When Tipping Was Considered Deeply Un-American

The news today is filled with stories about how people are getting fed up with tipping. It turns out that there’s a long history of Americans raging against the gratuity system. In fact, to tip or not to tip constitutes one of the oldest and nastiest debates surrounding America’s restaurant business. When tipping began to spread in post-Civil War America, it was labeled “a cancer in the breast of democracy,” “a gross and offensive caricature of mercy,” and — the most common insult — “offensively un-American.” For their part, Europeans were infuriated by Americans who ruined the rates by over-tipping. Author and political commentator William F. Buckley, Jr. was in the habit of leaving scandalously lavish tips for the staff of the Swiss chateau he rented in the 1980s, and millionaires John D. Rockefeller and Andrew Carnegie were stingy tippers. For his part, author and humorist Mark Twain was in the habit of refusing to tip. The public grumbled incessantly about being at the mercy of surly waiters who did their jobs only when bribed. The issue of tipping came to a boil in 1915, when Iowa, South Carolina and Tennessee passed anti-tipping laws, joining Washington, Mississippi and Arkansas, states that had already passed similar laws. Georgia soon followed. However, by 1926, all the anti-tipping laws were repealed, largely because it was seen as futile to police something that had gained a momentum of its own. The crux of the matter has always been low wages paid to servers, making them dependent on tipping. Tipping remains a deeply divisive issue, but the irony is that though Americans imported the tipping custom from Europe, many countries across the pond have done away with tipping altogether.