Tipping Is Big Business
$20 millions in small change — that’s a year’s take for the 50,000 Canadians who have to depend on your tips for a living
FROM the Mount Royal Hotel in Montreal to the trackside at Windsor Station it’s three city blocks. They’re not long blocks and they slope downhill, but for a travelling man trying to stand off an expense account, or for a tourist trying to save the price of tomorrow’s breakfast, they constitute as hazardous and punishing a gauntlet as ever drew a bank roll’s blood.
This is Pourboire Alley, the Home of the Nonstop Tip. In the five minutes it takes to get from his hotel room to his Pullman space in a waiting train, the average wayfarer tips five different people, and commits himself to tip a sixth person later on.
He tips the chambermaid who made his bed and emptied the ash trays during his stay in the hotel.
He tips the bellboy who carries his luggage through the lobby.
He tips the doorman who summons a taxicab.
He tips the taxidriver who takes him to the station.
He tips the redcap who wrests his bags from him and carries them to the train.
When he gets off the train he tips the Pullman porter or the chair car steward.
Every city in Canada has its Pourboire Alley. Some—for instance the stretch from the Chateau Laurier to the Union Depot in Ottawa, and the labyrinthine tunnel from the Royal Alexandra Hotel to the CPR Station in Winnipeg—are underground foot passages whose lonely fastnesses a wary traveller can sometimes traverse without meeting more than two or three candidates for his largess. But in a few others the number of bearers and beaters who expect to be paid for such abstruse and insubstantial services as opening a door for the departing bwana actually rises from five to seven. The added starters usually are a hotel porter and a cab checker at the railway station.
THE amount levied by each of these uniformed beneficiaries is determined, theoretically, by the benefactor, but in fact it is governed by customs as firm as law and at least as hard to evade. It is as unthinkable to tip less than 10 cents as not to tip at all. At the recognized minimums, a traveller making a three-night trip—carrying two pieces of luggage, and spending two nights in a Pullman, and one night in a hotel that is more than a block from the railroad—will make the following expenditures on tips:
Bellboy ..............j ‘25
Coming: Chambermaid .. .25
Pullman porter ....... .25
Total, going and coming, $2.65.
These figures, of course, make no allowance for the inconvenient phenomenon that tippers have not yet been educated to eschew the habit of eating.
Unless they eat in one-arm lunches or in the kind of restaurants that still manage to serve a 40-cent
table d’hôte, they will be required to subsidize at least one waiter or waitress after every meal. If their expense accounts or personal fortunes are large enough to make them eligible for admission to the Afghanistan Room, they are also expected to reward a headwaiter or a captain for performing such inconclusive rites as shaking a cone-shaped serviette into the shape of a square or placing two fingers on the back of a chair.
Any drinks they drink in the bar, any ice water or telegrams they have delivered to their rooms, or any railroad space they buy through the porter’s desk are also subject to the semiautomatic surcharge for service. And since wartime shortages and wartime spending were drawn into their unholy alliance against the pocketbook, the tip has spilled over into the realm of the bribe.
Every regular wartime guest at some time or other has been accommodated or rebuffed by the type of room clerk to whom a bank note in the hand is worth two reservations in the rack. Every housewife knows by experience, observation or hearsay that the porterhouse is not always to the swift.
Even without including the cost of bribes and gouges, Canadians and visitors to Canada annually spend at least $20 millions tipping people for whose services they have already paid in the form of railway and taxi fares, meal checks, hotel bills and fees to barbers, hairdressers, manicurists and bootblacks. At least 50,000 Canadian employees depend on tips for their livelihood, in whole or in part.
This estimate is arrived at partly through data supplied by the Dominion Bureau of Statistics and partly through personal
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sleuthing. If it’s a somewhat arbitrary estimate, it’s also a highly conservative one.
Tips Are Big Business
At the last official census, in 1941, a total of 65,720 Canadian men and women were employed in what might be called the “tipping trades.” Some of them—small-town barbers, for instance, and waiters in inexpensive eating places—collect no tips at all. But their class as a whole not only expects and relies on tips, but would quite literally be reduced to pauperhood if tips weren’t forthcoming.
According to the Bureau of Statistics the average yearly wage of these 65,720 tipping-trades employees was $512. They worked an average of 40 weeks a year. Excluding tips, their
average earnings were $12.80 a week. In the highest paid subdivision 2,604 stewards and maîtres d’hôtel received salaries averaging $1,019 a year. In the lowest paid subdivision 22,483 waitresses received an average of $303 a year from their employers.
