The Anti-Tipping Movement : Throughline Tipping is a norm in the U.S. But it hasn't always been this way. A legacy of slavery and racism, tipping took off in the post-Civil War era. The case against tipping had momentum in the early 1900's, yet what began as a movement to end an exploitative practice just ended up continuing it.
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The Land of the Fee

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The Land of the Fee

The Land of the Fee

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(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

RUND ABDELFATAH, HOST:

Hey, Ramtin.

RAMTIN ARABLOUEI, HOST:

Hey. What did you have for lunch? I just had lunch.

ABDELFATAH: Yeah, I haven't had lunch yet. I'm waiting on mine.

ARABLOUEI: Oh, OK.

ABDELFATAH: My stomach is growling.

ARABLOUEI: What are you going to eat?

ABDELFATAH: I actually ordered delivery.

ARABLOUEI: Oh, yeah.

ABDELFATAH: Yeah, I say that with guilt. Do you hear the guilt in my voice?

ARABLOUEI: Yeah, totally. No, I do it all the time, and I feel terrible afterwards. But it's like, what can you do sometimes? Well, what did you order?

ABDELFATAH: Well, like, I'm like I want to support local businesses.

ARABLOUEI: Yeah, yeah.

ABDELFATAH: But then I'm also like, these delivery apps - do they pay people well? And then I think about the tip 'cause I'm like, should I go extra with the tip - you know what I mean? - to like make up for it? But then I'm like, are they getting it?

ARABLOUEI: No, totally.

ABDELFATAH: You know, so it's a cycle.

ARABLOUEI: And it's super weird because I find that the more money I spend on food, the less generous I am with the tip. I always try to give 20%. But if it's like I'm spending less money, I sometimes will give more. But something's so weird about that.

ABDELFATAH: Right, right.

ARABLOUEI: Right?

ABDELFATAH: Well, it's arbitrary, right?

ARABLOUEI: It's really arbitrary. It's really up to, like, how you're doing that day...

ABDELFATAH: Yeah.

ARABLOUEI: ...How much money you've just spent on whatever you just bought.

ABDELFATAH: Right.

ARABLOUEI: And it seems like a system that could have a lot of problems in terms of fairly compensating the person who is performing the service for you...

ABDELFATAH: Oh, yeah.

ARABLOUEI: ...In this case, delivering your sandwich.

ABDELFATAH: Yeah, 'cause I always think about, like, why is it so dependent on, like, the generosity of the customers? 'Cause I always think back to when I visited Europe, for example, or a lot of, you know, Middle East. Like, I just think about how, like, tipping in the way that we think of it here doesn't exist in the same way. Like, it seems more built in.

ARABLOUEI: Yeah, or, like, it's automatically put on your bill.

ABDELFATAH: Exactly.

ARABLOUEI: And it's actually like - I think we were both living in D.C. when that whole question came up for the D.C. City Council about passing a bill that would require a living wage and essentially...

ABDELFATAH: Yeah, yeah.

ARABLOUEI: ...Do away with, like, people having to live off of tipping that worked in the service industry.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ARABLOUEI: It was like a heated debate.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #1: Now to the war on wages brewing in the district here. Initiative 77 would get rid of the current minimum wage at less than $4 an hour, instead gradually increasing it to the same rate as non-tipped employees - around $12 an hour.

PETER ELIAS: It's very simple. If you're voting no, you're going to keep the tips alive and well in D.C. If you vote yes, you're taking away tips from the servers and the runners and all the tipped employees that are here, including the bartenders.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #1: Peter Elias (ph) is the restaurant manager of...

ABDELFATAH: That was a really interesting example of it because you could see it from both sides, right? On the one hand, if you depend on those tips and you take away the tips and your wages aren't going up, well, then you're kind of screwed over.

ARABLOUEI: Exactly, yeah.

ABDELFATAH: But on the other hand, it's like, why do the customers have to pay the difference? Why are employees depending on customers to make a living wage?

ARABLOUEI: Right. And actually, that initiative did get passed, but then got quickly repealed by the D.C. City Council or whatever. So ultimately, the minimum wage didn't go up, meaning most restaurant workers in D.C. are still making most of their living from tips. And this one fight over tipping in D.C. has happened in cities all across the country. It's a battle that's been going on for years. And really, it's still unresolved.

ABDELFATAH: Yeah. And honestly, thinking about tipping as a practice in general makes me wonder where we even got this custom in the first place. Like, so many other countries use other systems today, right? So why do we still rely on it? Like, how has tipping become so American?

ARABLOUEI: Yeah, exactly. And that origin that you just talked about, that's a mystery, at least for me and I think for most people. So I actually think that's something that could make for a really interesting historical investigation into, like, how we even got this system that just seems not really compatible with all the other labor practices in most of the world.

ABDELFATAH: Yeah. And lucky for us, we have a show that looks into the history...

ARABLOUEI: (Laughter) Yeah.

ABDELFATAH: ...Behind current phenomena (laughter).

ARABLOUEI: No, let's do it.

(SOUNDBITE OF MONTAGE)

ADAM PLATT: Americans are addicted to tipping. We tip way more than anybody else, any other country.

