Thorstein Veblen originated the concept of the leisure class in his first and most famous book, The Theory of the Leisure Class, published in 1899. In this economic study of social institutions he also invented the related concepts of pecuniary emulation, conspicuous leisure, and conspicuous consumption, which shifted significantly the emphasis of social analysis from the economics of production to the economics of consumption. While Karl Marx is the classic social theorist of labor, work, production, and practical activities, Thorstein Veblen is the classic social theorist of leisure, consumption, expressive, and honorific activities.
The Theory of the Leisure Class
As Albert W. Levi points out, the underlying thesis of Veblen's theory of the leisure class is simultaneously simple and revolutionary; namely, that elite members of society show their "superiority not by their capacity to lead, administer or create, but by their conspicuous wastefulness: by an expenditure of effort, time, and money which is intrinsically reputable in a class-conscious world" (p. 239). Members of the leisure class display their status by their expressed disdain for all forms of productive work, especially any type of manual labor. They seek self-respect from immediate peers in competition for honor through the reputable possession of wealth. They are motivated by pecuniary emulation, and this motivation is clearly reflected in their patterns of conspicuous leisure and conspicuous consumption.
Veblen notes that the common element of conspicuous leisure and conspicuous consumption is "waste." Conspicuous leisure represents a waste of time and effort, whereas conspicuous consumption represents a waste of goods. "Both are methods of demonstrating the possession of wealth, and the two are conventionally accepted as equivalents. The choice between them is a question of advertising expediency. . ." (Veblen, p. 71).
Veblen's ideas about conspicuous consumption presage sociological analysis of the contemporary consumer society and the longstanding American tradition of "keeping up with the Joneses." However, notwithstanding Veblen's several original ideas and observations, his theory of the leisure class has a number of weaknesses. Perhaps the major weakness of Veblen's theory is that he does not precisely define the leisure class, often intermixing its membership in terms of the upper classes, aristocracy, bourgeoisie, and nouveau riche.
As C. Wright Mills critically observes in the introduction to The Theory of the Leisure Class, Veblen does not develop the theory of the leisure class, but rather "a theory of a particular element of the upper classes in one period of history of one nation" (p. xiv). Mills further notes: "what he wrote about was mainly Local Society and its Last Resorts, and especially women of these worlds" (1953, p. xiv).
Newport, Rhode Island, in the Gilded Age
The glamour and glitter of the summer social scenes of Newport, Rhode Island, during America's Gilded Age, from the end of the Civil War until the beginning of World War I, highlight Mills's observations and illustrate Veblen's concepts of pecuniary emulation, conspicuous leisure, and conspicuous consumption.
Perhaps the most overt and ostentatious display of wealth by members of the leisure class during the Gilded Age were the large mansions that served as the summer homes of the ultra-wealthy in Newport. These grand villas were called "cottages" in remembrance of the modest houses of the early nineteenth century! The most famous of these opulent Newport palaces include Chateau-sur-Mer, The Breakers, The Elms, Marble House, and Rose-cliff, which are all maintained by the Preservation Society of Newport County and opened to the public for guided tours. These tours demonstrate the lavish lifestyles the members of the leisure class led during the Gilded Age. "Cultural advisors supplied Newport cottagers with the best international taste money could buy, filling European period-piece mansions with historical bric-a-brac and devising gardens with Japanese teahouses and Ottoman kiosks" (Sterngass, p. 221).
The cottages of the Astors, Belmonts, and Vanderbilts were privatized sites for summer dinner parties, dances, and balls for the rich and famous. Guests at a dinner party might number more than 200, and a single ball might cost in excess of $200,000 in the 1890s. Of course many servants were required to maintain the cottages and to oversee the summer activities of patrons and their guests. As Jon Sterngress records: "The Belmonts hired sixteen house servants and ten yardmen for their mansion; the Marble House trumped them with nine French chefs, while the Breakers had accommodations for at least a dozen grooms" (p. 223).
The summer parties in general and the resources of the cottages in particular were controlled by women who managed household budgets of hundreds of thousands of dollars, supervised dozens of servants, and contested with one another for social supremacy. The acknowledged "First Queen of Newport" was "the" Mrs. Astor (Mrs. William Backhouse Astor Jr., nee Caroline Webster Schermerhorn). C. W. de Lyon Nichols published a book in 1904 titled The Ultra-Fashionable Peerage of America. In his census of the 400 most ultra-fashionable people in America at the beginning of the twentieth century, he lists Mrs. Astor as number one, and stated: "Newport, not the White House, is the supreme court of social appeals in the United States; Mrs. Astor, and not the wife of the President of the United States, is the first lady of the land, in the realm of fashion" (p. 23).
