Waitresses in American Culture. How Has the Image of the American Waitress Changed Over the Centuries?

Essay, 2014

9 Pages, Grade: 2,0


1 Introduction ... 3
2 History of the Waitressing in the USA ... 3
3 Waitresses in the USA ­ Minimum Wage and no need for Qualifications ... 4
4 The Fascination of the Tip ... 5
5 Waitressing ­ Serving the General Needs ... 6
6 Conclusion ... 7
7 Works cited ... 9

1 Introduction
We all consider eating out as a social event, as we usually eat at home. We go out to eat at a
restaurant for special occasions, for example to celebrate birthdays or unique events like a
graduation or an engagement. Dining out is an art of entertainment for the customer, while it
is daily routine for the employees. In the United States waitresses do not have the best
reputation. They earn less than the minimum wage and are considered as not so smart.
What is the reason for this disdainful treatment of women working as servers and why is it
considered as a mostly female occupation? Eating is one of the basic requirements humans
have. According to Maslow's pyramid of needs eating is one of the p
hysical needs everybody
has besides breathing, drinking, warmth and rest. Why is such a regular and natural thing
like eating regarded as a social event? Why is dining in a high-class restaurant considered
as a status symbol and why are mostly men serving in such places and not women? What
are the psychological, historical and cultural reasons that modulated the image society has of
waitresses today? During my research I will revert to secondary literature and field reports of
waitresses in America, to invest the phenomena of waiting tables in the United States.
2 History of the Waitressing in the USA
In this world there have been waitresses since the very early times of Greek myths. Hebe,
the daughter of Zeus and his wife Hera poured wine for the other gods. (Owings 7) But what
do we know about the first waitress of the United States? In the 1600s when English and
Dutch settlers came to America before the States were united, taverns were established.
(Owings 7) The first American waitress "is known neither by name nor by myth" (Owings 7)
but it is safe to say that she worked in one of those taverns, as they all were run by family
members and not by random employees. Plus, was the first American waitress living in the
probably in Boston, New York or Philadelphia
as the people who served food in the
South were young male slaves. (Owings 7-8) And it was so common, that expectations
attracted attention: In West Virginia a journal from the 1780s was found in which it is said that
at Paxton's tavern "breakfast... was served by Captain Paxton's daughters". (Owings 8) If the
occasion has not been rare, there would have been no reason for its owner to write it down.
As slaves do not count as what we consider as waiters
, we can conclude that "the first
waitress [...] was a northern urbanite". (Owings 8) The American pilgrims brought
the taverns and in 1620 they even were allowed to sell alcohol. It was not unlikely that
women became tavern keepers; mostly they had to run the tavern in widowhood. (Owings 8)
Still, what we consider as the job of a waitress nowadays is not what the waitresses were
doing back in the 17
century. Most of the time they put a bowl of food on a table and the