STEVE HARVEY: So like, if you get good service, you tip what?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: If I get hooked up, I tip 20%.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: What you mean hooked up?

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #2: Owners are listening. From California to New York, there's now a move afoot to end restaurant tipping.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: This pizza place probably would go out of business. I mean, all the prices would go up to the point where people would be like, why would I pay that for pizza?

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #3: The issue for some diners is when the check arrives and the tip is already included.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: The problem is is that the restaurant industry need to pay the waiters and waitresses and pay...

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ABDELFATAH: You're listening to THROUGHLINE from NPR...

ARABLOUEI: ...Where we go back in time...

ABDELFATAH: ...To understand the present.

MIKE: Good afternoon. This is Mike (ph) from Cincinnati, and you're listening to THROUGHLINE on N-P - oh, bloody hell - THROUGHLINE on NPR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #5: Part 1 - Recognition of a Job Well Done.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ARABLOUEI: Tipping is all around us, and a lot of us do it without even thinking about it. It's just how things work. It's what we do. But some of us think about tipping a lot, like Nina Martyris.

NINA MARTYRIS: I'm a freelance journalist. I live in Knoxville, Tenn. And I moved here 10 years ago from Bombay, India - big change. And it's taken a while, but I really like it here now.

ARABLOUEI: I've been to Knoxville, actually. I was just wondering why you live there.

MARTYRIS: I'm always asked this question. So I have a wordless answer, which is this - I got married.

ARABLOUEI: There you go.

ABDELFATAH: Oh, congrats.

ARABLOUEI: That is the answer to many things, to many things.

MARTYRIS: Oh, yeah.

ARABLOUEI: I'm nosy. What can I say? Anyway, Nina writes for all types of major publications from The New Yorker or The Paris Review, Harper's, The Atlantic, The Guardian, NPR. And back in 2015, Nina's living in Knoxville, Tenn., doing what journalists do - hunting for stories. So she's digging.

MARTYRIS: And I found out that 2015 was the 100th-year anniversary of the anti-tipping law that Tennessee passed. And I didn't even know this. I don't know a thing about the history of tipping in America. And I looked it up. And it said in 1915, Tennessee passed an anti-tipping law - legislation. And there were six other states that did this, too. And I said, why did they pass laws to ban tipping because tipping is such an American thing - you know, to tip and tip well? So I began doing my research, and I found out this whole back history to tipping.

ABDELFATAH: Tipping began in the Middle Ages in Europe when people lived under the feudal system. There were masters, there were servants, and there were tips. Servants, or serfs, would perform their duties and then be given some pocket change.

MARTYRIS: ...As a recognition of a job well done.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MARTYRIS: A good instance is if you look at the famous London diarist Samuel Pepys who wrote about the great London Fire and the London plague. He was a fellow who liked to go out almost every evening to dine out with his friends.

ARABLOUEI: The rich know how to live.

MARTYRIS: And he kept a diary, and he recorded every time he went out to an inn. So if he ordered a steak, it was steak, 1 shilling; servants, 6 pennies.

ABDELFATAH: So first of all, the steak being 1 shilling, just that blew my mind for a second.

ARABLOUEI: Yeah, what is a shilling? What is a shilling?

(LAUGHTER)

ABDELFATAH: I know.

MARTYRIS: So it was - that was his entry, you know, all the time.

ABDELFATAH: Yeah. But the second part of that, the 6 shilling to servants, is that a tip?

MARTYRIS: Yes. The servants was the tip. That was his renumeration to the servants.

ARABLOUEI: So it was, like, in his budget for going out on an evening...

MARTYRIS: Yeah.

ARABLOUEI: ...He expected to give, you know, the 6 pennies. Is that the first appearance of it, like, in writing that you could find?

MARTYRIS: It's certainly one of the most important...

ARABLOUEI: Got it.

MARTYRIS: ...And one of the most reliable because he's, like, considered one of the finest diarists of all time, you know? And to have such a steady record - every day, he would come back, and he would make this entry in his diary. So we have a consistent record of him tipping. And this was in 1668.

ARABLOUEI: Wow.

ABDELFATAH: But is it fair to say that, like, this was probably a relatively common practice at that time?

MARTYRIS: Yes. It was a relatively common practice practiced mostly in private homes and in London in the eateries and in the coffee shops. But most people didn't really eat out at that time. You know, there wasn't this proliferation of restaurants that we have in the post-industrial world.

At that time, the main area for tipping was in country homes. So when you had guests stay over for the weekend, they had to tip. So they had to tip the footman. They had to tip the man who took your coat, the man who took your horse, the man who gave you your sword, the man who blacked your boots, the butler, the valet, the scullery maid, you know, and so on up the chain. And many guests complained, and they found this really bothersome, and it was a real nuisance to have to keep tipping up the chain.

But they were also afraid not to tip because there was this whole fear that, you know, they wouldn't black your boots properly or their horse wouldn't be cared for or they would spill gravy on your trousers or, you know, some kind of revenge. So tipping was mainly started in rich private homes.

ARABLOUEI: But it points to the kind of remnants of the feudal lifestyle even in its nature - right? - because...

MARTYRIS: Yes.

