TIPPING, LIKE MANY sources of profound discomfort, originated in Europe. The custom arrived here from Continental hotels and restaurants, just before the turn of the 20th century. And sweet Lord, it was awful. You have no idea. “Offensively un-American and positively uneconomic,” Gunton’s Magazine called it. People were handing money to other people arbitrarily, thus undermining the quid pro quo, capitalist horse sense of the American work ethic, not to mention the entire idea of income. Tipping turned wages—something dependable and coherent—into something fluttery and flexible. A worker’s livelihood now depended, in part, on the momentary whims of the rich.
“Tipping, and the aristocratic idea it exemplifies, is what we left Europe to escape. It is a cancer in the breast of democracy,” wrote a certain William Scott in 1916. In a 28,000-word screed called The Itching Palm—itching for a handout, he meant—Scott labored to lay out a “full statement of the case against tipping.” (And, no kidding, he really came at it from every angle. Chapters included: “The Economics of Tipping,” “The Ethics of Tipping,” “The Psychology of Tipping,” “The Literature of Tipping,” and so on.) Tipping, Scott explained, was “a moral disease” that robbed workers of their self-respect. A tip is merely “what one American is willing to pay to induce another American to acknowledge inferiority,” he wrote. “The price of pride.”
Around the country, hotels and other businesses began advertising no-tipping policies. One New York hotel manager vowed to fire any hatcheck girl who accepted a tip, and true to his word he fired several in quick succession. Soon a movement of “tipless barbers” was afoot. The Anti-Tipping Society of America joined the fray, followed by the Anti-Gimme League. Also the Society for the Prevention of Useless Giving. You get the point. Still, writes Kerry Segrave in Tipping: An American Social History of Gratuities, “none of these initiatives made so much as a small dent in the custom.” Tipping would not die.
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