Vails were the predecessors of tips in restaurants and other public places; they were gratuities given to servants by visitors to the homes they were employed in. This practice in England dates back to about the 1500s and continued until at least the early 1900s. The idea was that guests in the home gave servants extra work above their usual duties, and so the vails were compensation for that work. However, the number of servants each expecting money could grow burdensome; Oliver Goldsmith is said to have not gone to evening parties of his aristocratic patrons "because he had not a guinea to spare wherewith to fee the lacquey in attendance, who took charge of his cloak or sword" and Samuel Johnson is supposed to have avoided some gatherings for the same reason. There are also stories of masters who took a cut of their servants' profits.

Servants could also decide to be unpleasant to those who did not hand over enough money -- injuring guests' horses or damaging their clothes, for example. In the 1760s groups of masters unsuccessfully attempted to abolish the practice, but servants rebelled, throwing rocks through windows and throwing objects at the assembled wealthy.

By 1900, the English were also blaming American visitors for overtipping servants and raising their expectations for English visitors. The practice was fairly widespread in the U.S. by that time, but after World War I the number of homes with servants declined enough to make it uncommon again in both countries. However, Letitia Baldridge's books on etiquette from the 1980s still recommended tipping friends' cooks, and any servants who made beds or ironed clothing for the visitors, approximately $10.

Sources:
Segrave, Kerry. Tipping: An American Social History of Gratuities. North Carolina: McFarland & Company, 1998.
http://dictionary.oed.com

Vail (?), n. & v. t.

Same as Veil.

© Webster 1913.


Vail, n. [Aphetic form of avail, n.]

1.

Avails; profit; return; proceeds.

[Obs.]

My house is as were the cave where the young outlaw hoards the stolen vails of his occupation. Chapman.

2.

An unexpected gain or acquisition; a casual advantage or benefit; a windfall.

[Obs.]

3.

Money given to servants by visitors; a gratuity; -- usually in the plural.

[Written also vale.]

Dryden.

© Webster 1913.


Vail, v. t. [Aphetic form of avale. See Avale, Vale.] [Written also vale, and veil.]

1.

To let fail; to allow or cause to sink.

[Obs.]

Vail your regard
Upon a wronged, I would fain have said, a maid!
Shak.

2.

To lower, or take off, in token of inferiority, reverence, submission, or the like.

France must vail her lofty-plumed crest!
Shak.

Without vailing his bonnet or testifying any reverence for the alleged sanctity of the relic. Sir. W. Scott.

© Webster 1913.


Vail (?), v. i.

To yield or recede; to give place; to show respect by yielding, uncovering, or the like.

[Written also vale, and veil.] [Obs.]

Thy convenience must vail to thy neighbor's necessity.
South.

© Webster 1913.


Vail, n.

Submission; decline; descent.

[Obs.]

© Webster 1913.

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