ARABLOUEI: ...The assumption is those with a lot tip those with not much.

MARTYRIS: Yes.

ARABLOUEI: And there's no questioning of, like, why do those people not have as much? It's just kind of the way things are. How does that come to the U.S. - because we like to think the U.S. of, like, more egalitarian than - I mean, this is the view many people have of American history, that it's somehow more egalitarian than Europe and Europe's kind of feudal history. People escaped from that when they came to the U.S. So what was the attitude towards tipping here at that same time - the 1700s, 1800s?

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MARTYRIS: Well, you've stepped right on the landmine. Your question sums up...

ARABLOUEI: Oh, good, good.

(LAUGHTER)

MARTYRIS: Can you hear the explosion?

ARABLOUEI: Yeah.

MARTYRIS: Your question sums up the heart of the debate. Those two words you used - one was feudal, and one was American. And the tip falls in the center of that debate.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MARTYRIS: So yes, it was a very feudal custom from the Middle Ages. Until - till the Civil War in America, there was no tipping largely. In fact, there was no tipping, you can say. It was a European thing. But then Americans began to travel, and it was the Gilded Age. And many Americans traveled to Europe all the time. And then they came back, and they brought this custom back. But who also was used to the custom were immigrants, you know. Immigrants who was coming to America by the boatload from Europe, most of them poor, had been working in Europe and was used to the tipping system. So in every way, it was seen as a European import, and there was huge opposition to it because of its feudal nature.

ABDELFATAH: I just want to stop for a second because I am struck by the fact - you know, we started - at the very beginning, you said this is kind of seen as a uniquely American thing. And right away, early in this history, you realize, like, this didn't originate in the U.S. In fact, it seems that in the early days of the country, it was seen as a rejection of the place that they had come from for Americans who came here, you know, from other places.

MARTYRIS: Yes.

ABDELFATAH: I just think that's really interesting that it just - it's not an American creation, and it was actually kind of not built into the DNA at the beginning.

MARTYRIS: No. But as you pointed out, I used the phrase, tipping is such an American thing today, right? And it's come full circle because when tipping first came, it was the most un-American thing to have to tip. And now it's the most un-American thing to take it away.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ARABLOUEI: What is the principal argument against it in the 1800s? Why did some people find it distasteful?

MARTYRIS: They found it distasteful and un-American because it was feudal. And when you give a tip, you establish a class system. And what is a class system? It is a class system of superiors and inferiors. And they used to often quote the Declaration of Independence - you know, we are all created equal. And they said tipping went against that. It went against the founding ideals. By tipping somebody, you rendered him your inferior - your moral inferior, your class inferior, your social inferior, your economic inferior. So it was a caste-bound system, and it was an Old World custom. And it reeked of feudalism and said America has never had a servile class, and this is an extremely servile practice.

ARABLOUEI: Quick note here - something we have to say, even though it's fairly obvious - the people Nina is talking about here around the Declaration of Independence and the people who said America never had a servile class - they were generally white. So they were looking at U.S. history and ideals through rosy-colored glasses, clearly.

MARTYRIS: It was called servile. It was called a bribe. It was called a moral malady. It was called blackmail. It was called flunkeyism, you know, that you're creating a class of flunkies and so on and so forth. People railed against it.

ABDELFATAH: But it wasn't until after the Civil War when this custom, originally brought back from Europe, really took off in the States.

ARABLOUEI: The spread of the tip and the crusade against it, when we come back.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

CHRIS: This is Chris (ph) from Venice, Fla. You're listening to THROUGHLINE from NPR. THROUGHLINE gives history the human cost that is so much more important than just names and places and dates. It lets us know what the stakes are for learning from history.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #5: Part 2 - The Itching Palm.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ABDELFATAH: On January 31, 1865, Congress passed the 13th Amendment, abolishing slavery. The Civil War was over, and roughly 4 million formerly enslaved people were suddenly free.

MARTYRIS: OK. So let's talk about post-slavery. Suddenly, there were millions of young men, old men, young women, older women who now were free but had no jobs. They didn't have land. They weren't educated because they had never got a chance to be educated, and therefore they had no jobs. Many of them became sharecroppers and cooks and things, but many of them had no jobs at all. And at about this time, restaurant owners who began to open up in Chicago and New York, et cetera, looking for cheap labor, began to hire them in their restaurants as restaurant workers, as waiters and cooks and things like that. And they didn't pay them because this tipping system had come in, and they had to make their wage through tips.

ARABLOUEI: This massive addition of millions of people entering the workforce was coming at a time when businesses were rapidly expanding, businesses that were looking for labor - cheap labor. So restaurants were the main industry that sought out to hire formerly enslaved people, and tipping was a way to get away with paying low wages. But restaurant owners weren't the only ones taking advantage.

MARTYRIS: The most notorious case was the Pullman Car Company.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MARTYRIS: So the Pullman Car Company was started by this very, very brilliant fellow called George Pullman. He was a brilliant engineer and an awful employer. He was an engineer in Chicago, and he saw that trains then were very uncomfortable, cramped and dirty and not comfortable at all. So he designed this nice posh carriage, you know, for, like, business class. Even the wheels were wider. They changed the railroad, the gauge, you know, to accommodate his cars. And he called it a palace on wheels. And he designed this in the 1860s. And then Lincoln got assassinated, and George Pullman went rushing up and said, I will offer you my cars for his body to be taken from Washington to Springfield.

