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History of Tipping: 5 Steps of Origins Worldwide

By
Sarah Ward
Table of Contents
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History of Tipping Servers & Waiters

The history of tipping servers and waiters covers a lot of ground worldwide. From the origin of tipping to the start of tipping in America to the differences worldwide, the history of tipping is extensive. There are a lot of articles about where tipping started, why it started in different countries, and whether it’s a good or bad practice. When you search for the history of tipping, there’s a lot of information out there, from opinions to solid facts. There’s also quite a bit of history that feeds into the state of tipping today, especially in America. 

Overall, the history of tipping servers and waiters is a very long, interesting, often less than savory story. Though the practice of tipping has evolved through the years, the common thread of tipping showing a glimpse into humanity in different ways remains. It’s a wild ride, and the more you learn about tipping, the more you’ll wonder how the origin of tipping created today's tipping systems. 

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Origin of Tipping

The origin of tipping goes way back, beyond a time when we can prove the absolute truth one way or the other. There are a few different widely accepted stories of the origin of tipping, all of which seem equally likely. History is subjective, so depending on the source, you may find any number of options that call themselves the definitive history of tipping. 

Tipping Origin Stories

One of the most widely accepted sources of the origin of tipping started out way back in the Middle Ages. It’s difficult to trace facts that far back. It is, however, widely believed that tipping resulted from the caste system that ruled Europe back in the late Middle Ages. 

There are also claims that tipping started back in the Roman era, and possibly even further back. Again, this is difficult to trace, and therefore difficult to prove either way. 

It is also believed that tipping started out in the time of feudal lords. However, this origin option states that lords would, upon discovering beggars along the road, toss coins to the beggars to avoid any trouble. This isn’t fully accepted as tipping, but it does serve as a source of the tipping we know today. 

And of course, there’s the widely accepted tipping system from the 15th century in England. There are many sources that claim any time from the 1400s to the 1700s for the true start of tipping in England. However, most sources accept that Tudor England is when the practice really began to take hold. 

Where Did Tipping Come From

The question of how did tipping start or where did tipping come from starts with a division of classes. No matter which origin of tipping you subscribe to, the division of classes played a role in each possible beginning of tipping practices. In almost all the origin of tipping stories, tipping comes from providing a small amount of financial gain to someone serving you. Many of these historical accounts of tipping are based on giving some amount of money to a servant in your house or another establishment. Going further back, the practice started as providing small incentives to people working under you. It was less about money for specific acts, and more just a general practice. Tipping as we know it today started to come about when money was given for specific services provided. Overall, the system of classes and servants or other workers being paid led to the tipping practices we are familiar with today.

History of Tipping in Restaurants

The history of tipping in restaurants as we know it today started out in European coffee houses with a piece of restaurant lingo. One of the most widely accepted reasons behind the word “tip” comes from the phrase “To Insure Promptness.” This phrase was found on the sides of bowls in coffee houses, where patrons could leave some money to ask for prompt service. Through the years, this became the practice we know today of tipping after the meal. Generally, you could say tipping is done as a way to say thanks for being prompt and otherwise excellent. 

That said, you can’t talk about the history of tipping in restaurants without talking about the drawbacks and the arguments against tipping. The root of tipping comes from a classist divide. These days tipping feeds into some big issues with harassment, prejudice, and capitalist issues. These issues aren’t new to the problem behind tipping. Back in the day, tipping was just as much of a problem, and there were plenty of people who wanted to make a change. Namely, Leon Trotsky staunchly refused to tip. This didn’t result in good service, as the servers weren’t in on the plan. However, the idea behind his stance was to show that the capitalist system made servers rely on tips for fair pay. In all these years, that need for change remains. 

The History of Tipping in America

The history of tipping in America is, similar to a lot of American history, quite dark and unpleasant. Sources say that tipping in America began in 1840. Tipping was problematic in America from the beginning, for several reasons. Issues included:

  • The pay of the server being left in the hands of the often unfair customers
  • Furthering of classism, racism, and social divides
  • The ability for restaurants to pay their employees less with the expectation of tipping picking up the rest

These issues only worsened as tipping spread with the end of the Civil War. One of the worst parts of the beginning of tipping for America is that the practice started ramping up due to racism. The end of the Civil War and slavery meant that Black people and formerly enslaved people were legally required to be given fair treatment. There were a lot of Americans who didn’t accept this, and tipping became a way to continue to be racist. Establishments could pay their workers the smallest amount, the minimum wage back then, and clear it legally by saying that tipping would help. However, Americans would leave little to no tips for Black people, resulting in continuing racism and a widening of economic status. 

Current Tipping in America

These days, the possibility of discriminating against someone by leaving a horrible tip has spread to discrimination against many groups. Minorities across the board face harassment and discrimination at the hands of restaurant customers. Ending the practice of tipping or going towards a European view of having gratuity built-in or part of wages is gaining traction. More Americans, including restaurant owners, are seeing just how damaging the practice of tipping is. 

History of Tipping Globally

Of course, there’s more to tipping than what we have here in America. Tipping got its start outside of America, and the worldwide stance on tipping has shifted over the years in many ways. The origins of tipping started out in Europe, and in places across Europe and the wider world, tipping practices are quite varied these days. Tipping started out as something similar to what we see in America. However, the global tipping culture is leaning towards a better way of balancing tips with pay. This is mainly because, in other countries, servers and other wait staff make a fair, livable wage. Though the history of tipping as a classist practice started outside the U.S., the rest of the world has moved past this beginning. In most places, tipping is either nonexistent or something that truly shows appreciation without underlying negative tones.

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History of Tipping Servers and Waiters: Looking Forward

Overall, the origin and history of tipping servers and waiters, worldwide and close to home, is problematic in many ways. The idea of tipping to say thank you for excellent service is wonderful (for a main course or a meal of the a la carte meaning). However, the capitalist and biased undertones of tipping are something that everyone needs to pay more attention to. These days, more and more restaurants are starting to pay their employees a better wage, to negate the need for tips. That said, there’s still a long way to go before tipping can be either nonexistent or something that is purely done out of thankfulness. Yes, we have a long way to go, but we’re on the way to a better future for servers and wait staff.