Did You Know Tipping Is Rooted In Slavery? That's Why It's Uncommon Abroad
Photo Credit: Tim Samuel

Photo Credit: Tim Samuel

Did You Know Tipping Is Rooted In Slavery? That's Why It's Uncommon Abroad

BHM22 , Black History , news
Parker Diakite
Parker Diakite May 12, 2021

When traveling outside the United States, you may notice that tipping at a restaurant is not only uncommon, but it’s considered disrespectful in some countries, including Japan, Finland, South Korea, and Portugal. Many countries outside the U.S. pay restaurant and other service employees a living wage.

Another reason why it’s uncommon outside America? Its origins link back to slavery.

While the practice of tipping workers has unclear origins, there’s some evidence that it likely grew out of the caste system in Europe in the late Middle Ages. Tipping did not exist in the U.S. prior to 1840, according to Kerry Segrave. Wealthy Americans are thought to have brought tipping back to the U.S. from Europe, in the years leading up to the Civil War. 

Saru Jayaraman, author of “Forked,” a book about restaurant worker pay, and co-founder and president of Restaurant Opportunities Centers United, said tipping culture was originally thought of by many as un-American because it was classist.

After the Civil War, formerly enslaved people were able to find work mostly in food service or as railroad porters— both industries that relied heavily on tips. Employers who wanted to hire those formerly enslaved persons, wanted to keep them at a low wage.

“When the practice came to the United States, the Black workers, were the equivalent of the proletariat in the feudal system,” said Jayaraman.

In 1915, several states passed laws prohibiting tipping, which was unpopular at the time. All six of the bans were overturned or ruled unconstitutional by 1926.

“When these states banned tipping, it was because they were trying to discourage whites from tipping instead of actually paying former slaves,” Jayaraman told the Post. “Out of six states that made tipping illegal, five were in the South, where the idea was that only Black workers were making tips because ‘you only tip inferiors.’”

In 1938, as part of the New Deal, Jayaraman adds that tipping was made legal because the Fair Labor Standards Act allowed federal minimum wage to be earned through wages or through tips. In 1966, “tip credit” amendments were added to the act, which paved the way toward the current minimum wage for tipped employees, like restaurant workers.

According to an analysis from USA Today, the claim that tipping became popularized by restaurant owners who didn’t want to pay Black workers after the passage of the 15th Amendment is generally true.

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