Bowing and scraping in reference books
Christine Ammer, The American Heritage Dictionary of Idioms (1997) has this entry for "bow and scrape":
bow and scrape Behave obsequiously or too deferentially, as in In this fashionable store, the salespersons virtually bow and scrape before customers. This term alludes to the old-fashioned custom of bowing so deeply that one's foot draws back and scrapes the ground. A cliché for a century or more, it may be dying out. [Mid-1600s.]
And James Rogers, The Dictionary of Clichés (1985) has this:
Bow and Scrape. Behave obsequiously or with great deference. The term refers to the habit, in former times, of the excessively servile to bow while simultaneously scraping a foot backward. It had appeared in print by 1646, in Jeremiah Whitaker's Uzziah: "Have you not known some in a low condition, to bow and scrape"?
And finally Eric Partridge, A Dictionary of Clichés, fifth edition (1978) has this:
bowing and scraping n.; to bow and scrape, to be too ceremoniously polite; to be obsequiously polite or reverent: mid C 19–20. To bow the head and scrape the ground in drawing back one foot.
Thus much for recent explanations of the term. In his original dictionary, Samuel Johnson, A Dictionary of the English Language (1756) reports that scrape in one of its senses means to bow awkwardly:
To SCRAPE, v.a. 1. To deprive of the surface by the light action of a sharp instrument. Moxon. 2. To take away by scraping; to eraze. Swift. 3. To act upon any surface with a harsh noise. Pope. 4. To gather by great efforts or penurious or trifling diligence. South. 5. To SCRAPE Acquaintance. A low phrase. To curry favour, or insinuate into one's familiarity.
To SCRAPE, v.n. 1. To make a harsh noise. 2. To play ill on a fiddle. 3. To make an awkward bow. Ainsworth.
Thomas Sheridan, A Complete Dictionary of the English Language (1789) simply repeats Johnson's definitions as his own, except that instead of including the "aukward bow" definition as a verb, he lists it under the noun scrape:
SCRAPE, s. Difficulty, perplexity, distress; an aukward bow.
Early Google Books matches
The quotation that Rogers cites from Jeremiah Whitaker, Uzziah (1646) reads at greater length as follows [combined snippets]:
What a basenesse of spirit is in the sons of men, that know not how to endure evil or to enjoy good? Have you not known some in a low condition, to bow and scrape, lick spittle on the ground, crowch and bow, humble and debase themselves, humour, honour, admire, adore them that have had power in their hands, that by seeming humility they might insinuate themselves into the favour of great ones, willing to be low in appearance, that they might rise ; and no sooner have these men got up, but they have discovered unimagined insolency, like mad men got up to the top of a Tower with baggs full of stones, throw (without fear or wit) at every passenger ...
Another interesting early Google Books match for "bow [and] scrape" is from George Fox, Journal, chapter 2, "The First Years of Ministry 1648–1649" (1694):
Moreover, when the Lord sent me forth into the world, He forbade me to put off my hat to any, high or low; and I was required to Thee and Thou all men and women, without any respect to rich or poor, great or small. And as I travelled up and down I was not to bid people Good morrow, or Good evening; neither might I bow or scrape with my leg to any one; and this made the sects and professions to rage. But the Lord's power carried me over all to His glory, and many came to be turned to God in a little time; for the heavenly day of the Lord sprung from on high, and broke forth apace, by the light of which many came to see where they were.
Daniel Defoe, The History of the Devil (1726) likewise distinguishes between bowing and scraping:
I happened to be at an eminent place of God's most devout Worship the other Day, with a Gentleman of my Acquaintance, who, I observed, minded very little the business he ought to come about ; first I saw him always busy staring about him, and bowing this Way and that Way, nay, he made two or three bows and scrapes when he was repeating the Responses to the Ten Commandments, and assure you he made it correspond strangely, so that the Harmony was not so broken in upon as you would expect it should ; thus ; Lord, and a Bow to a fine Lady just come up to her Seat, have Mercy upon us ; ----- three Bows to a Throng of Ladies that came into the next Pew together, and incline ----- then stop'd to make a great Scrape to my Lord -----, our Hearts, just then the Hearts of all the Church were gone off from the Subject, for the Response was over, so he huddled up the rest in Whispers, for God a Mighty would hear him well enough, he said, nay, as well as if he had spoken as loud as his Neighbours did.
The term "scrape acquaintance," which Johnson considers "a low phrase," appears as early as 1658. From John Bramhall, Castigation of Mr. Hobbes (1658) [combined snippets]:
He [Hobbes] telleth us, that when a stone is thrown upwards, "the external agent giveth it a beginning of motion." So far we agree, whatsoever gives it the continuance. He saith further, that "when the stone falleth, it is moved downward by the power of some other agent, which, though it be imperceptible to the eye, is not imperceptible to reason." Herein we differ, wherein all the world hitherto have agreed. But it was very meet, that he should deny the stone the determination of its natural motion, who had denyed the intellectual soul the determination of its own will. Yet since he is pleased to conceale his new Agent, I have no desire to scrape acquaintance with it, especially upon such terms to relinquish that intrinsecal principle which all the World hitherto hath received.
It appears from these examples (and specifically from the instance in George Fox's Journals) that scraping was indeed associated with a deferential action of the foot at least as far back as the 1600s. That "scrape acquaintance" should have existed at least as early as 1658 is a surprise to me, but it strongly suggests a coming into intimacy (or at least familiarity) with someone through obsequiousness—in effect, by bowing one's way into the other person's good graces.
A later sense of scraping, identified by Francis Grose in A Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue (1785) involves very nearly the opposite of obsequiousness:
SCRAPING, a mode of expressing dislike to a person, or sermon, practiced at Oxford by the students in scraping their feet against the ground during the preachment, frequently done to testify their disapprobation of a proctor, who has been as they think too rigorous.
In this action, as in "bowing and scraping," the scraper's foot scuffs the floor; but in every other respect, Grose's scraping has nothing in common with the older term.