ABDELFATAH: Wow, so an opportunist (laughter).

MARTYRIS: Yeah. He was an absolutely brilliant businessman.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MARTYRIS: I'm giving you this background because then it became, like, this big thing. Everybody wanted to travel in a Pullman car. So George Pullman sold the idea of luxury on wheels. He called them a palace on wheels. And part of the luxury was, of course, to have a comfortable bed to sleep in. But one of the big perks was to have a porter there to assist you with your baggage, to smile, to make your bed, to, you know, amuse your kids, basically to do whatever it wants - the bell when you rang it.

And this growing American middle class who wanted to travel now that the war was over - this was, like, a big thing for them to go by train and to have all their needs met because they couldn't afford to have a servant or staff in their house, but they had it on the train. And who did Pullman hire for his porters? Only Black men. And not just Black men - he was really a cynical fellow - Southern Black men. Why? He says because the plantation - these are his words - perhaps has more or less train them to be pleasing to the customer.

ARABLOUEI: Wow.

ABDELFATAH: Wow.

MARTYRIS: Yeah. So they were paid a wage. They were paid $27.50 a month. Nobody could live on that wage. The rest of it was made up in tips. And that became, like, sort of the place where tipping really began to spread 'cause the Pullman cars went all across the country.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ARABLOUEI: So people were paying for a upper-class experience, basically.

MARTYRIS: Yes.

ARABLOUEI: And he created this fantasy experience for people...

MARTYRIS: Yes.

ARABLOUEI: ...And, as a result, needed to be able to exploit the workers in order to kind of facilitate that demand.

MARTYRIS: Yes. And so you'd say, why did these African American men then work for him? You know, because they were on call all the time. If somebody rang the bell, they had to run. They barely slept when they were on the train. So why did they do this? Well, for many reasons - one, it was a great job. They got to travel the country, something they'd in their wildest dreams never done before. Two, there were not many jobs available at the time. And it wasn't that punishing hard work that they had been used to working on plantations. So often two, three generations, like the grandfather, then the son, then the grandson, all worked - it was like a prestigious thing for them to join the Pullman Car Companies and work as porters. The conductors were always white men. The porters were always Black.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ABDELFATAH: And so when Pullman happens, it sounds like it launches tipping in more spaces and through more professions.

MARTYRIS: Yes.

ABDELFATAH: And what is the reaction among those who are against tipping? How does it kind of light a fire among the anti-tipping people?

MARTYRIS: It really lit a fire amongst anti-tipping people because this whole thing about it being un-American. And the media was at the forefront of this. The New York Times - you can trawl through it - there's any number of editorials against tipping. It called it, you know, spreading like evil insects and weeds.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #6, BYLINE: (Reading) The thing pays. Therefore, it will continue just as long as the public meekly submits to thinly veiled robbery. And that, seemingly, will be forever.

MARTYRIS: People complained about it all the time because it was still fairly new then. In the 1870s and '80s, it was still fairly new. And they complained about it all the time, saying that everywhere we go, it's like a shakedown. We have to pay and pay, pay, and we pay twice. We pay for our food, and then we pay for the service. Why should we have to do all this? And the media, the journalists, took the high ground on a moral note. You know, the whole thing of inferior, superior, having to kowtow, say sir and thank you and grin and smile. And so they took a very strong line against it for those reasons.

It was a big issue. I mean, you know, when William Taft ran for president in 1908, one of his biggest boasts was that he didn't tip his barber.

ARABLOUEI: Can you imagine a presidential candidate running on that platform?

ABDELFATAH: Right. Like, I don't tip. Vote for me.

MARTYRIS: And so then he became what they called the patron saint of the anti-tipping crusade.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ABDELFATAH: Yeah. I'm trying to imagine, like - you just said that William Taft became kind of the patron saint of anti-tipping. But I'm trying to imagine who's on either side of this debate. Like, was it that the wealthy were on the tipping side, and then the labor activists were on the anti-tipping side? Was it that simple?

MARTYRIS: It's very ambiguous, you know? The - as you said, it wasn't that simple at all. So the wealthy, on the one hand, didn't like to tip. Like, Rockefeller was known to be a stingy tipper. So was Carnegie. They were known to be stingy tippers. For instance, they knew even celebrities like Babe Ruth, for instance - they said he was a lousy tipper.

ARABLOUEI: And he was really rich, very rich for that time.

MARTYRIS: He was really rich. And on the other hand, the labor force - initially, the union launched a whole movement to say that we are against tipping. It demeans us, and we want it to stop. So there wasn't really one class against and one class for. There were pros and cons on both sides.

ARABLOUEI: And how much does that have to do with the kind of treatment of Black men in particular? Like, was there a feeling that this is extending slavery, essentially?

MARTYRIS: Many of the comments in the media about tipping bring out the whole racist values of the time. For instance, I'll read you this. This is a journalist named John Speed, and he's writing in 1902. He recalled that when he came North for the first time, (reading) I had never known any but Negro servants.

