People Have Been Ranting About Tipping In The NY Times Since 1899

nytimesgrabWhile NY Times restaurant critic Pete Wells made headlines last week with his scathing takedown of restaurant tipping, he’s hardly the first person to speak negatively about tipping in the pages of the Gray Lady. In fact, the Times has been down on tips since at least the late 19th Century.

But it wasn’t specifically restaurant tipping that raised the hackles of the Times back in 1899. It was a rumor that the New York Central Railroad might be coming up with a system to do away with tipping of its employees, as this was an age where trains provided all manner of hospitality services for which passengers were expected to fork over a penny or two.

In this brief article (scroll down to last paragraph under the “Topics of the Times” headline; it then continues at the top of the first page), the Times writes about a report out of Chicago that “New York Central officials were about to undertake a campaign against the ‘tip’ nuisance.”

To the writer, this news brought a shred of hope that someone might finally do something about “this vilest of imported vices,” though it was swiftly denied by representatives of the railroad, in spite of the company’s stated preference for wage employees over tipped workers.

The Times makes that argument that customers receive no worse service from employees who earn a living wage and forgo tips.

“Neither this nor any other railway company, so far as known to the general public, encounters the slightest difficulty with engineers, conductors, brakemen, ticket sellers and twenty other classes of employes who are willing to to work for wages and who show all the outward evidences of preferring that form of remuneration to the precarious and degrading rewards of mitigated — not much mitigated — blackmail,” writes the paper. “[W]e cannot help thinking that porters and waiters were much like other men originally, and that even now they could be brought to a realizing sense of the superiority of regular pay over ‘tips.'”

The article goes on to suggest that those who currently choose to live on tips be won over to the side of taking a wage, and if not, be “solemnly threatened with discharge in case they accepted gratuities from passengers,” and questions the railroad’s inability to compel its workers to accept a wage-based pay structure.

“But, seriously, would Mr. Daniels have us understand that the New York Central Company is unable to command the obedience of its own employes as regards their dealings with its patrons?”

The article resulted in a handful of letters to paper, some joining their voices to the anti-tipping movement.

One reader writes in to express his outrage at tipping’s expanded use in “hotels, restaurants, and other public resorts.”

“I consider it degrading to the giver as well as to the receiver,” reads the letter, who identifies himself as a European, but one who has only rarely submitted to the imposition of giving a tip. “I have sounded hundreds of fellow-travelers in Europe and in this country on this subject, and have yet to encounter a single one who could defend this demoralizing system. The very shamefacedness with which it is practiced stamps it with the feature of blackmail and bribery. And the thraldom and yoke under which it puts its victim is truly sad to behold.”

This letter resulted in a response that question this writer’s assertion that tipping could be effectively abolished by simply refusing to tip.

“It would be quite as easy, in my judgment, to abolish the evil in the manner he describes as it would be to bale out the ocean with buckets,” reads this second letter. “If saloon keepers could be prevailed upon not to sell intoxicating liquors there would be no drunkenness!”

And yet another response that essentially calls the earlier letter-writer a stingy coot.

“The writer further calls it blackmail, bribery, and what else, avowing to hardly ever having submitted to this vile imposition,” reads this final note. “If the writer was to have the misfortune to come down to the position of tip-taker, he would no doubt change his mind.”

I can only dream that, 100+ years from now, when Amazon-Costco InBev YumSanto makes headlines with its “authentic bacon sandwich with fried chicken for a bun” that future journalistborgs reference my work on the KFC Double Down. Dare to dream.

[Thanks to this Bloomberg story on the "Futile War On Tipping" for sending us down this old-timey rabbit hole]