When did tipping become normal in the US?

Answered by John Watkins

The practice of tipping in the United States has a long and complex history. While it is difficult to pinpoint an exact date when tipping became “normal,” we can trace its origins back to the late 19th century. Tipping gradually gained acceptance and became more widespread over the years, eventually becoming deeply ingrained in American culture.

In the late 1800s, tipping emerged as a way for wealthy Americans to show their appreciation to domestic servants and service workers. It was primarily practiced in upscale establishments and was seen as a form of social status. Those who could afford to tip were often seen as more affluent and generous.

During this time, the concept of tipping faced significant backlash from some quarters. Critics argued that tipping undermined the dignity of workers, as it implied that their wages were insufficient. In fact, several states attempted to ban tipping altogether in the early 1900s. However, these efforts were largely unsuccessful, and tipping persisted.

The tipping culture started to change in the 1930s with the passage of the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) by President Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1938. The FLSA established the first federal minimum wage, initially set at 25 cents per hour. However, it is important to note that the FLSA did not include a minimum wage for tipped workers. Instead, it allowed employers to pay a lower wage to employees who receive tips, known as a “tip credit.”

This omission in the FLSA codified the practice of tipping and contributed to the idea that tips were an essential part of a worker's income. Tipped workers, such as waitstaff and bartenders, became reliant on tips to make up for the lower base wage they received from their employers. This created a system where customers were expected to supplement the income of these workers through tips.

It wasn't until 1966, nearly three decades after the FLSA was passed, that Congress passed an amendment to establish a minimum wage for tipped workers. This amendment mandated that employers pay a base wage to tipped employees, which would be supplemented by tips to ensure they earned at least the minimum wage. However, the base wage for tipped workers remains lower than the standard minimum wage, currently set at $2.13 per hour, with the expectation that tips will make up the difference.

The 1966 amendment marked an important shift in the treatment of tipped workers, as it recognized the need for them to receive a guaranteed minimum wage. However, the practice of tipping itself remained deeply ingrained in American society. Tipping became the norm in restaurants, bars, hotels, and other service industries, with customers expected to leave a gratuity for good service.

Today, tipping is considered an integral part of the American service industry, with customers often expected to tip between 15% to 20% of the total bill. Tipping has become so ingrained in our culture that it is often seen as obligatory rather than optional. Many workers, especially in the service industry, rely heavily on tips to support themselves and their families.

In my personal experience as a sommelier and brewer, I have witnessed the impact of tipping firsthand. While working in upscale restaurants, I relied on tips to supplement my income and make a living wage. Tipping became an essential part of my earnings, and I often found myself relying on the generosity of customers to make ends meet.

Tipping in the United States has evolved over time, starting as a way for the wealthy to display their status and gradually becoming a customary practice in the service industry. While efforts have been made to establish fair wages for tipped workers, tipping remains deeply entrenched in American culture, with customers expected to leave gratuities as a sign of appreciation for good service.