In recent times, tipping has become a part of daily life for millions of people. Thanks to tablets becoming the norm at coffee shops and restaurants around the world, it’s never been easier for businesses to request—and receive—tips. But when did we start paying extra through tips? And why did this practice begin? Has it always been a subject of intense debate, as it is in the famous opening scene from Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs, in which Mr. Pink (Steve Buscemi) argues against tipping?

Keep reading for an overview of tipping, from its origins and surprising connection to race relations all the way to the present day.

17th-Century England: Tipping Takes off in Taverns

It has long been thought that tipping began in English pubs in the 17th century. There’s even a cute acronym associated with the practice: “To Insure Promptitude.” This is almost certainly a myth that someone came up with after the fact, however.

There is nonetheless decent evidence to suggest that the practice of tipping picked up steam in England at this time so that patrons could count on good service. Instead of receiving good service, and then tipping as a form of gratitude, tipping was more of a pre-emptive measure designed to ensure good treatment.

A painting depicting the raucous atmosphere in a 19th century English pub. A dozen common people are seen drinking, talking, fighting, and singing.
An English country pub filled with old fashioned furniture and a motley collection of patrons, Wikimedia Commons

19th-Century America: A Practice Imported from England

Like many things, tipping traveled from England to the United States sometime after America gained its independence. It is thought that Americans who traveled abroad to Europe brought back the custom as a way to demonstrate their wealth and feel more aristocratic.

Ultimately, tipping at this time didn’t quite catch on. After all, many people lived in poverty and were resistant to the idea of paying additional money for their food when they were already struggling to get by.

Early-20th-Century America: Tipping and Race after Slavery

By the early 1900s, tipping had become linked with race and class in the post-emancipation United States. 

You see, after the Constitution ended slavery, many former slaves ended up working in sharecropping or other menial positions, such as waiters or porters. Since guests might offer a small tip in a restaurant, on a train, or at a hotel, some employers would pay their employees nothing (or almost nothing). 

In this way, tipping in America emerged in many ways due to inequality, and thus there’s a disturbing aspect to tipping’s legacy in the United States.

1915-1926: Tipping Gets Banned?

There was already some anti-tipping sentiment in the 19th century, and it only increased in the 20th. Starting in 1915, a number of states worked to (temporarily) abolish tipping. 

In fact, the state legislature of Georgia referred to tipping as akin to bribes. Tipping, they argued, should not be allowed as it influences service for some to the detriment of others. 

People appreciated tipping enough, however, that there was a backlash. By 1926, these state laws had all been repealed or deemed unconstitutional. This isn’t surprising, ultimately, as the ability to tip would seem to be a basic right.

This painting depicts shows a group of men standing around a 19th century bar. Some are waiters and bartenders others are patrons.
People gather at McSorley’s Bar, Wikimedia Commons

1938: Using Tips to Pay Employees Less

As time went on, restaurant owners realized they could also benefit from a culture of tipping. They argued that they could lower employee pay since the remaining amount would be made up (and more) by the tips their workers received from customers.

Starting in 1938, employers only had to pay a wage that would add up to the federal minimum wage when combined with expected tips. And even today, there is still a federal minimum wage for tipped workers.

Unfortunately, this has institutionalized a lower minimum wage that is not always fully compensated by tips, a disparity that disproportionately affects women and minorities as they make up the majority of restaurant workers.

1960s: The Tip Credit and Establishing a Sub-Minimum Wage

In 1966, Congress passed a “tip credit.” This gave restaurants the legal right to pay a sub-minimum wage, further establishing the idea that tipped workers can (and should) receive less since they will make it up in tips.

Around the rest of the world, tipping became a more popular practice around Europe and Asia. At the same time, tipping might be considered insulting as it implies that the employee is not adequately compensated by their employer.

There are many amusing anecdotes about tipping culture, especially for international travelers, as tipping varies widely from place to place.

This black and white photograph shows a man in a white waiter's uniform and a black bow tie holding a large plate of food above a table. The plate has several different items on it.
Lewis Lowman spent 35 years in service until his death in 1960

COVID-19 Pandemic: More Food Deliveries and Supporting Service Workers

During the COVID-19 pandemic, new layers of complexity impacted the tipping debate. Many service industry workers faced job insecurity during lockdowns, and many people sympathized by increasing their tips.

This is also a time that saw an increase in food delivery services such as GrubHub, Uber Eats, and Postmates. Many debates sprung up about tipping delivery drivers and people who don’t tip them.

A photograph of a customer picking up takeout food outside of a restaurant. A restaurant employee is handing over a plastic bag and a soda cup to a customer. Both women are wearing face masks.
Restaurant takeout during the pandemic

Current Day: Tipping Is Everywhere?

Debates around tipping continue. In a perfect world, employees would receive a living salary without needing to count on tips. On the other hand, many people genuinely enjoy giving tips as a recognition of their appreciation. And not many people will turn down benevolently given money, especially when they are working hard to pay student loans or feed their families.

In any case, many people have become fed up with tipping. They feel like it’s become ridiculous, with tipping expected everywhere all the time. This is shown by continuing debates about the automatic tipping suggestions that pop up on screens all the time, as well as humorously in the comic below.

While tipping continues to be expected in restaurants in the United States, some places have added mandatory service charges. In many countries around the world, such as Japan and South Korea, tipping remains uncommon and may even be considered rude.

This image is of a cartoon character wearing a knight helmet and holding a sword in one hand and a tablet in the other. The knight is asking for a tip for his services.
From the Adventures of Tippy comics, Scripted by Daniel Dalman, illustrated by Kate Miller

Is Tipping Out of Control?

So, is tipping getting out of control? Well, probably not the benevolent practice of it so much as the setting of unreasonable expectations. For example, someone was recently asked to tip at a self-checkout machine. Their complaint went viral and this kind of request—tipping when you’re doing the labor—was universally ridiculed.

While tipping can be a nice gesture for service workers and is often appreciated, it has a long and sometimes troubling history. Given its connection to the legacy of slavery in the United States, and employers who sought to pay (and still do in many states) less than the federal minimum wage, tipping has something of a checkered past.