A number of theories exist about how and where tipping got its start.
While some say it dates back to the Roman Empire, most point to the Middle Ages. A common explanation, but questioned by some, is that tipping began in 16th-century English pubs. Most customers would linger there for hours, so those who were in a hurry would place a gratuity in a table-top box inscribed with "TIP" (to insure promptitude) before sitting.
Another story is that feudal lords on horses would throw gold coins to peasants in the streets as payment for safe passage. The word "tips" was originally medieval street talk for "hand it over."
The practice, however, did not come to United States until the late 19th century. Affluent American families who traveled to Europe, where tipping was already customary, would also tip in their homeland to tout their status and show others they were well traveled, says Michael Lynn, an associate professor at the Cornell University School of Hotel Administration. It eventually caught on, as other people did not want to appear "unsophisticated," he adds.
Still, many Americans loathed the custom, branding it un-American and undemocratic. The Anti-Tipping Society of America, an alliance of 100,000 traveling salesmen, managed to have tipping abolished in seven states from 1905 to 1919, according to a Knight Ridder report. But opposition gradually faded and tipping became an American institution. While a few organizations today advocate paying higher wages for service workers in lieu of tipping, Lynn says there's little chance the practice will end.
"We're more affluent. Culturally, we believe in achievement. The stronger the need for achievement in a country, the greater the number of service professions it's customary to tip," he says. "Americans derive status from displays of wealth."
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society