customers were in the need of helping themselves. Simply, because it was more important to
dole out spirits: Alcohol was regarded as healthy, "as helpful in fending off diseases from air
and water and in making people work harder:" (Owings 8) Waitresses today are not that
eminently respected in society, which we will discover later on, but it might has started with
the selling of liquids in taverns. Unfortunately were all kinds of people attracted by the
, as "they catered to transient seamen or day laborers, served beverages under the
counter to servants and apprentic
es, and acted as houses of rendezvous for prostitutes."
(Owings 8) All in all, serving spoiled the waitresses. And they did a great job in tainting
themselves: there are recorded cases from the seventeenth century in which waitresses
committed "carnal wickedness [with] persons of both Sexes" and in the early eighteenth
century waitress allowed "Whores, Vagabonds and diverse Idle Men" into her tavern, which
was regarded as scandalous. (Owings 8) All in all have waitresses had a bad reputation
since they are recorded in history.
On December 13
in 1827 the country's first restaurant opened. It was settled in New York
and named Delmonico's. (Owings 9)
The business of waitressing has been established in the
middle of the nineteenth century, but it was not as usual to employ women as waitresses as
it is today. (Owings 9) It was Fred Harvey, the entrepreneur and founder of Harvey House,
who decided to employ women as servers after "he became fed up with drunken waiters."
(Owings 9) Still did he call his servers not waitresses. It was considered as a title promoting
someone of a quite low status, even lowlier than "maid". In the nineteenth century the term
"waitress" defined a woman who waited tables at private households. (Owings 10) Compared
to the
work in a restaurant, the effort in a private home seemed to be much more
ambitious. The waitresses had books, explaining them how to get rid of stains and taught
them about different types of washing diverse plates and glasses. Even though these women
had their own sleeping-rooms and enjoyed the privileges a huge mansion offers, have they
all packed their things and headed out to find a job in the restaurant business. (Owings 10)
3 Waitresses in the USA
Minimum Wage and no need for Qualifications
It is not hard to get a job as a waitress at a restaurant in the states. The sociologist/teacher
Frances Donovan from Chicago decided on becoming an undercover waitress and wrote her
experiences down in a book called The Woman Who Waits. (Owings 10-11) Pretending to be
a server was easier than she expected it to be. She said there were days when she only put
on an apron and said she was a waitress and everybody accepted her to be one. (Owings
11) Actually, getting work as a server appeared easier than keeping it. She managed to get
fired within six days from two different restaurants, for quite ridiculous reasons like running

into another waitress while entering the wrong door. (Owings 12) This is easy to explain:
Women who want to become waitresses in the US are a dime a dozen. They do not need
special skills. In 1912 there has been a report published by Chicago's Juvenile Protective
Association listing the three reasons for women to become waitresses. The report included
motives like the work with food and that the job brought them in contact with many people,
but the number one intention for becoming a server was "because it did `not require any
skill'". (Owings 13)
An occupation is regarded as a low pay job when the employees earn less than 235 Dollars
a week. (Gunderson, Jain 172) A table shows that in 1976 51% of all the part time workers in
restaurant service were female with an average income of 113,01 Dollars a week.
(Gunderson, Jain 171) For the full-time waitresses the percentage of female employees even
counted up to 71,3%. (Gunderson, Jain 213) That means that the usual waitress earns less
than half of what is considered as the weekly minimum wage. Especially for female-headed
families in the USA this occurs to be a problem as they "are likely to be poor
and they
constitute a large and growing percentage of the
poverty population." (Gunderson,
Jain 170)
4 The Fascination of the Tip
People who work as waiters in the USA do not receive the minimum wage. Everything
servers in the States earn is the money they make out of tipping. They only obtain a small
profit by just receiving the tips, which is the reason for stereotypical images that show the
poor waitress or the broke college student in American society. In the USA it is regarded as
standard to tip the waitress an amount of 15% of the total costs a customer has in the end of
his visit in a restaurant. (Sutton 192) The 15% are considered as a benchmark. The general
rule is; if the customer is satisfied with the service, he rewards the waitress and tips more
than the usual percentage, if he is not pleased, he penalizes the server by tipping less than
the 15%. (Sutton 192) Waitresses have several ways to manipulate the customer and
making him or her pay a higher tip, like drawing smileys on their bills, offering them candy or
leaning forward while taking their order. (Sutton 193) Still is it not always in their power.
Other factors that the servers cannot control often play a role in tipping behavior, like the
general mood or the weather outside. (Sutton 193) The psychology of tipping
behavior has led managers of high-end restaurants to a decision which is quite uncommon in
American culture. Most of the high-class restaurants have male waiters working there. The
reason for men dominating that position is simple and coherent: women serving food still
represents the image of the housewife and mother. The clientele at high-end restaurants
should not feel reminded of the usual; in comparison to most other restaurants which choose
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Waitresses in American Culture. How Has the Image of the American Waitress Changed Over the Centuries?
University of Paderborn
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waitresses, american, culture, image, waitress, changed, over, centuries
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Julia Merten (Author), 2014, Waitresses in American Culture. How Has the Image of the American Waitress Changed Over the Centuries?, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/375458


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