Where did tipping culture in the United States come from?

June 24, 2023
1 min read
couple, cafe, outdoors

From sit-down restaurants to take out restaurants and even the self-checkout line, tipping expectations are increasing throughout the United States.

Whether you believe tipping culture is out of control right now or feel additional tipping is warranted, it may surprise you to know that tipping first gained prominence among the wealthy and only made its way to the middle class in the last 50 years as a way for restaurants to pay workers less money.

Origins of Tipping

The concept of tipping has roots in Europe and was initially a practice reserved for the wealthy. It was common for them to “tip” their servants or butlers for exceptional service at their discretion.

In the 1800s, the concept of tipping made its way to the United States, primarily via wealthy patrons of restaurants and hotels.

Tipping as a Practice

Tipping gained prominence among the wealthy during Prohibition in the 1920s. Because alcohol was illegal, many restaurants saw a decline in business. To counter this, they began promoting dining out as a more sophisticated experience.

They encouraged diners to tip their servers, who would ensure that the meal was served with the utmost discretion.

As such, tipping was considered a lavish practice, reserved only for the wealthy and those who could afford to dine out. However, as the workforce began to change and more people began to work in those industries, the idea of tipping became more mainstream.

The Evolution of Tipping

The 1950s and 1960s saw the rise of the restaurant and hospitality industries. To keep restaurant costs low, many business owners began paying their servers less. The practice of tipping began to take root as a way for servers to earn more money.

According to an article published by Eater, the National Restaurant Association lobbied for and successfully passed a provision that allowed restaurants to pay their tipped workers less than the minimum wage in 1996. Before the bill was passed, tipped workers were paid the same minimum wage as non-tipped workers.

After the bill was passed, the tipped minimum wage was frozen at $2.13 per hour, where it remains today.

According to a report by the Economic Policy Institute, the median hourly wage for servers in the United States, including tips, was $11.42 in 2019, while the median hourly wage for non-tipped workers was $18.58. However, the report notes that the tipped minimum wage has not kept pace with inflation, resulting in a decline in purchasing power for tipped workers.

Today, tipping is considered to be a social norm in many countries including the United States. The amount that is expected varies depending on the industry and the quality of the service, with the typical range falling between 15% and 20% of the total bill.

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