The Tipping Point: Is it Un-American,
Or are Some of Us Just Cheap SOBs?

I recently traveled with a contingent of Mayborn Literary Nonfiction Conference attendees to Archer City, where we were supposed to meet with Larry McMurtry and tour his family's ranch before speeding back to cocktail hour in Grapevine. But McMurtry was laid up with an aching eye, and our bus' fan belt snapped, so I instead spent the afternoon exceeding my budget at the town's used bookstores.

One of the books I bought was a history of tipping, authored by a Canadian who annually churns out three to four public library-researched surveys of pop culture staples such as vending machines and sun tanning. Kerry Segrave's book is basically a cloth-bound compendium of newspaper citations dating back to the 1880s.

But there's something to be gleaned from even search-engine journalism, and here it's the story of the organized resistance to tipping that plagued the service industry in the early 20th century.

As a former waitress, I've had plenty of experience with bad tippers. I've waited on customers who meticulously deducted drinks and tax from their total bill before calculating the tip; customers who'd instruct me to "keep the change", no matter how measly, and customers who liked to leave Bible tracts instead of cash. Yet I didn't realize anti-tipping sentiment was once so widespread that states enacted outright bans on the practice.

Progressives officially opposed tipping for the same reasons they supported schools and Prohibition. Tipping inhibited democracy, they claimed, by making lesser men of the workers who depended upon it. In the early 1900s, St. Louis restaurants posted signs saying "No tipping! Tipping is not American!" Or as Clyde Davis wrote in the Atlantic Monthly almost a generation later, "The tipping system is a relic of parasites in satin pants and servitors sleeping with the dogs on the rush-strewn kitchen floor."

Republican William Howard Taft was so disgusted by tipping that he publicly announced in 1908 that he'd never tipped his barber, an admission that earned the admiration of The New York Times' editorial board -- and a grudging confirmation from the repeatedly stiffed barber.

Lobbying groups including the Anti-Tipping Society and the Commercial Travelers' National League helped codify Taft's habits, pushing anti-tipping laws through three state legislatures in 1915. The laws were hardest on the citizens who were supposed to be uplifted by them: Any waiter convicted of accepting a tip in Arkansas was fined $10.

In 1919, the Iowa Supreme Court struck down its state's anti-tipping statutes, precipitating a nationwide rush to repeal. By the mid-1920s, lawmakers -- demoralized by enforcement challenges and cowed by vengeful servers who were reportedly threatening non-tippers and tossing them off pleasure boats -- gave up.

While servers and diners haven't stopped grumbling about tip justice, there hasn't been a serious legislative effort to end the practice since. Much as it might pain members of the jokey 1923 "Anti-Gimme League," whose members also opposed the constant borrowing of cigarettes and umbrellas, tipping and its problems have become an American tradition.

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