Jan. 1 (Bloomberg) -- Tipping at Christmas and New Year’s is a long-standing American custom. We tend to give a little extra around the holidays to those who provide personal, often intimate, services -- the people who deliver our mail, cut our hair, clean our houses, care for our children, and open the doors to our apartment buildings.
We can thank newsboys for popularizing this tradition centuries ago. The “carriers” who delivered the first American newspapers to subscribers were typically printers’ assistants. Like many in today’s service industries, they often worked for low wages, or only for room and board, and relied on yearly tips as crucial supplements to their income.
To encourage these tips, newsboys delivered an annual “carrier’s address” to each subscriber, on Christmas or New Year’s Day. Printed on a large broadside sheet, like a poster, a carrier’s address contained original verse recapping the major events from the previous year, offered good wishes for the New Year, and reminded patrons of the faithful service they had received from their carrier. The first known address was printed in 1720, and the practice persisted at least until the 1950s.
The addresses were partly genuine expressions of thanks and good wishes. But newsboys also weren’t shy about asking for money. One delivery boy for the New York Gazette placed an ad in his own newspaper on Jan. 2, 1758, asking his patrons to be generous, even though he was a day late getting out his annual address. Having to deliver the weekly paper on New Year’s Day, he had his hands full:
“Lawrence Sweeney, the Carrier of the New York Gazette, hopes the Customers thereto will REMEMBER his past Services, by a New Year’s Gift,” the ad read, “when he waits on them Tomorrow with his YEARLY VERSES, the Expedition with which he travels on Mondays not allowing him Time even to take any Thing that may be offered him ToDay.”
The text of such addresses was highly idiosyncratic. Verses ranged from the humorous and satirical to the dry and serious. Their authors included newspaper editors, well-known figures such as Benjamin Franklin and Daniel Webster, and the young carriers themselves. Incorporating state-of-the-art printing techniques and covering topics ranging from war to temperance, taxes to fashion, they captured the zeitgeist. Yet despite their diversity, the addresses were united in a single purpose -- to solicit cash.
Then, as now, a good tip depended on the customer’s disposition, disposable income and relationship with the service provider. Persuasive carriers and those working urban routes did quite well. Joseph T. Buckingham, who would become an influential editor and politician, recalled his New Year’s windfall in 1797 from some 30 patrons of the Greenfield Gazette in Massachusetts:
“I counted my wealth, -- six dollars and seventy-five cents, -- all in quarters and eighths of a dollar, -- and locked it in my chest! Never before had I been the owner of so much money, -- never before so rich.”
Working as an apprentice at the Columbian Centinel in Boston, Samuel Woodworth received $10 in tips on New Year’s Day in 1802, which he used to buy presents for his family, including an almanac and a pair of candlesticks. According to historian Gerald D. McDonald, between 1860 and 1865, carriers in New York were collecting a total of $5,000 in tips each year.
Carriers referred to these payments as “gifts,” and patrons received a printed address as their thanks and acknowledgement. More importantly, generous tippers secured another year of attentive service, making annual gratuities resemble obligations or bribes more than largesse. Thinking of it more as a monetary exchange than an expression of sentiment, a recipient of a carrier’s address in 1865 in Colorado wrote on his copy, “Cost me 50 cents.”
Other service providers -- such as bootblacks, watchmen, street sweepers and lamplighters -- adopted the practice in the early 19th century. Although their annual addresses never really caught on as they had for newsboys, these workers expected annual tips just the same.
By the early 20th century, Americans felt so oppressed by tipping obligations (both at holiday time and throughout the year) that they launched an anti-tipping crusade. It wasn’t effective. By mid-century, publications such as Good Housekeeping were publishing tipping guides for the holidays, and everyone from financial experts to etiquette advisers weighed in on the fraught nature of the Christmas gratuity.
“A tip during the holidays was down payment on better service in the coming year,” wrote Kerry Segrave, author of “Tipping: An American Social History of Gratuities.” In large part, we have the newspaper carriers to thank for that.
(Wendy Woloson is an independent scholar and consulting historian. Her most recent book is “In Hock: Pawning in America from the Revolution to the Great Depression.” The opinions expressed are her own.)
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