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How did the tipping standard for restaurants get set?

I’m not going to do a complete history of tipping, which can be traced back at least to the early 1700s in England, and probably further back if you count the money given to household servants for a job well done.

We could also talk about how it got its foothold in the US by discussing George Pullman’s payment arrangements with former slaves in his passenger rail cars. Pullman, knowing that he could pay lower-than-average wages to former slaves and their descendents, encouraged the practice of tipping extra for extra services.

But I wanted to cover the current restaurant “standard”, which is 15% for average, workaday service and more or less for better or worse service.

I’ve already discussed the economic underpinnings of the tipping system (at least in terms of restaurants). You can access these various posts by searching for the term tipping. I warn you, some of them are wordy, but you’re used to that from me, right?

It’s been said that at the turn of the 20th century, the “standard” was 10%. Since this information isn’t really backed up by any credible references, I don’t know if this is “fact” or just folklore. But let’s assume for a moment that it was.

In the first half of the 20th century, most restaurants were for the upper class. There were supper clubs and fancy restaurants and steakhouses, the kind which you would see in the movies. There weren’t too many “casual restaurants” for the masses, especially pre World War 2. If you lived in one of the big cities, you might find pizzerias and delis, and  other small eateries like diners, and, from the 20s, fast food started getting its foothold with White Castle and others.

The big boom in dining out occurred after World War 2, especially in the 50s. And, coincidentally, this is around the time where the 15% restaurant tip became de rigueur.

So, how does an “informal”, yet specific standard get set in popular culture? How does it become “conventional wisdom”? And why does it get followed when it’s obviously not a legal requirement for the patron to comply? Obviously it’s passed along from generation to generation as any social custom is. But it also falls under the rubric of “etiquette”. And this is established through noted authorities (and today, the Internet has plenty of self-appointed authorities, including myself, of course). In the 20th century, the standards were promoted by the big two – Emily Post, the grande dame of manners, and Amy Vanderbilt, member of one of America’s aristocratic families. Fashion magazines like Vogue also weighed in about what was “proper”. and that’s where we start.

I found the 1949 edition of Vogue’s Guide to Etiquette. I didn’t have the will to spend $20 for a couple of paragraphs, so I’m only going to give a rough sketch. However, at that time, they were recommending a sliding scale for tips. As meals in those days ran from $1 or less on the bottom end to extravagant meals of $20 or more (not per person but per check), they suggested what amounted to 20 – 50%% on the bottom end to about 9 – 10% on the tip end. If memory serves me, they had it broken down into 4 ranges and they suggested a tipping amount range as well, not a percentage. For instance, if your meal was .50 or less, they recommended .10 to .25. And if your meal was $15 – $19, they recommended $2.50 – 3.00 (with a meal over that amount you tipped per person and you also were supposed to tip the maitre d’ 10% on top of that, and if there were a wine steward, you tipped them as well). But the point is, as late as 1950, tipping still wasn’t still “fixed” at 15%.

I later got my hands on a volume from the 50s, one from Emily Post. By 1959, Emily Post was saying  15 – 20%  but it also prefaced that by saying that it had risen from the standard 10% quoted in the previous edition (1950), an edition which I haven’t ever gotten my hands on. So, according to Emily Post, by the end of the 50s, 15% was already in place. That means of course that according to Emily Post, 10% was standard as late as 1950.

Looking at 60s editions of both Emily Post and Amy Vanderbilt, we find the same suggestions of 15 -20%.

 So why did it go from 10% and sliding scales to 15% – 20%?

I have a non-scientific theory. I suspect that it had to do with the economic and social explosion of the 50s resulting from the returning war veterans and their G.I. Bills and VA Housing Loans. Interstates were expanding along with car ownership and there was a lot of money to be spent, some of which was spent on the new found freedom to have someone cook your meals and serve them for you in an institutional setting. Previously, if you were in the middle class, you might save up for a year to dine at a big steakhouse or fancy restaurant. Now, with the mobility and affluence of the middle class, there was a new market for a new type of restaurant, the upscale casual restaurant. and now you had drive-ins and “family-style” eateries (think Big Boy, for example) popping up all over the place. Howard Johnson’s and other motor inns and motels always had a nice diner attached, so when the family went on vacation, they got to eat in a full-service environment.

Since most people tipped 10% in diners and counter service situations, now they were seeing a more “refined” service and I suspect that with their new-found “wealth”, they wanted to reward this service, especially since more and more of them either had family members working in such places or they had neighbors and friends working there.

So, as the 50s got more and more prosperous, we saw “tip creep”, which was reflected by Emily Post by 1959, especially since there was less and less need to tip maitre d’s and wine stewards separately. Perhaps they thought that 10% seemed “cheap” since they weren’t really having to do as much extra tipping. So they upped it to the next easy to remember percentage, which was 15%. And since they were likely to reward great service with more than 10% in the “old days”, they probably brought that practice along as well.

So, it’s fair to say that the tipping standard has been 15 – 20% since at least 1960. Those who claim otherwise just haven’t been paying attention or just weren’t taught the “accepted standard” by their parents and peers.

This is just my own amateur sociological speculation as to why the tipping standard has ended up at the percentage that it has. Perhaps a real sociologist/economist might want to do some detailed study on this subject. One thing that would have to be investigated is the history of hourly wages from the 20s on. I’m not sure what waiters and waitresses were paid in the 40s and 50s, although I know that in some states, wages were already $2.13 an hour plus tips by 1974 (and probably earlier as well). That’s as far back as my personal experience goes.

2 responses to “How did the tipping standard for restaurants get set?

  1. Larry March 10, 2013 at 3:13 pm

    I was born in 1964 and was raised that 10% was the amount of a tip. That may be related to our income level though. My mom made less than the poverty level raising two kids; so didn’t have much have much to leave. We didn’t eat out much either. A bad waiter/waitress got nothing or one penny if really bad.
    I don’t make much more than now so leave the same on the rare occasion I eat at a sit-down restaurant. Like it or not the staff chooses their job. Tips are extra not required, period. If they become required, I won’t eat out. My choice. If the staff doesn’t like the pay system, they should look for other jobs.

    • teleburst March 11, 2013 at 7:58 am

      Your parents didn’t do you any favors. My first restaurant job was in 1973. When you were 9. Even at that time, the accepted tip was 15% for normal service. My parents taught me that in the 60s when we went to dine out.

      If your family was below the poverty level, you had no reason to ever dine out, except perhaps at a fast food place. So that’s where you got your ideas about tipping.

      Tipping is not mandatory, it’s true, but it IS a social contract. What you fail to realize is that the prices you pay are based on a financial model which pays most servers MUCH less than the Federal minimum wage. Take away the 15% average and you will NEVER be eating out at all because prices will rise close to 30 percent. What do you think happens if all of those servers (the largest part of any restaurant’s staffing) suddenly have to be paid a prevailing wage?

      Like it or not, you are being served by your neighbors. Stop trying to justify cheating them out of their earned income. If you had any integrity, you’d inform your server up-front that you only tip 10%. That would give them the right to give you the service that you are paying for.

      TIPS ARE NOT “EXTRA”. They are part of the dining experience. Who’s going to wait on you when we all “look for other jobs”? Be thankful that you have people who wait on you. You might lose the “choice” that you have now.

      Stop dining on the backs of those who tip properly. Stop being a welfare diner.

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