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'Throughline': Why Tipping In The U.S. Took Off After The Civil War


More than 100,000 restaurants have gone out of business since last March. Servers who've been able to keep their jobs are now relying on tips more than ever, despite the fact that some people are actually tipping less. Reform efforts are underway, especially in the 43 states where tipped workers earn subminimum wages as low as $2.13 an hour. Today, Rund Abdelfatah and Ramtin Arablouei at NPR's history podcast Throughline bring us a story of how tipping went from being considered wholly un-American to becoming a deeply American custom.


RAMTIN ARABLOUEI: Tipping began in the Middle Ages in Europe when people lived under the feudal system. It didn't take off in the U.S. until after the Civil War, when millions of formerly enslaved people became part of the workforce.

NINA MARTYRIS: Suddenly, there were millions of young men, old men, young women, older women who now were free but had no jobs. They didn't have land.

RUND ABDELFATAH: This is Nina Martyris, a freelance journalist who has written about the history of tipping in the U.S.

MARTYRIS: And at about this time, restaurant owners who began to open up in Chicago, New York, et cetera, looking for cheap labor began to hire them in their restaurants as restaurant workers, as waiters and cooks and things like that. And they didn't pay them because this tipping system had come in, and they had to make their wage through tips.

ABDELFATAH: Many Americans hated tipping, calling the practice racist, aristocratic, antilabor, demeaning. Anti-tipping laws went on the books in a handful of states, but they were almost impossible to enforce. And then in 1916, one man made one final attempt to end tipping with the ultimate anti-tipping manifesto - "The Itching Palm."

MARTYRIS: It's just the most famous polemic against tipping. Everyone quotes it.

ARABLOUEI: Written by a man named William Rufus Scott, it was...

MARTYRIS: This absolutely scathing diatribe against tipping. The first chapter was called "Flunkyism In America." And he says there are 5 million itching palms in America, and it went on from there.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Reading) The theory of Americanism requires that every citizen shall possess this quality. Tipping is the price of pride. It is what one American is willing to pay to induce another American to acknowledge inferiority. It represents the root of aristocracy budding anew in the hearts of those who publicly renounce the system and all its works.

MARTYRIS: He went on about it being un-American, a moral malady, all kinds of things, a new form of slavery - he called it that. He said, accepting a tip is like being a slave.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Reading) The relation of a man giving a tip and a man accepting it is as undemocratic as the relation of master and slave. This is elementary...

ABDELFATAH: To make his point, Scott quoted the Declaration of Independence and the Bible.

MARTYRIS: The two big books in America and for tips, he - wherever the word gifts occurs in the Bible, that's like a tip, you know, like a free gift, the whole thing of tip being a free thing. So, for instance, from Exodus - and thou shalt take no gift for the gift blinded the wise and perverted the words of the righteous. A gift destroyed the heart. And then from Luke - and he said unto them, take heed and beware of covetousness - so, you know, to be covetous, to be greedy, to want gratuities, to want tips. He uses the Bible to rant against it.

ARABLOUEI: Or almost like a bribe.


ARABLOUEI: But that's the way he was characterizing it.

MARTYRIS: Yes, absolutely. He said it was a bribe. So our friend William Scott says that the whole system of tipping is like piracy. It holds you ransom. Unless I pay you a tip, you won't do your job. So he calls them like pirates, essentially. And then on the other hand, he says tipping reduces them to meek, fawning, flunkey inferiors. So they - at one level, they're pirates. And at the other level, they're also meek, fawning, servile. So he slams them both ways.

ABDELFATAH: Yeah, he's not mincing words. He's being very...

MARTYRIS: No, he's not.


MARTYRIS: (Laughter).

ABDELFATAH: Yeah - who the villains are in this equation.

MARTYRIS: Yes. Oh, definitely. It's the most famous piece of literature against tipping in America. And he calls America the land of the fee, not the land of the free, so his little pun. He says, oh, it's the land of the fee because everywhere you have to pay a little fee. Yeah.

ABDELFATAH: And what does the actual - the itching palm, what is that, like, supposed to represent?

MARTYRIS: It's supposed to represent the worst thing of all - your hand outstretched, you know? You're panhandling. Your hand is outstretched and it's itching for this, for those coins to be dropped in it. It's such a horrible, demeaning phrase.

ARABLOUEI: It almost seems like the focus is all on the philosophical validity of the action of tipping...

MARTYRIS: Yes, yes.

ARABLOUEI: ...Without much concern about the people being impacted and without the - what I'm saying, the focus wasn't as much on the people being impacted. And it was more about this, like, kind of, you know - I don't know - 10,000-foot-level philosophical debate about the soul of Americans, et cetera.


ARABLOUEI: But at the heart of it, there is an objection at what many people believe to be an exploitative labor practice.


ARABLOUEI: So the reasons were complex and maybe off, but the purpose was to alleviate this exploitation.

MARTYRIS: Of course. Definitely. For instance, the itching palm, that was the backbone of his argument, that these workers should be paid properly. That's the only way tipping will ever be ended. And then his last chapter, he says very interestingly that, of course, he wants a fair wage, but he says that the anti-tipping movement should be much more organized. And he says we should all be as organized as the suffragist movement and the prohibition, the temperance movement. He says that's what the tipping movement needs. And if you join me in this fight, we can put an end to it.

ARABLOUEI: And then...

MARTYRIS: Nothing happened.


ABDELFATAH: Tipping continues to have a lasting legacy, as many restaurant workers still make the same hourly wage that they've made since 1996 - $2.13 an hour, with the rest to be made up by tips. Last month, there was a push to raise the federal minimum wage to $15 an hour. Pushback came from the restaurant industry, which signaled that raising wages would only cause more restaurants to suffer and close. That increase was ultimately left out of the COVID relief package.

MARTIN: Those were hosts of Throughline, Rund Abdelfatah and Ramtin Arablouei. You can listen to the whole episode wherever you listen to podcasts. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ramtin Arablouei is co-host and co-producer of NPR's podcast Throughline, a show that explores history through creative, immersive storytelling designed to reintroduce history to new audiences.
Rund Abdelfatah is the co-host and producer of Throughline, a podcast that explores the history of current events. In that role, she's responsible for all aspects of the podcast's production, including development of episode concepts, interviewing guests, and sound design.