their states’ labor laws. The practice of tipping gives unscrupulous owners the chance to “double-dip.” Not only are their labor costs reduced, but some owners have come to regard tips as their own personal revenue stream. Starting with felonious nobility in the Middle Ages to restaurants today, wherever you find gratuities you’ll find criminality. This reality led antitipping crusader William Rufus Scott to write, “Tipping is the training school of graft.”

Realizing they weren’t going to make any inroads with hotel and restaurant owners, the antitipping wonks did what any self-respecting fringe group does: they used the political system. At first they had some success. Political figures such as President William Howard Taft became the “patron saint” of the anti-tipping crusade, and before long the states of Arkansas, Iowa, Mississippi, South Carolina, Tennessee, and Washington had all passed laws prohibiting employees from accepting or soliciting gratuities. In some localities it was illegal for a customer even to try giving a tip. If you tipped a waiter in Tennessee in 1915 you could be fined twenty-five dollars! But the business owners bitched and lobbied their representatives, and by the late 1920s all these laws were off the books. They would never return. And the antitipping leagues? They faded into obscurity.

It is no surprise that many tipped workers weren’t keen on surviving on tips. In 1909 unionized waiters in New York decided to fight the practice of tipping by refusing gratuities and insisting on being paid a minimum wage of $2.50 a day. And in 1911 the International Hotel Workers Union went on record demanding “higher wages and no necessity of depending on tips.” Of course all this talk meant management would have to pay their employees more money, which, not surprisingly, they were unwilling to do. They had gotten used to the free lunch and weren’t budging. So the waiters were caught between a rock and a hard place. If they didn’t accept tips out of pride but weren’t paid a living wage, they’d go hungry. So, economic pressure forced them to accept gratuities. “The tip makes of you a malicious, envious hateful creature,” one agitated waiter remarked. “But we cannot do away with it just yet.” Samuel Gompers, the legendary union leader, applauded these servers’ efforts, claiming that waiters who still wanted to work for tips had the moral makeup of “pirates.”

I think early efforts to curtail tipping failed for two reasons. For one thing, many customers liked giving tips. America has always deluded itself into believing it is a classless society. Not so. The nation may have outlawed royal titles at its founding, but we quickly replaced titled peerages with the aristocracy of wealth. Remember, tipping began its rise during the Gilded Age, a time when men like John D. Rockefeller, Andrew Carnegie, Andrew Mellon, and John Pierpont Morgan were treated like rock stars — the Bill Gateses and Warren Buffets of their day. (In fact, if you adjust for inflation, they had even more money than Bill and Warren!) Americans were in love with money. And just like our celebrity-crazed culture today, people back then, even if they didn’t have the resources of a Morgan or Rockefeller, wanted to lead rock-star lives. Tipping can give people the momentary illusion that they belong to a higher class of people. This drove William Rufus Scott crazy. “Tipping, and the aristocratic idea it exemplifies,” he wrote, “is what we left Europe to escape.” He added: “In a republic where all men were supposed to be equal, some cannot be superior until they grind other men into dust. Tipping comes into a democracy to provide that relation.”

The other reasons the effort to curtail tipping failed is much simpler: fear and sympathy. Revenge against bad tippers didn’t end with footmen spraining horses or dripping gravy on some wigged fop’s breeches. Early waiters were quick to develop the time-honored practices that modern servers still use to admonish parsimonious customers today — insolence, bad service, seating people by the toilet, losing reservations, and throwing bad tips back at them. By 1918, Chicago waiters had gotten into the habit of slipping “Mickey Finns,” composed of antimony and potassium tartrate, into the food and drink of bad tippers, a concoction that caused headaches, nausea, dizziness, depression, vomiting, and, in at least three cases, death! The mere suggestion of vengeance is the waiter’s personal nuclear option. Fear keeps the masses in line and paying up.