The intervening brackets included 4,638 barbers, who drew an average of $761 a year from their employers; 8,829 taxi drivers (average yearly wage $733); 3,382 porters and bellboys
(average wage, $694); 13,484 waiters (average wage $630); 5,580 lady hairdressers (average wage $486); 483
bootblacks (average wage $382); and 824 telegraph messengers (average wage $371) j
Even allowing for the relatively well-paid minority whose employers don’t ask them to live on tips, the simple fact that our hospital wards aren’t filled with undernourished waitresses and porters is reliable evidence that the members of the tipping trades are collecting enough money in tips
to maintain themselves on minimum living standards.
To increase their earnings by as little as a dollar a day—a considerably lower “take” than will be admitted to by any self-respecting tippee— would require $23 millions a year in handouts.
The tip, manifestly, has become big business, and big business is its real, if well-camouflaged and none-toohappy, beneficiary. The waiter who accepts your 15 cents in the railway dining car is really accepting the 15 cents not on his own behalf but on behalf of the stockholders of the road. When you toss a quarter to a bellhop, you’re not endowing the bellhop. You’re endowing the corporation for which he works. As long as you continue to tip, as though tips were a fixed charge, the employers of the people you tip will continue to pay starvation wages, relying on your well-regimented generosity to help them meet their obligations to the people on their payrolls.
It’s a three-way deadlock in which the employer, the tipper and the tippee are the joint and almost helpless victims of what one student of tipping has called “the tyranny of custom.” If the tipper stops dispensing quarters and dimes, he stops getting service. If the tippee stops accepting them, he stops eating. If the employer—the owner of a railroad, restaurant, hotel or barbershop—invokes a “no-tipping rule,” he has to raise the pay of his help. To do that he has to raise prices and risk losing business.
In the final accounting nobody wins under the tipping system. The tippee forfeits security; his employer forfeits good will; the tipper is subjected to a constant, expensive and unrewarding nuisance, for since his gratuities became automatic, they no longer buy him anything but immunity from dirty looks.
It has been argued that the practice of tipping has deep-seated psychological roots, that many people who grumble loudly about tipping really love it. The act of tossing a dime to a fellow human gives a man a feeling of power, superiority and unassailable solvency—and the greater the likelihood that he had to pry open Junior’s bank to get the dime in the first place, the greater the sense of uplift.
This theory, a by no means unorthodox one in psychiatric circles, recently acquired a dismaying amount of support in the wake of a United States railroad’s humanitarian attempt to banish tipping from its dining cars. In preparation for the great experiment the railroad, a small but progressive line named the Pere Marquette, raised the salaries of all its waitresses, hosts, assistant hosts, cooks and dishwashers. It examined its operating revenues and decided that a covering increase in fares was not necessary; in effect the railroad was undertaking to do the passenger’s tipping for him, at no cost to the passenger.
On June 10 the Pere Marquette’s dining car menus began carrying a note that dining car employees no longer expected tips. The ensuing victory for antitippers was something less than sensational.
For the first two weeks more than half the road’s dining car patrons went right on leaving tips. On the backs of the menus a number of customers scribbled comments in praise of the new policy. A number of others scrawled declarations to the general effect that no fat slob of a railway exe-
cutive was going to tell them what to do with their money, and tipped more lavishly than ever.
“Breaking a habit so deeply rooted as the practice of tipping is no simple matter,” Robert J. Bowman, president of the railroad, said sadly. “It takes time and the kind of patience that is required in a successful courtship.”
How It all Started
As the Pere Marquette adventure entered its second month, it was slowly gaining ground. According to Mr. Bowman’s most recent estimate, no more than 40% of the railroad's dining car guests are tipping now, and the percentage is falling.
Ultimately, the railroad hopes to do away with tips to Pullman porters too, all part of the policy Mr. Bowman sums up this way:
“A start has to be made, sometime and somewhere, to abate the increasing inroads on the pocketbook of the average traveller, who is oftentimes deterred from riding on trains because of ‘extras’ in the form of tips for various services that should be performed as a matter of course.”
On this continent the habit of tipping has attained wide currency only within the last half century. Its universal origins date back to Biblical times. The Good Samaritan, whose influence on history is otherwise irreproachable, may have become the ancestor of all tippers when he “took out two pence and gave them to the host.”
