Plus ça Change, Plus C’est la Même Chose

Sound familiar?

I do not object to waiters receiving tips, and the man, who gives one, is mostly benefited, because the waiter will give him more attention and pleasant service. The fact is, that writers of almost all the nations in the world have argued and written many articles on the subject, denouncing the custom of giving and receiving tips, but there will never be any change, for the reason, principally, that there is not enough clear money–profit–in the restaurant business to allow paying the waiters and other employees good living wages. The expenses are so enormous that the proprietor is obliged to hire men for the lowest possible wages, at which he can get them. If he were to pay his men fair wages…he would be obliged to charge much more, and have, altogether, a higher-priced bill of fare. Numbers of people would not then be able to patronize restaurants, who are in the habit of doing so now. This is the reason why the waiter receives tips, as his wages are generally not sufficient to pay his living expenses.

This reminds me of something I might have once read on Waiter Rant–the eponymous waiter, perhaps, reprinting a manifesto that an owner posted to an employee bulletin board, or some such.

But no matter how modern that attitude still is, about compensating waiters, this excerpt isn’t a recent piece of writing. It’s from a facsimile reprint of Harry Johnson’s New and Improved (Illustrated) Bartenders’ Manual and a Guide for Hotels and Restaurants. This facsimile (from New York’s Mud Puddle Books) is a reprint of the 1900 edition. Yes, it’s one-freaking-hundred-and-eight years old.

The more things change, the more they stay the same.

Oh, another interesting point. If you look back at the excerpt I quoted, you’ll see an ellipses: “If he were to pay his men fair wages…he would be obliged to charge much more…”. I did that because I didn’t want to give up the game right away. But what’s also interesting here is what the ellipses obscure. Here’s the original text:

If he were to pay his men fair wages–from $12 to $15 a week–he would be obliged to charge much more…

It’s still common for waiters and bartenders to start at $2.15 an hour, even in New York City. A 40-hour week would mean $86 a week. I’m no economist, and I don’t know how exactly to calculate the rate of inflation, but I suspect that even $12 in 1900 wages would equal far more than $86 in 2008 wages.


2 thoughts on “Plus ça Change, Plus C’est la Même Chose

  1. Cool excerpt. Glad to see the debate hasn’t changed much in $100 years 🙂

    The BLS has an inflation calculator, but it only goes back to 1913. According to that, $15 in 1913 is equivalent to $333.28 in today’s money. That also puts a nickel tip as worth a little over $1 in today’s money. Any idea what typical tips were back then?

    Of course none of this comes close to fully accounting for quality of life improvements brought about by technology. I’d still rather be a bartender in 2008.


  2. My, how times do change.

    >> If he were to pay his men fair wages–from $12 to $15 a week

    $12-15 per week would be the average salaryman’s wage from 1900… higher then, as now, than the average total compensation for a waiter or barman.

    This inflation calculator
    suggests that the $86/week paid in 2007 might be equal to $3.49 in 1900.

    Still not much.

    Wait and bar staff are sales people and will always be paid primarily on commission (tips).

    My, how times never change.


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