He was a Southerner.

And then he says, (reading) Negroes take tips, of course. One expects that of them. It is a token of their inferiority. But to give money to a white man was embarrassing to me. I felt defiled by his debasement and servility. I do not now comprehend how any native-born American could consent to take a tip. Tips go with servility, and no man who is a voter - no man who is a voter in this country by birthright is in the least justified in being in service.

What he's saying is, if you're a Negro, if you're Black, to accept a tip is OK because servility is a token of inferiority. But to be a white man and accept a tip is, like, unpardonable. And you notice, he says, if you're a voter, which means, you know, you're a proud American. If you're a voter and you tip or you take a tip, how could you?

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ABDELFATAH: OK, fact check on that journalist, John Speed. Many Black men were also voters at this time, but he didn't recognize that. Still, he made his point clear, and many agreed. Anti-tipping societies started popping up in different cities to further the cause, like the one in New York, called...

MARTYRIS: ...The Society for Prevention of Useless Giving. And sporadically, attempts were made to crack down on tipping. In Chicago, I think they arrested a bunch of waiters because they said they put some mysterious powder in customers' food - customers who hadn't tipped - and things like that.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ABDELFATAH: In 1904, the Anti-Tipping Society of America was created in Georgia. It grew to 100,000 members who all had to take a pledge that they wouldn't tip a soul for a full year.

ARABLOUEI: Anti-tippers really ran the gamut. There were wealthy people who were stingy with their money, the Babe Ruths and Carnegies. There were also those who saw tipping as un-American and merely a relic of the feudal system in Europe. And there were people who saw tipping as racist, an extension of slavery.

ABDELFATAH: And then there were white supremacists who felt it was offensive to give a fellow white man a tip because it made him inferior.

ARABLOUEI: There were traveling salesman, a group who felt they bore the brunt of tipping since they were always on the road, running into hotel bellhops and waiters and train porters and so on, emptying their pockets.

ABDELFATAH: And then, of course, there were the labor unions who were looking out for the workers themselves.

MARTYRIS: One person who absolutely refused to tip was Leon Trotsky.

ARABLOUEI: You know, the Marxist revolutionary.

MARTYRIS: You can't get more left of center than that. And when he was in the Bronx, he refused to tip because he said, I refuse to subsidize the exploitation of these workers. It's the hotel, it's the restaurant proprietor's job to pay them. It's not my job to pay them. I'm essentially paying their wage, and I refuse to be complicit in this whole corrupt, exploitative system.

ARABLOUEI: So for one reason or another, this is who made up the anti-tipping crusade. And eventually, this movement went beyond societies and op-eds to the legislature. The way to abolish tipping, the crusaders believed, was to ban it the official way - make tipping illegal state-by-state.

MARTYRIS: So 1909 was the first law in Washington to ban tipping.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #7, BYLINE: (Reading) Section 439 - every employee of a public house or public service corporation who shall solicit or receive any gratuity from any guest shall be guilty of a misdemeanor. Section 440 - every person giving any such gratuity mentioned in Section 439 shall be guilty of a misdemeanor.

MARTYRIS: And then it was followed by Mississippi and Arkansas, and then Tennessee, South Carolina and Iowa. Georgia followed the next year. And guess what? I think in the history of legislation, these were the biggest flops because it was impossible to enforce tipping. You know, it's like trying to police the Internet or something. It was just impossible. It was everywhere.

And while people hated it, they also participated in it because nobody wanted not to tip for many reasons. You know, it's like today. You don't want to go and not tip. And then they said it also became like a vanity thing, like, you know, I can tip really well.

ABDELFATAH: Like a status symbol.

MARTYRIS: Like a status marker. Like, oh, I tip well. And the waiters and the porters, they knew who the good tippers were.

ARABLOUEI: As much as many Americans hated it, they could not stop tipping. And it seems they couldn't be stopped either. So in 1916, one man made one final attempt to save the movement with the ultimate anti-tipping manifesto - "The Itching Palm."

MARTYRIS: It's just the most famous polemic against tipping. Everyone quotes it. And it was written in 1916, so you can say at the apex of the anti-tipping movement in America, written by a writer named William Rufus Scott. Not much is known about him, really, except that he lived in Kentucky. And he was a kind of, I think, a reform-minded gentleman, and he wrote this absolutely scathing diatribe against tipping. The first chapter was called Flunkeyism in America. And he says there are 5 million itching palms in America, and it went on from there.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #8, BYLINE: (Reading) The theory of Americanism requires that every citizen shall possess this quality. Tipping is the price of pride. It is what one American is willing to pay to induce another American to acknowledge inferiority. It represents the root of aristocracy budding anew in the hearts of those who publicly renounce the system and all its works.

MARTYRIS: He went on about it being un-American, a moral malady, all kinds of things, a new form of slavery. He called it that. He said accepting a tip is like being a slave.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #8: (Reading) The relation of a man giving a tip and a man accepting it is as undemocratic as the relation of master and slave. This is elementary...

ABDELFATAH: To make his point, he quoted the Declaration of Independence and the Bible...

