A short history of tipping waiters in New York

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.

ChurchillsNYPL1914Fifteen 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.”

Tipexcerpt“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. . . .

Boweryrestaurantwalkerevans3334“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]

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32 Responses to “A short history of tipping waiters in New York”

  1. zen city Says:

    nice story – keep on keeping us informed. . . . i love this town!!🙂

  2. Bob_in_MA Says:

    I remember reading a piece (may have been a short story in a magazine) from the late 19th century about a man tipping a “waitergirl” and her being indignantly insulted. The implication being that if she took the money, she could expect he’d want something else besides table service in return.

  3. Droppin' Knowledge Says:

    Unfortunately, tipping professions provide young and uneducated people a chance to make a decent living beyond minimum wage. I use to pull in more money delivering pizza per week than I do now working at a advertising agency.

    • unidentifiable123 Says:

      As a waitress for 20 years (with a BA), it is hard to make a decent living with a minimum wage of $2.65 an hour.

      • Droppin' Knowledge Says:

        But as long as you work in a decently busy place, the money you make in tips still comes out to more then $8/hr or whatever the minimum wage is now. I used to deliver pizza for $5/hr off the books in Queens. I’d make $200 in tips per 12 hour shift, which even subtracting the money I spent on gas is more then I make now working marketing in Manhattan.

      • unidentifiable123 Says:

        True enough, I live and work in Flint, Mi. It is not a hotspot for good tippers. There is no money in this city

      • Droppin' Knowledge Says:

        Yeah, I can see it not being so great living in a depressed area with no suburban customers visiting you during work or whatever. They should give you the option before you sign an employment contract. Either work for minimum wage and give up your tips to staff to spread to those who didn’t chose that option, or work for a low wage plus tips.

    • alvayman Says:


  4. awax1217 Says:

    I loved this. I am now thinking of tipping my state senator, my mayor and the person who tips his hat.

  5. gypsyprincess Says:

    tipping is a sign of respect to the waitresses and servers, especially because they barely earn any money without tips. Fortunately the situation changed!

  6. segmation Says:

    Interesting blog. Do you think New York should have a VAT like they have in Spain?

  7. Wify Says:

    Reblogged this on From nothing to laughing.

  8. motherhendiaries Says:

    Living in England…tipping is fairly non-existent, and generally never more than 10%’ It looks like the old “keep the serfs honest” mentality still survives in Europe…

  9. robert leatherbarrow Says:

    Reblogged this on robert leatherbarrow.

  10. dredbeauty Says:

    Servers at my restaurant receive $5 + tips. Sad but sometimes they walk away wit $200 a nite

  11. th3bak3rman Says:

    I was not much of a tipper (10%), and then I started working at different restaurants as a waiter. That was 25 years ago, and today I still am aware of how hard many waiters and waitresses have to work. Unless the server was not performing his/her job very well, I tip 20% or more.

  12. Reallyyy.com - A Blog about Your Biggest Pet Peeves Says:

    Great stuff here!!! -Bill

  13. foodnerd1 Says:

    Interesting story, worth the share. I’m not from the states but I never agreed on tipping. Just never understood the rational behind it.

  14. haridasgowra Says:

    An excellent story! on reading this remember memories…….

  15. haridasgowra Says:

    An excellent story! i like this………..

  16. soham227 Says:

    Reblogged this on Soham's Blog.

  17. Rayray Says:

    love old photos, reminds us where we are was because of what they were

  18. Cassie H Says:

    Reblogged this on Meals, Deals, & 31 Thrills and commented:
    So interesting to learn the history of tipping… relevant to me !

  19. Desire Says:

    Close to the top of my bucket list – to visit New York in December. I’m so over hot South African Decembers!

    Thanks for an awesome post!

  20. arrghjegbrokkermig Says:

    As a foreigner and from time to time tourist in New York (love the city), I am aware of the expectations of tipping. However, I am bit puzzled about the percentage concept – why should the waitress at the expensive River Cafe get sooo much more in tips than the waitress at the cheap diner around the corner. Does she need it more than the other? Isn’t there an upper limit for the amount?

  21. dorkmasterfunk2013 Says:

    Thank you for this posting. I believe in a basic 15% tip for good service. If a server is exceptional and or if I run them a bit I will tip between 20 to 25% as long as they didn’t get grouchy. If they get grouchy I will let them know that my requirements may have been a bit much but you always have to be nice to the customer and for that you get paid well.

  22. nayanmeckwan Says:

    Reblogged this on Internet Blog Free Stuff, Tools & Development Tutorials & Tips and commented:
    Like us http://www.Facebook.com/NayanMeckwanpage

  23. lozkays87 Says:

    Interesting perspective. I recently wrote about this and some experiences of tipping in NY as a Brit http://talkingfootprints.com/2014/02/24/to-tip-or-not-to-tip-that-is-the-question/

  24. lozkays87 Says:

    Interesting perspective. I recently posted on this exact subject and some experiences of tipping in NY as a Brit http://talkingfootprints.com/2014/02/24/to-tip-or-not-to-tip-that-is-the-question/

  25. Monica DiNatale Says:

    Today I bought a cup of coffee. It was $4.50. There was a tip jar. I always feel bad…but the coffee is so expensive. Tipping seems out of control in NYC.

  26. ee2dieem Says:

    Reblogged this on Conundrum that is I.

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