"The Exploitative History of Tipping in America" by Shreya Senthilkumar
I’m at my local boba shop, ordering my favorite drink: purple taro milk tea. The cashier smiles as she types in my order, eventually flipping the white iPad around and letting me insert my credit card in the scanner below. As soon as I remove my card, the iPad prompts me to select how much I want to tip. On the other side of the counter, the cashier watches me expectantly, and I feel a strange sense of guilt as I hover my finger over the tip options. How much should I tip? Do I even need to?
In situations like these, tipping has become controversial. Many argue that tipping isn’t necessary in a world of fast-food and quick service. After all, why tip when all the cashier did was take your order and spin the iPad around? However, servers and others in the restaurant industry have pointed out that their jobs are much more complicated than “spinning around an iPad” and that tips are crucial for providing them with a livable wage.
And while I agree that tipping is necessary and courteous, I began to wonder how it even became this important. While tipping has long been a custom in the US, so many countries have survived without it. How did tipping manage to become so prevalent in American restaurants in the first place, and why do servers in America need to rely on tips at all?
Curious about its origins, I did a deep-dive into the practice of tipping. Tipping originated in feudal Europe, with serfs/servants receiving extra money from their masters if they performed their tasks well. This system of “noblesse oblige” was brought over to the US in the 1850s and 1860s by American travelers. By tipping in the US, these travelers hoped to seem more “aristoricatic.”
Unsurprisingly, many diners were against tipping; it felt unnecessary to ask customers to pay extra on top of the cost of their meal. Tipping was quickly considered a classist and patronizing practice by the public, and this wave of anti-tip sentiment was powerful enough to reach Europe as well.
However, while Europe eventually did away with tipping, America’s anti-tip movement began to slow down in the mid-1860s. Following the Civil War, many African-American slaves were freed and began to take on jobs as servants, watiers, and railroad porters in order to make a living. Sadly, many railroad companies and restaurants were reluctant to pay their new workers. Instead of giving them proper wages, these companies used the tipping system to their advantage; they paid their workers nothing, expecting them to rely on tips from guests as compensation. This loophole allowed tipping to gain traction in a predominantly racist southern America, even as it was banned in many states. Ultimately, all bans on tipping were undone by 1926, allowing tipping to become commonplace across the country.
Since then, only a few laws have been made in regards to tipped workers. In 1966, a “subminimum” wage for tipped workers was introduced. This required tipped employees to be paid at least $2.13 per hour, and the money they received in tips was expected to push them over the minimum wage line. If employees didn’t receive enough tip money to fulfill this, employers were expected to pay the difference. This system is still used in 43 states today.
Yet this system, alongside other issues, is part of the reason why tipping has become problematic for workers in the restaurant industry. Many restaurants have abused the system by failing to pay their employees the money required to push them over the minimum-wage line. From 2010 to 2012 alone, it was reported that 84% of full-service restaurants had committed wage/hour violations regarding this. The subminimum wage has also made servers overly dependent on tips, which creates pressure for them to put up with sexual harrassment and other harmful behaviors from customers. In fact, in states with a subminimum wage, women restaurant workers report experiencing sexual harrasment twice as much as those in states with a full minimum wage.
Racism and beauty standards also disproportionately affect women of color. Some studies have found that women who rated themselves as “conventionally attractive” (blonde, tall, thin, etc.) received more tips than those who didn’t. Many black servers have also been reported to recieve less tips compared to their white counterparts, even if they both performed at the same level of service.
“Once upon a time, I thought that it was perfectly appropriate for restaurant workers to earn less than minimum wage,” Michelle Alexander wrote in her New York Times Opinion piece, Tipping Is a Legacy of Slavery. “...Never did it occur to me that it was fundamentally unjust for me to earn less than the minimum wage and to depend on the good will of strangers in order to earn what was guaranteed by law to most workers.”
Alexander, who is currently a published author and civil rights advocate, had worked in a burger and burrito restaurant during her college years. In her New York Times article, she describes how her tips were usually dictated by sexism and racism rather than the quality of her service. She also details how she felt pressured to go along with harassment from customers in order to gain tips.
“Men of all ages commented on my looks, asked me if I had a boyfriend, slipped me their phone numbers, and expected me to laugh along with their sexist jokes,” she wrote. “I often played along, after learning from experience that the price of resistance would be the loss of tips that I had rightfully earned.”
Clearly, America’s tipping system is rooted in slavery and exploitation, and it continues to harm women and people of color in the restaurant industry today. So, what exactly has been done to undo this? While seven states have already removed the subminimum wage for tipped workers, efforts are being made to expand this legislation nationally. The Raise the Wage Act, which was passed in the House of Representatives in 2019, is a bill that would raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour and eliminate subminimum wages for tipped and disabled workers. While this bill was included in President Biden’s Covid Relief Package, it has not yet been passed into federal law. However, there are still many organizations, such as One Fair Wage and Restaurant Opportunities Center United, that have been advocating for fair wages in the restaurant industry and are working to advance state legislation to remove subminimum wages.
But until then, be sure to leave a tip for your servers (especially if you’re dining in). I’m sure they would appreciate it.
Alexander, Michelle. “Tipping Is a Legacy of Slavery.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 5 Feb. 2021, www.nytimes.com/2021/02/05/opinion/minimum-wage-racism.html.
Greenspan, Rachel E. “How Americans Tip at Restaurants Has a Troubling History.” Time, Time, 29 Apr. 2021, time.com/5404475/history-tipping-american-restaurants-civil-war/
“Home.” One Fair Wage, 2 Mar. 2022, onefairwage.site/.
“Why Americans Can't Quit Tipping.” NPR, NPR, 20 Feb. 2019, www.npr.org/transcripts/696421086.
Shreya Senthilkumar (she/her) is currently a high school student living in North Carolina. She is a staff writer for her school’s newspaper and a blog writer for a local music camp. This year, she plans to publish her writing for an international audience. When she is not writing, she can be found wandering around Barnes and Noble or managing her school’s calligraphy club. You can follow her on Twitter @http_shreya.