Also, Americans are a generous people. And when they realized that workers depended on tips to survive, this was a direct challenge to their sense of generosity. Many people tip out of sympathy for the workingman, and companies such as Pullman exploited that sense of compassion. As giving gratuities became an established custom, customers — whether they liked tipping or not — wanted to avoid appearing mean-spirited and cheap, so they ponied up.

So, snobbery, fear, and sympathy burned tipping into the American psyche as a social norm a century ago. And publishers of the era printed countless etiquette books and tipping guides, further fixing the practice in the public’s mind.

Still, despite tipping’s widespread acceptance, Americans have always been ambivalent about it. Even after antitipping laws and organizations got tossed onto the dust heap of history, media outlets continued to rail against the giving of gratuities. In 1925 the New York Times wrote that “a stranger coming to New York on business considers life here to be one tip after another,” and declared that hoteliers and restaurateurs had no one to blame but themselves, as it was “they who have helped build up the tipping idea.” And in 1946,

Life magazine editorialized, “The old thin dime isn’t what it used to be. A national nuisance should be eliminated.” Calling tipping a modern evil, the editorial stated that tipping “tends to stratify the social structure. It places a price tag on servility — or scurrility.” “A worse indictment of tipping,” the editorial went on to say, “is the fact it causes living standards of large and important groups of workers to reflect with immediate and often acute sensitiveness every fluctuation in the state of business. One day waiters and redcaps, barbers and bellboys are princes — the next, paupers.” Oh, man, I know that dynamic well.

Tipping aggravates people like nobody’s business, and it sells papers. This frenzy has taken on a whole new life with the Internet. And while countless websites have been created by servers to promote good tipping habits, there are just as many websites and blog posts that slam the practice. Just look at this random posting from 2009: I hate tipping ... Tipping is stupid. Think about it. Restaurant employees get paid a b.s. salary because the employers expect them to make up the remainder of their salary based on tips. That is ridiculous. How about Applebees or whatever mom-and-pop eatery you go to pay its employees a full wage be it the minimum or higher that’s their business, and stop expecting ME to pay their employees’ salaries.

The sentiments expressed in that post echo the opinions penned by those old newspapermen in the first half of the twentieth century. Like bell-bottoms and platform shoes, anger over tipping has become fashionable again.

Ambivalence about tipping was present at the start and is still very much with us today. Many of us who say we’re good tippers secretly loathe those tip jars. And the same old games are still being played. Tipped workers are still getting ripped off, and just like Carlyle back in the 1800s, many people look upon tipped workers as inferior beings. Whether it’s emptying chamber pots or waiting tables today, nothing much has really changed.

Today, tipping is a multibillion-dollar monster with millions of people in its clutches. Taking root in the post-slavery economy of the Gilded Age, it was fertilized by exploitation, confusion, resentment, and avarice, and it spread like a virulent weed in less than fifty years. We took an Old World tradition and turned it into something bigger and badder than our European cousins could ever have imagined. Now tipping is a huge part of the American economy — but we still view it with deep ambivalence. That’s not surprising: we started out as an ambivalent country. At our founding we declared that “all men are created equal,” but we still kept other people as property. Today we have a black president, but about 24 percent of African Americans still live below the poverty line. We have always been good about having two minds about something and living with the tension that creates. The same applies to tipping.

As I start my journey toward tipping guruhood I feel like I’m standing on the edge of a dark and dangerous wood. Tipping is an undiscovered country, a frontier poorly understood and barely mapped out. What will I find? Will I like what I see? Will people really tell me what they think about tipping? I can’t shake the feeling that a creature of unimaginable power lies in wait to devour me. Taking a deep breath, I strap on my sword and, like Beowulf, Frodo, or Luke Skywalker before me, leap headfirst into the cloud of unknowing.

Excerpted with permission from “Keep The Change: A Clueless Tipper’s Quest to Become the Guru of the Gratuity,” by Steve Dublanica. © 2010 Ecco.

© 2012 MSNBC Interactive


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