Americans have always agonized over tipping

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Waitress Kirsten Anderson works at Bite cafe, 1039 N. Western in 2009. | John J. Kim Sun-Times

Tipping is back in the news. The Sun-Times ran a full page analysis on Monday.

“Fourteen years ago,” Ohio journalist Connie Schultz began, in a column syndicated across the country, “I wrote a column about a tip jar in Cleveland and how the managers took all the money….”

She goes on to discuss the Labor Department’s latest efforts to make it easier for tips to flow into the pockets of management and not, necessarily, to the workers for whom they are supposedly intended.

There’s no reason why our view of the topic should stop in 2004. Tipping has been an issue of heated debate in this country for over a century, with the discovery of who really benefits from tipping being a reliable scandal that, though periodically revealed, somehow never quite sinks into general public knowledge.

“The bestower of this always reluctant largess is a notably unsophisticated person if he thinks that it goes to the young man or woman who collects the coin,” the New York Times noted on Aug. 31, 1917. “Neither one or the other receives more than a minute weekly salary, paid by the corporation that employs him or her. All the rest, and by far the larger amount … is divided between that corporation and the proprietors of the hotels and restaurants.”

The only thing that has changed, as far as I can tell, is a cooling of public passion against the practice. Giving tips is no longer “always reluctant.”

A hundred years ago, tipping was seen as a double sin: something that forced normally proud American servers into bowing and scraping, and a kind of extortion, a tribute paid by browbeaten dupes to receive the good service they should be entitled to in the first place. The 1917 Times editorial despaired that the practice would ever end.

“It will continue just as long as the public meekly submits to thinly veiled robbery,” the Times wrote. “And that, seemingly, will be forever.”

The height of public outcry against tipping peaked around World War I, with the formation of organizations like the Anti-Gimme League and the Society for the Prevention of Useless Giving.

In 1916, William R. Scott published “The Itching Palm,” a polemic that denounces tipping as a “moral disease” caught from decadent aristocracy of Europe, a “willingness to be servile for a consideration” that holds its victims through “mesmeric influence.” The Bible is quoted liberally in denouncing “democracy’s deadly foe.”

Now Americans are far less ambivalent about tipping, in part because the system adapted to assume tipping occurs. In Illinois, the overworked waitress setting down her tray of platters might be paid only 60 percent of minimum wage — a meager five bucks an hour — with the assumption that your tips will make up the rest.

People who don’t tip in 2018 are invariably individuals shamed on Facebook for noting, on their receipt, that they don’t give to immigrants, or gays, or whatever, the cruelty of not tipping magnified by the spite of singling out a particular victim.

Tipping is a convoluted way of doing business, perhaps natural for a nation that rejects the metric system but keeps the penny.

The idea that tipping is required for good service seems false to me. We were in Paris last spring, and since tipping is not expected in France, we didn’t tip, and had some of the best, most efficient service we’ve ever had.

It was a challenge for me not to tip, becauseI’m generally a scrupulous tipper — I even make a point of leaving something for the chambermaids at hotels. It’s a way to show you recognized that you’ve received outstanding service. It seems wrong that managements skim, but I might be one of the unsophisticated rubes that the Times mocked. Even when service is quite bad, I have great trouble stiffing the guilty parties, perhaps out of the timidity noted by the author of “Ivanhoe” when dealing with horse handlers and restaurant staff.

“I like to pay postilions and waiters rather more liberally than perhaps is right,” Walter Scott wrote in his journal April 9, 1828. “I hate grumbling and sour faces; and the whole saving will not exceed a guinea or two for being cursed and damned from Dan to Beersheba.”

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