Restaurant Tipping

07 Mar 2022

A History of Restaurant Tipping and the Driving Force Behind it

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Isabel Carter

For a long time, tipping a service staff at an establishment was seen as a sign of generosity and gratuity. And while tipping is not a mandatory requirement, it's a common practice in nearly every restaurant in America.

For the vast majority of the country's hospitality workforce, tipping helps supplement their income considerably. But what are the driving social forces behind tipping, and why do we tip? Most importantly, how did tipping become an indispensable part of American culture? We set out to discover the origin of tipping and how it became embraced in America as a way of life. Let's dive in.

Restaurant Tipping: Where It All Began

Most people consider tipping a normal part of the American dining experience. Most people are accustomed to leaving a few dollars or change on top of the bill after eating out. But tipping is a practice that dates back to the middle ages as a European custom.

Michael Lynn, professor at the Cornell University School of Hotel Administration, asserts that the practice of tipping in the United States became widespread shortly after the American Civil War at the end of the 1800s. Lynn observed that Americans who traveled to Europe brought the aristocratic tipping culture to the United States as a way of "showing off" or "proving" their advanced education and class.

According to Professor Lynn, the practice was gradually embraced across the county's taverns and dining halls. It faced considerable opposition in the 1890s from a section of the American society who felt that the practice contradicted the country's ideals and encouraged what they called a "clear servile class" that would depend on the wealthy class financially.

Tipping is considered to have originated in the taverns of England around the 17th century. Patrons who frequented these taverns would give the waiter money 'to insure promptitude' hence the word T.I.P.

The Driving Force Behind Restaurant Tipping

There could be five primary reasons why a customer would want to tip a waiter at a restaurant. Such motives include:

  • Showing off their generosity or financial level;
  • Extending financial support to supplement a restaurant worker's income whose earnings (a customer believes) may not be sustainable;
  • Tipping to gain loyalty or future favors;
  • Tipping to avoid disapproval or to avoid being seen as not conforming to what is seen as a culture;
  • Offering tips because a customer feels a sense of duty or gratitude to reward good service.

While there are many reasons why a customer would let a waiter keep the change, it's the last motivation -- gratuity -- that's always the strongest and most common.

Yet it's interesting to note that among those who leave tips after eating out, the majority often leave poor ratings for the quality of service rendered.

To mean that gratitude may not be a significant motivation for tipping after all, and most do it to fit in or to conform. And that brings us to the heightened opposition to the tipping culture in America, something critics term as " servile attitude for a fee."

A Servile Attitude For A Fee

Tipping received considerable opposition in the country around 1897. An anti-tipping movement was launched where its critics claimed that tipping was a "vile imported vice" because it promoted the aristocratic class at a time when the country was fighting to eliminate a class-oriented society and promote social equality.

Unfortunately, the move did little to discourage the tipping culture after six states, including Illinois, Tennessee, Nebraska, Iowa, and South Carolina, failed to pass the anti-tipping bill in 1915.

The following year, author William Scott wrote "The Itching Palm," where he expressed his loathing for the policy of paying twice for a single service. Logically, he was right, considering that you pay both the employer and the employee when you pay the bill and then tip.

Scott described the tipping culture as "democracy's mortal foe" because American democracy considers servility to be incompatible with citizenship. Every tip slipped to a waiter was a blow to the advancement in democracy.

To the rest of the world, the practice was a declaration that the society does not believe that "all men are created equal." So, a culture that does not encourage a waiter to be a gentleman or considers a service menial does not support democracy and instead supports aristocracy.

Therefore, if tipping is against American beliefs and values, then it was only logical that it be uprooted the same way African slavery was uprooted. Today, little to no effort has been made to curb tipping despite combined complaints from diners and servers.

Restaurant Tipping Could Be Here To Stay

As things stand, there are no proposed legislative efforts whatsoever to discourage tipping or any form of employee incentive. And the current dynamics of tipping are that restaurants would need to introduce higher menu prices to eliminate tipping.

Let's face it; no serious American diner would want to pay extra on top of high menu prices and service charges. Not unless they want to appear like they are helping the server or to show off how financially endowed they are. Or perhaps to demonstrate that they feel the server did a commendable job.

Yet this practice has its repercussions, as we have seen. Those who introduced tipping in America did so out of pride, and it became a culture that has since made many feel burdened.

Again, once some people start tipping (assuming someone will stop it), others will join, and it will continue as social pressure. And more people will succumb to this pressure, including those who would otherwise not tip. Then it will become a vicious cycle that may not stop anytime soon.


Some cultures like tipping are inherent. It's not possible to eradicate a particular practice that has been around for over a century despite its history—not forgetting the benefits it brings to employees. Therefore, we can tell that tipping isn't going anywhere. If anything, it's a motivation factor for most restaurant employees. So unless restaurant owners develop anti-tipping policies in their establishments, tipping could be here to stay. Read more about tipping and employee incentives from our knowledge base. Contact us today for more inquiries.