Posted by September Blue Saturday, 3 November 2007

(Century, August 1889)

Within the memory of many of us the practice of giving small sums of money to servants was so uncommon in this country as to be accounted altogether a foreign custom. If the recipient of such an attention happened to be a full-blooded American, the chances were that his response would be marked by anything but a sense of gratitude; and the servant of foreign birth, if he had been in this country long enough to breathe in the inspiration of this environment, was apt to look at the incident from an equally American standpoint. There is little need that any one, in the height of this summer season, should take the troubleto point out in detail the changes which mark the present system. There is no longer an American sentiment on the subject. As employers drift into the policy of estimating and relying upon tips as a partial substitute for their wage-list, there is no longer any place in the service for him who will not be tipped. Two of the three parties in interest, the employer and the guest, have conspired to get rid of the servant of the old school, and therefore it is that the third party, the servant, whether native or foreign-born, is much condemned to have the itching palm.

While this is, as you can gather, a piece about the evils of tipping, it's also of interest for what it says about class systems, ideas of (paid) work, the proper attitude and social position of servants, and questions like "How far is democratic government compatible with the tip system?"

The most evident injury of the new system is on its social side, in the feeling of insecurity and injustice which it has brought into a large part of our social life. The born American never used to have any of the grudges against his richer neighbor in wihch so much of the revolutionary feeling of other countries has its roots. He saw nothing unnatural in the notion that consumers should be graded into classes according to their ability and willingness to pay, and that each class should get what it paid for. If his neighbor, who paid twice or thrice as much as he, got hotel accomodations which were proportionately better than his, he had no feeling of personal wrong; he enjoyed his own contentedly, in the devout belief that the time was coming when he should be able to pay for and enjoy that which would be more to his liking. His confidence in his own future made him a believer that, even in such a matter as hotel privileges, he could ask in the long run no better test than open competition and the market price. The tipping system has changed his whole position. The grades of accomodations are no longer fixed by competition alone, but surreptitiously and by corrupting the servants. The ordinary guest must still pay the rates which are proper for his own scale of accomodation, but in addition to that he must now compete with his richer neighbor in tipping the servants, or else he will not get even the accomodations for which he pays. In other words, he must pay higher rates in order that his richer neighbor may perpetuate a system under which he may decrease his rates by bargaining in part with the servants instead of with the employers. Is it any wonder that the new system brings about a chronic discontent which used to be unknown?

More below the fold.
The corruptible servant can and will sell his services below their real value, for he is selling that which does not really belong to him, but to his employer, or to the guest whom he is neglecting because of a refusal to tip: whatever the price he gets, it is so much clear gain to him. So the larcenous servant can afford to sell napkins or tea-spoons much below their market price. So the negro laborer at the South can afford to sell to the cross-roads storekeeper the stolen cotton or the farm products at a lower price than the lawful owner could have accepted. Public opinion makes the position of the "fence" or the collusive storekeeper unpleasant; why should it deal any more tenderly with teh man who tips? The only point in his favour is that he is ignorant of the full extent of his evil work; and to balance this is the fact that he is willing, for the sake of present ease, to bribe a servant to appropriate to him what belongs to neither of them, but to compel employers to recognize this as a system of licensed spoilation, and to drive other guests into doing even as he does.

There is, moreover, a political side to the evil which is generally overlooked. The Romans held that it was beneath the dignity of a free man to take money in return for personal services; and the Roman law of contracts was very seriously modified by the persistence of the idea down to the latest times. Circumstances seem to show that there was some truth in the notion; and yet we must have personal service, and it must be paid for, in default of slavery - the infinitely worse alternative which governed the ancient world. So long as the employer stood between guest and servant, taking the guest's money and therewith paying the servant, the connection between guest and servant was so indirect as to obviate many of the evils which the Roman instinctively feared, and the somewhat aggressive independence of the American servant did the rest. The system of tipping, bringing in a direct but surreptitious money connection between guest and servant, cannot but result in a steady degeneration of the servant's moral fiber. It gives the servant a mercenary mode of thought which is unhappily too familiar to most men to need much specification here. The worst of all results is that it corrupts the servant's whole conception of duty; duty is no longer something to which he is bound, but something which someone else is bound to bribe him to do. When such a conception of duty is daily borne in upon the heart and practice of a circle of servants, which is steadily extending from the employees of hotels to those of railroads, steamboats, and every conceivable variety of personal service, and when all these men are not only servants but voters, how can it be expected that we shall leave a man a virile conception of his duty as a voter while we corrupt him as a servant? He will not bring you a glass of water at a hotel table, or handle your luggage on a steamer, without an extra gratuity; why should he vote even for the ticket of his own party unless he is tipped for his trouble? How far is democratic government compatible with the tip system?

It is said that there is no remedy. There is none which will take effect without effort, but sincere and persistent effort could find a remedy. Some of our clubs have already found that the social evil of tipping, the sense of insecurity and inequality which it introduces among the members, is not "clubbable." They therefore pay the servants honest wages, and make the offer of any further tip or gratuity an offence against the club. Let us extend the club feeling and find in it the remedy. It was in the hotels that the evil first began its vicious course, and in them the remedy must find its beginning. It would not be a difficult matter for a hotel to announce in its advertisments, in its offices, and on its bills of fare, that its servants are paid full wages, that any of them accepting tips will be dismissed at the end of the week, and that the guest is requested not to tempt the servant by offering him gratuities. Only a few cases of vigorous enforcement would be needed. The results would be profitable to the employers, and pleasant to the guests who do not tip, and to those who are coerced into tipping. They would of course be unpleasant to those few who wish to tip; but these are just the social pests who underlie the whole system and who deserve no consideration.

We know of at least one hotel where the non-tipping plan was tried, we believe, with considerable success.