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The Quad: Exploring the origins, evolution of tipping culture in America

While most Americans may find tipping to be customary, the practice is not free from drawbacks. (Sakshi Joglekar/Daily Bruin staff)

By Amanda Houtz

Jan. 26, 2021 9:25 p.m.

Tipping may just be as much a part of American culture as football or the credence that bigger is better.

But though it might be fun to imagine Benjamin Franklin and George Washington leaving a tip after having a pint at City Tavern in Philadelphia, it probably didn’t happen. In fact, the Founding Fathers’ tavern days were close to 100 years ahead of the custom.

The norm of adding gratuity to one’s bill came to the United States by way of well-off Americans traveling to and from Europe in the 1850s and 1860s. Americans, apparently inspired by the European tradition in which a servant would receive extra money for exceptional service, brought tipping back home with them.

The practice of tipping, however, was not met by most Americans with open arms. Diners raised complaints of classism, wondering how poor Americans could be asked to pay even more for their food. The anti-tipping sentiment in the U.S. was so strong in the 1860s that the aversion spread all the way to Europe.

Despite this initial rejection of tipping, paying gratuity gained traction in the U.S. in the post-Civil War era. Specifically, having people tip was a way for employers to avoid paying wages to former slaves working in restaurants or railroads.

Though the act of paying gratuity would continue to receive pushback through the early 1900s, the practice solidified ­over time – especially as restaurant owners realized the financial benefits of the system.

Now, a century later, tipping has once again been brought into the spotlight by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Since the onset of the pandemic, going into restaurants and leaving a tip is not something Los Angeles County residents are frequently doing. In fact, in-person dining in LA County has been suspended since Nov. 25.

However, LA County plans to reopen outdoor dining Friday, which will also open up more opportunities to tip. Plus, any visit to a coffee shop or placing a takeout order is enough to make clear that tipping is alive and well – but is this the preference of most consumers?

On the bright side of tipping, it can be a great source of income for service workers.

Nat Gammad, a third-year psychology student and employee of Duffl, said she makes about $11 to $30 in tips per hour.

“I guess I’d say that college students are pretty good at tipping,” Gammad said.

Gammad added that the objective of impressing customers in an effort for tips keeps her alert on the job and motivates her to work harder.

Sausthava Malakar, a first-year pre-data theory student, said there is value in tipping on a wide range of services, as it can make employees feel valued by the customers.

But depending on the base salary of an employee, tipping can range from a nice perk to a necessity.

The federal minimum cash wage for tipped workers is $2.13. This number is calculated with the intent of tips filling in the gap to meet the federal minimum wage of $7.25. However, an investigation of 9,000 restaurants by the U.S. Department of Labor’s Wage and Hour Division found that there were almost 1,200 violations of this requirement.

Today, the preexisting issues faced by tipped workers have only been exacerbated by the pandemic. Public health orders throughout the country have shut down restaurants at one point or another, depriving workers of the tips they would usually receive.

Even in places where restaurants are open, likely fewer customers may tip less if they have been financially impacted by the pandemic.

[Related: The Quad: Despite COVID-19, brunch culture in LA hasn’t become toast just yet]

Though tipping is often viewed as a helpful act – especially during times of financial instability – it is not without its problems.

Zachary Brewster, an associate sociology professor at Wayne State University, has written about racialized workplaces and consumer racial profiling. Brewster said servers, especially in places where expressed anti-Black bias is prevalent, are more likely to deliver Black customers inferior service. This, Brewster said, is the reason why Black customers tip slightly less than white customers on average.

“From my perspective, being somebody whose research agenda really is centered on race and ethnic inequities within the context of the restaurant industry, … tipping does nothing but allow servers basically to express their dislike towards Black customers in a colorblind way,” Brewster said.

This discrimination goes the other way, too. Another study found that Black service workers also get tipped less than white service providers.

So, where does this leave the practice?

There are some who believe tipping needs to be abolished. On top of the issues of racial discrimination and a strikingly low federal wage minimum, a Slate article points out another issue that might capture the attention of restaurant owners: expensive lawsuits from tip violations.

The idea of significantly dialing back tipping is not hard to fathom, especially when considering an international perspective.

Malakar, who is currently living in Dubai, said tipping in Dubai is confined mostly to restaurants, with the option to tip taxi drivers.

Additionally, a Business Insider article listed 12 countries where tipping customs are much less pronounced than in the U.S. According to the article, tipping is not expected in restaurants in Denmark because workers receive good wages and additional benefits.

But Malakar is from India, and recalled that – at least as of five years ago – tipping was common for a wider variety of services.

At the very least, if other countries are instructive, tipping is not required for a successful service sector.

Regardless of your opinion on tipping, the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on the service sector make the neighborly act of appreciation all the more important for the time being.

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Amanda Houtz | Quad editor
Houtz was the editor of The Quad during summer and fall quarter 2020. She was previously a staff writer for The Quad. She is a third-year political science student from Los Angeles.
Houtz was the editor of The Quad during summer and fall quarter 2020. She was previously a staff writer for The Quad. She is a third-year political science student from Los Angeles.
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