Any current city guidebook gives the same advice: the proper tip to a server in New York stands at 20 percent of the total bill. It wasn’t always so.
“The waiter who hands you the check . . . should get 15 per cent (as should a waitress in a tearoom); in a night club, 20 percent,” wrote Lawton Mackall in his 1949 New York dining guide Knife and Fork in New York.
Fifteen percent 65 years ago was pretty good, considering that decades earlier, the question was whether to tip at all.
“In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, when the professional middle class, the public restaurant, and the tip were relatively new, the debate was not over how much to tip, but whether tipping itself was so destructive to democracy that it could not be allowed to continue,” wrote Andrew P. Halley in Turning the Tables.
Not everyone was on board with this practice imported from Europe—tipping was seen by some as “morally wrong.”
“When the waiter rushes forward to take your coat, hang it up, drag out your chair . . . when he flies to fulfill your order as if wings had been applied to his heels . . . for this wonderful galvanization of the waiter, what does it mean? Merely that he considers it probable, nay certain, that some of the silver change in your pocket will be transferred to his,” stated The New York Times in 1877.
“By tipping him in this way you are corrupting his honesty, and harming his manliness, for he will be sure in the end to keep his good serving for those who pay, and turn a cold shoulder to the economical.”
Turn of the century labor leader Samuel Gompers came out against tipping any service worker. There was even talk of introducing no-tipping laws in the city, which had been passed in other jurisdictions.
In 1907, a waiter wrote in to the Times to protest. “No doubt within a short time some of our politicians will introduce an anti-tipping bill, as other states have done. . . .
“An anti-tipping law would mean hardship and misery to the waiters, and it would be not long before they would organize and demand better pay and shorter hours, and the patrons would have to pay for it.”
Eventually, the anti-tipping laws were struck down before any were enacted in New York . . . and tipping servers working in one of the city’s almost 8,000 restaurants, whether a luxe establishment or lunch counter, became customary.
[Top photo: Delmonico's restaurant dinner for Admiral Dewey, 1906; Churchill's ad, NYPL; Blossom restaurant photo by Berenice Abbott, 1935; Three Men Walking Past Lunchroom, New York City, by Rudy Burckholdt, 1939; Walker Evans photo of Peoples Restaurant on the Bowery, 1933-1934]