Tipping in American History

AHA Session 57
Business History Conference 1
Labor and Working Class History Association 1
Friday, January 2, 2015: 3:30 PM-5:30 PM
Petit Trianon (New York Hilton, Third Floor)
Julia Ott, New School for Social Research
When Red Caps Lost Their Tips
Daniel Levinson Wilk, Fashion Institute of Technology
Tipping Today: An Insider’s View
Chockie Tom, The Flat
The Audience

Session Abstract

Periodically throughout American history, the practice of tipping waiters and other service workers has been denounced as bad for business, bad for labor, and un-American.  Just in the past year, prominent scholars, restaurant managers, and food journalists (most famously, Pete Wells, restaurant reviewer for the New York Times) have called for an end to the tradition.  Despite the interest in this subject, though, few historians have weighed in.  

This panel will provide historical context to the current debates over tipping, and what they say about our understanding of past and present class and labor relations.  Andrew P. Haley, author of Turning the Tables: Restaurants and the Rise of the American Middle Class, 1880-1920, will explore the anti-tipping movement of the early twentieth century and explain why it failed, despite widespread support.  Daniel Levinson Wilk will examine the sociological effects of the Fair Labor Standards Act's introduction of a minimum wage on the tips received by railroad Red Caps in the late 1930s and early 1940s, a crucial turning point in the legal and cultural structure of tipping in America.  Haley's work tends to support past and present critiques of tipping, and Levinson Wilk's research points in the opposite direction, supporting the often overlooked benefits that the practice of tipping gave to workers and customers.

Haley and Levinson Wilk will be joined by Chockie Tom, who has many years experience as a service worker, as well as a deep historical interest in the practice.  Ms. Tom will outline her own understanding of the history of tips, and lay out the current environment of tipping, varieties of tipping practices, and recent attempts to end tipping in various restaurants and other locations.  

The comment will come from the audience--we hope that everyone's personal experiences with tipping will lead to additional evidence and a lively debate.

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