MARTYRIS: ...The two big books in America. And for tips, he - wherever the word gifts occurs in the Bible, that's like a tip, you know, like a free gift, the whole thing of tips being a free thing. So for instance, from Exodus - and thou shalt take no gift - for the gift blindeth the wise and perverteth the words of the righteous. A gift destroyeth the heart. And then from Luke - and he said unto them, take heed and beware of covetousness.

So you know to be covetous - to be greedy, to want gratuities, to want tips. He uses the Bible to rant against it.

ARABLOUEI: Or almost like a bribe.

MARTYRIS: Yeah.

ARABLOUEI: But that's the way he was characterizing it.

MARTYRIS: Yes, absolutely. He said it was a bribe. He made two analogies. So there were these Barbary pirates in the Mediterranean from Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia and all that. And unless you paid them a tribute, they sank your ships. They wouldn't allow your ships to pass. So our friend William Scott says that the whole system of tipping is like piracy. It holds you ransom. Unless I pay you a tip, you won't do your job. So he calls them, like, pirates, essentially. And then on the other hand, he says tipping reduces them to meek, fawning, flunkey inferiors. So they - at one level, they're pirates, and at the other level, they're also meek, fawning, servile. So he slams them both ways.

ABDELFATAH: Yeah, he's not mincing words. He's being very...

MARTYRIS: No, he's not (laughter).

ABDELFATAH: ...Clear, yeah, who the villains are in this equation.

MARTYRIS: Yes. Oh, definitely. It's the most famous piece of literature against tipping in America. And he calls America the Land of the Fee, not the Land of the Free...

ARABLOUEI: (Laughter).

MARTYRIS: ...So his little pun. He says, oh, this is the land of the fee because everywhere you have to pay your little fee. Yeah.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #8: (Reading) If the Barbary pirates could see the ease with which a princely tribute is exacted from a docile public by the tip-takers, they would yearn to be reincarnated as waiters in America, the Land of the Fee.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ABDELFATAH: And what is the actual - the itching palm, what is that, like, supposed to represent?

MARTYRIS: It's supposed to represent the worst thing of all - your hand outstretched, you know? You're panhandling. You're hand is outstretched, and it's itching for those coins to be dropped in it. It's such a horrible, demeaning phrase.

ARABLOUEI: It almost seems like the focus is all on the philosophical validity of the action of tipping...

MARTYRIS: Yes.

ARABLOUEI: ...Without much concern about the people being impacted and without the - what I'm saying - the focus wasn't as much on the people being impacted, and it was more about this, like, kind of, you know - I don't know - 10,000-foot-level philosophical debate about the soul of Americans, et cetera.

MARTYRIS: Yes.

ARABLOUEI: But at the heart of it, there is an objection of what many people believe to be an exploitative labor practice.

MARTYRIS: Yes.

ARABLOUEI: So the reasons were complex and maybe off, but the purpose was to alleviate this exploitation.

MARTYRIS: Of course, definitely. For instance, "The Itching Palm," that was the backbone of his argument, that these workers should be paid properly. That's the only way tipping will ever be ended. And then his last chapter, he says, very interestingly, that of course he wants the - a fair wage. But he says that the anti-tipping movement should be much more organized. And he says we should all be as organized as the suffragist movement and the Prohibition - the temperance movement. He says that's what the tipping movement needs. And if you join me in this fight, we can put an end to it.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ARABLOUEI: And then...

MARTYRIS: Nothing happened.

ARABLOUEI: The downfall of the anti-tipping movement and its unlikely culprit after the break.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

RIANA: My name is Riana (ph) from Florida, and you're listening to THROUGHLINE from NPR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #5: Part 3 - The Nail in the Coffin.

ARABLOUEI: The anti-tipping movement had momentum. There were laws. There was scathing news analysis. There was "The Itching Palm." But no matter what the anti-tipping crusade cried out, all seemed to fall on deaf ears. People continued to rely on tips, so people kept tipping. It was a cycle that couldn't be broken. And then two things happened that made tipping both more untouchable and necessary. The first being...

MARTYRIS: The National Restaurant Association.

ARABLOUEI: The industry's lobbying group, which started in Kansas City in 1919 - so that was No. 1. No. 2 - the 18th Amendment, Prohibition.

MARTYRIS: And during Prohibition, tipping really flourished because restaurants' revenues dropped precipitously because you couldn't sell booze.

ABDELFATAH: 'Cause of alcohol, I guess. Yeah, where they made a lot of their money.

MARTYRIS: So you had to depend on, you know, tips. There was no question of improving their wages at all.

ABDELFATAH: And by the end of the 1920s, the anti-tipping laws fell one by one.

MARTYRIS: Within a few years, Washington had repealed its law. And by 1926, all - every state, these laws had been repealed. They'd been thrown out by the court. Even Prohibition lasted longer than the anti-tipping laws.

ARABLOUEI: Wow.

MARTYRIS: They saw that there was no way they could legislate this. There was no way they could fight it in the statute books, you know. There was no way you could fight it by passing laws because it had become so entrenched.

ABDELFATAH: And then...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED NARRATOR: The financial house of cards collapses, and the overinflated stock market plunges into a Great Depression. A financial panic grips the world.