By the time the printing press was invented the custom had spread to Europe, and to such an extent that the kind of travellers who appeared in books almost never dismounted from a stagecoach without flinging a louis d’or to the postillion, or put spurs to a palfrey without showering the groom in doubloons. The perpetrators of this irresponsible conduct, however, were nearly always counts or highwaymen.
Salesmen in ladies’ furs, vacationing schoolteachers and minor business executives were under no pressure to follow their example. And there is good reason to believe that the quantities of tender involved were exaggerated anyway.
The French word for tip is and was pourboire; the German is and was Trinkgeld; the Spanish is and was parabeber. They all mean the same thing, “drink money.” The travelling public were invited, if they saw fit, to buy the medieval cab starter a jug of sack or, at the most, a flagon of mulled wine. There is nothing in the literature or etymology of the period to indicate that they were held responsible for paying his rent, buying his clothes and putting his children through McGill.
According to the best authorities, tipping began to get organized in the 18th century, when an English coffeehouse, whose name has been lost, installed a coin box labelled with the letters T.I.P. These initials meant “To insure promptitude.” When he heard a new coin drop the waiter got cracking, even as he does in theory today.
After the advent of the steamship, and with it the transatlantic voyager and the emigrating garçon, the New World was exposed to contagion in constantly increasing doses. But up to the turn of the century tipping was still relatively isolated. The tippers were the big butter-and-egg men. The tippees, for the most part, were the imported Maîtres D.
The first world war, together with a spate of loose money in the twenties, made every travelling salesman the poor man’s Diamond Jim. And de-
spite a partial check in the depression years, tipping held the line so staunchly that when the Motor Transport Committee of New York made a survey in 1931 it discovered that taxicab tips alone in New York that year totalled $25 millions. Just before Pearl Harbor a Fortune survey indicated that the United States’ total annual bill for tips was at least $200 millions.
It’s on the Government
Some informed guessers—there are no real authorities on tipping—believe that the amount has doubled by now. On the whole, Americans always have tipped more grandly and indiscriminately than Canadians. The sample levies mentioned at the start of this piece represent the Canadian scale at rock bottom. American equivalents are a good 50% higher.
Both here and in the U. S. the wartime and postwar tip owe their swelling girth largely to a device which was aimed at discouraging spending— the Excess Profits Tax. The most abnormal tippers usually travel on expense accounts, and the five-spot that looks like manna to George, the Pullman porter, is only another income tax deduction to the business firm or individual who passed it on.
What are the prospects for relief, if any? They aren’t very impressive. In a roundabout and gingerly way a number of American states have begun to spar with the question by asking their courts to decide whether tips are wages or not. If tips aren’t wages, many hotels, railroads and restaurants have been beating the minimum wage laws.
They’ll have to establish regular pay schedules based on the cost of living. Theoretically, at least, the tipper, the tippee and the employer
of the tippee will be released simultaneously from the compulsions that bind them all to an unnatural, haphazard and irksome way of doing business. So far the courts haven’t been able to agree.
Even the thin ray of hope that Justice holds doesn’t shine on Canada’s maze of Pourboire Alleys. This country’s minimum wage laws, such as they are, consist of a hodgepodge of provincial enactments which bear little practical relation to the cost of keeping nourished, clothed and sheltered.
Even in the largest cities, where minimums are most generous, they run as low as nothing at all and no higher than $16.80 a week. It’s true that Canadian employers aren’t allowed to include tips when they submit their pay sheets for governmental approval. But it’s equally true—at least among the kind of people who can afford to eat in flossy restaurants and stay at the best hotels—that two dollars a day doesn’t look like a very healthy wage, and the men and women who are paid so little will always seem like legitimate contenders for public bounty. Until and unless employers in the tipping trades can be induced voluntarily to pay their help more money, the help will continue to scramble for fresh money, and the customers will continue to oblige.
And in spite of the tears that are often shed for their lost “dignity” and their vanishing “independence,” Joe the Bellhop and Maisie the Waitress still agree that, from where they sit, things could be a lot worse.
“Look, mister,” one of Joe’s colleagues said the other day. “I’m averaging 10 bucks a week wages and 30 a week in tips. I don’t pay income tax. And if I don’t like a guy, he don’t get service. If that ain’t independence, what is?”