MARTYRIS: And something had to be done.

ABDELFATAH: That something - or one of them, anyway - was FDR's New Deal. And in 1938, as part of that New Deal...

MARTYRIS: Minimum wage for the first time was established - 25 cents an hour.

ABDELFATAH: The first federal minimum wage law in American history. And 25 cents an hour may seem like pennies, literally, but this was a huge win for the labor movement and for workers all around the country.

MARTYRIS: But guess what? Restaurant workers weren't included.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MARTYRIS: And so it became law that the restaurant owners do not have to pay 25 cents an hour. They excluded them from the minimum wage. And that kind of codified the fact that, you know, you're paying your workers only through tips. And then tips became legal. As in, you know, not - they were never illegal, but it was - the law had taken them into account in 1938 by excluding restaurant workers. It was, like, sort of the nail in the coffin for ever getting a fair wage, you know?

ABDELFATAH: There's something striking to me about the fact that the minimum wage coming into the picture sort of shifts attention away from tipping. I mean, that's what it sounds like. It sounds like suddenly, this debate that had been going on for decades at that point in American life is sidelined by the fact that suddenly, you have this new thing - a minimum wage - coming onto the scene. And I wonder how you see those two histories interacting in that moment.

MARTYRIS: I see it as the beginning of the rot, really. If it had been nipped in the bud then, if the restaurant workers had only been included with everyone else - and that's when they talk so much about creating two classes - the morally superior and morally - there's nothing more un-American than that point, to exclude this huge workforce from the minimum wage. There's nothing more un-American than that. You've created a two-tier system among your workforce. And I think that was the beginning of the rot, which we are paying a price for till today.

ARABLOUEI: Meanwhile, while the U.S. was establishing minimum wage laws and excluding the restaurant industry cementing tipping as an American custom, Europe was ditching it.

MARTYRIS: They chose the service charge route. So the service charge was included in the bill. So you didn't have to depend on a tip.

ARABLOUEI: Tipping faded away in the place where it all started. While here, it only became more and more American.

ABDELFATAH: Even though the anti-tipping movement sort of faded after this moment when the minimum wage becomes instituted, it's hard not to see the original thing that I think Scott points out in "The Itching Palm" and people had pointed out even before him, which is that if you can't pay people a living wage, then you leave open the space for something like tipping. And it seems like the U.S. just continued to move more and more in that direction from this moment.

MARTYRIS: Yes, that was a state of affairs.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ABDELFATAH: When did that change? When did the restaurant industry get looped into the minimum wage?

MARTYRIS: When the subminimum wage tip credit was passed by Congress in 1966.

ABDELFATAH: Wow.

MARTYRIS: Yeah, that was big. So in 1966, they amended the Minimum Wage Act - OK? - just to bring it up to date. And that's when they introduced this amendment, and they called it the tip credit. And what was the tip credit? The tip credit was the fact that you paid your workers - till then, you could pay them nothing unregulated, and the rest of the minimum wage was to be made up in tips. Now, how did they arrive at this figure? It was about 40% or 50% of the minimum wage of the time.

ARABLOUEI: So in 1966, that came out to 63 cents an hour before tips.

MARTYRIS: But the idea that the tip had to make up the difference, and if the tip did not make up the difference, the restaurant owner was liable to pay the difference. Now, who's going to enforce this? Nobody.

ABDELFATAH: Over time, that subminimum wage slowly crept up. Like, really slowly. What started out as 63 cents in 1966 inched up to $2.13 by 1996.

MARTYRIS: And then the Restaurant Association, they lobbied Congress in 1996, 30 years after the subminimum wage to freeze the subminimum wage.

ABDELFATAH: At $2.13?

MARTYRIS: Yes. So what they said was fix this as the hourly subminimum wage, decouple it from being a percentage of the minimum wage. The minimum wage is going to rise, right? But don't make it a percentage of that. Just make it an hourly rate, and let's freeze it at that. And Congress agreed and passed that law. 1996, it was still $2.13. This is 2021. It's still $2.13.

ABDELFATAH: 1996 - $2.13 an hour.

ARABLOUEI: 2021 - $2.13 an hour.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ABDELFATAH: There are some exceptions. Some states do require restaurant workers to get paid at minimum wage or above - a wage that many people nationwide have been arguing is still too low.

(SOUNDBITE OF PROTEST)

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTER: What do we want?

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: Fifteen.

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTER: When do we want it?

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: Now.

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTER: What do we want?

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: Fifteen.

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTER: When do we want it?

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: Now.

ARABLOUEI: The Fight for 15 is the movement to raise the federal minimum wage to $15 an hour. The National Restaurant Association is strongly opposed. A few weeks ago, the lobbying group wrote a letter to Congress arguing that raising the minimum wage would push employees off payroll, raise menu prices and ultimately force even more restaurants to close. Not long after that letter...

(SOUNDBITE OF CNBC `)

SHEPARD SMITH: There's breaking news now on CNBC, and this just into our newsroom. The Senate parliamentarian has ruled that the $15 minimum wage hike that's been proposed that the president had promised cannot be included in the president's coronavirus relief package. House Democrats...

ABDELFATAH: The Senate voted against raising the federal minimum wage, keeping many restaurant workers at the same pay they've had since 1996 - $2.13 an hour.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ARABLOUEI: What does this say? I mean, this is the question that - I think the big question here is what does this history and knowing this history tell us about our views as American citizens towards the service industry and towards work and labor in general? What does this say about our - the philosophical moment we're going through as a country in dealing with that question about our relationship to work and industry?

MARTYRIS: I think it doesn't say very many good things. I think it's a very shameful thing that - you know, that people aren't more bothered by this kind of systemic inequality, frankly. And labor activists say that one reason is that it's so largely populated by women and people of color. And - forty percent are workers of color. And that's a disproportionately high representation.

ABDELFATAH: Under this system, you're also more likely to need to rely on government assistance because you're more likely to live in poverty, which all has serious impacts on mental health.

MARTYRIS: It's also a source of - this whole tipping system enables sexual harassment at the workplace because, you know, waitresses, if you crouch down and if you touch them and if you smile and you bow and you grin, then you'll get a better tip.

ARABLOUEI: It's almost dishonest to call it gratuity because...

MARTYRIS: Yes.

ARABLOUEI: ...The impression...

MARTYRIS: Yes.

ARABLOUEI: ...There is it's a bonus.

MARTYRIS: Yes.

ARABLOUEI: It's on top of what you really make. So that's what I would actually say, calling back to "Itching Palm," is that's essentially the argument he was making at the time, too, even though it was...

MARTYRIS: Absolutely.

ARABLOUEI: ...Framed around anti-tipping. What he's essentially saying is tipping prevents us from making sure that people working these industries get a living wage. So it's like...

MARTYRIS: Absolutely.

ARABLOUEI: ...It's almost full circle in that sense. That that's - it was a fight to frame it in that certain way.

MARTYRIS: In a sense, you are the employer of the waiter. The waiter is - you're his boss for that brief moment. You are going to pay his wage. And people are aware of this, and I think they do their duty quite well.

ABDELFATAH: Yeah, I mean, at this point, when it comes to tipping, Americans, like, don't necessarily think about it 'cause, you know, tipping is restaurant workers. But it's also every other - there's - every sector - right? - tipping exists. And it's hard not to see it and think, well, there's a power dynamic in every one of those interactions that is being reinforced through the tip that we've just become so used to the idea that people have to perform a certain way in their job in order to then get enough money to survive.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MARTYRIS: Yes, which was what George Pullman did. He paid his porters $27 a month - $27.50. And they made about $50 or $60 in tips. And that's how they lived.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ARABLOUEI: Thank you, again. Thank you for writing the article and all the research you did.

ABDELFATAH: It's been so nice talking to you.

MARTYRIS: Thank you very much. Bye.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ARABLOUEI: That was Nina Martyris, freelance journalist based in Knoxville, Tenn. Check out the article she wrote for NPR a few years ago called "When Tipping Was Considered Deeply Un-American."

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ABDELFATAH: On the next episode of THROUGHLINE...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

YURI KOCHIYAMA: They all had heard over the radio that Japan bombed Pearl Harbor. So we said, oh, my God, we're all going to be in trouble.

ARABLOUEI: Yuri Kochiyama and her family were uprooted from their lives during World War II.

DIANE FUJINO: It helped her to recognize herself as a Japanese American.

ABDELFATAH: And she went on to dedicate her life to social justice for people of all backgrounds.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

KOCHIYAMA: On the walls, I have all my heroes, from Malcolm X, Fidel Castro, Patrice Lumumba, Che Guevara, Assata Shakur, all the people in my family, every one of them.

ARABLOUEI: Next week...

FUJINO: Yuri Kochiyama always said that I cannot be free if you're not free.

ABDELFATAH: The radical solidarity of Yuri Kochiyama.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ARABLOUEI: That's it for this week's show. I'm Ramtin Arablouei.

ABDELFATAH: I'm Rund Abdelfatah. And you've been listening to THROUGHLINE from NPR.

ARABLOUEI: This episode was produced by me...

ABDELFATAH: ...And me and...

JAMIE YORK, BYLINE: Jamie York.

LAWRENCE WU, BYLINE: Lawrence Wu.

LAINE KAPLAN-LEVENSON, BYLINE: Laine Kaplan-Levenson.

JULIE CAINE, BYLINE: Julie Caine.

VICTOR YVELLEZ, BYLINE: Victor Yvellez.

PARTH SHAH, BYLINE: Parth Shah.

ARABLOUEI: Fact-checking for this episode was done by Kevin Volkl.

ABDELFATAH: Thank you to Yolanda Sangweni, Beth Donovan and Anya Grundmann. Our music was composed by Ramtin and his band Drop Electric, which includes...

NAVID MARVI: Navid Marvi.

SHO FUJIWARA: Sho Fujiwara.

ANYA MIZANI: Anya Mizani.

ARABLOUEI: If you have an idea or like something you heard on the show, email us at throughline@npr.org, or hit us up on Twitter at @ThroughlineNPR.

ABDELFATAH: Thanks for listening.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

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