Several "grand duchesses" vied to replace Mrs. Astor as the dominant social leader of the Newport summer scene. But it was "the great triumvirate" of Alva Vanderbilt Belmont, Mamie Fish, and Tessie Oelrichs who rose to the top of Newport's leisure-class hierarchy (O'Connor, pp. 175–215). This trio of highly willful women sponsored dramatic displays of conspicuous consumption. "Their absurd prodigality became a staple of mass circulation newspapers, such as Newport's "dog dinner," at which the guests' canine companions dined on pâté and chicken, or another dinner in which a fish-filled stream flowed languorously down the center of the table" (Sterngrass, p. 226).
While women of the ultra-smart set strived for social domination, ultra-smart men strived to become outstanding sportsmen. As Richard O'Connor wrote: "Their yachts, polo ponies and racks of English-made rifles and shotguns were more than expensive toys; they were investments in prestige, certificates of acceptance by their peers, as ennobling as a seat on the stock exchange and a decent rating in Dun & Bradstreet" (p. 132).
In large measure Newport was the birthplace of exclusive sports in America, including such imported elite English pastimes as cricket, croquet, fox hunting, golf, polo, tennis, and yachting. Most notably the first United States National Lawn Tennis Championship was held at the Newport Casino (built by James Gordon Bennett) in 1881. And in the early 2000s, the International Tennis Hall of Fame was located at the site of the old Newport Casino. The United States Golf Association, founded in 1894, held its first amateur championship in Newport in October 1895, and, on the following day, Horace Rawlins received $150 for winning the first U.S. Open on the same course.
During the Gilded Age, Newport became the yachting capitol of the world. The New York Yacht Club's annual regatta started in Newport in 1883, and Newport Harbor in the 1890s served as the home for the boats built to defend America's Cup.
Yet another elite pastime of the rich and famous was polo. The first international polo match in America was held in Newport in 1886. Mrs. John King Van Rensselaer in her 1905 account of Newport Our Social Capital observed: "It is at the Polo Grounds that the smart set love to gather, and there is no more brilliant sight than the ranks of handsomely appointed equipages, the gaily dressed women mixed with the bright uniforms of the players, who deem knocking about the little polo balls the greatest sport in the world" (p. 356).
In sum, the early sporting scene in Newport reflected the desire of individuals to achieve status in the sphere of leisure by large investments of capital and time in exclusive, nonproductive pastimes.
The New Gilded Age
Since the publication of Veblen's The Theory of the Leisure Class a century ago, America has become an ever more consumer-oriented society, and the spheres of sport and leisure have become increasingly important for displaying social status. These historical trends are clearly evident in the patterns of conspicuous consumption and conspicuous leisure displayed by the many emergent forms of nouveau riche social formations such as business tycoons of the 1920s, Texas millionaires in the 1940s and 1950s, music and media celebrities in the l960s and 1970s, and the computer and Internet magnates of the 1980s and 1990s.
Social status involves leisure practices and pastimes that emphasize and publicly display distinctions and differences of lifestyles. It seems, however, that the major means of status signaling in the sphere of leisure have remained much the same for the past century.
Max Kaplan, for example, has identified seven distinctive ways of advertising one's wealth and social status in leisure practices that have served equally well in different historical periods. First, individuals can signal their wealth and status using special equipment. Such equipment may range from a $75 million yacht, to a $320,000 Rolls-Royce Phantom, to a $500 Great Big Bertha II driver from Callaway Golf.
Second, social status can be signaled by cost of participation. For example, the sailboat racing syndicates of billionaires Larry Ellison of the United States and Ernesto Bertarelli of Switzerland are likely to spend upward of $100 million each in competing for the America's Cup in 2007. More modest costs of participation are reflected in golf membership in private clubs. "For instance, the initiation fee at Trump International Golf Club in West Palm Beach, Fla., site of the LPGA's ADT Championship, is $350,000 with yearly dues of $13,000" (Lieber, p. 3C).
Third, prestige can be bestowed through the cost of watching. It is one thing to watch a professional football game from a million-dollar box seat and another to view the game from the bleachers. Even leisurely watching can serve as a status symbol as evidenced by the $250 to $1,000 daily rates to rent a cabana on the beach next to a luxury hotel.
Fourth, social status can be conspicuously displayed in terms of time of participation. The professional doctor, dentist, or lawyer can play golf at midday at midweek, whereas a blue-collar worker does well to play on a Saturday or Sunday afternoon. Similarly, the parvenu plutocrat can take several vacations throughout the year, whereas the average worker does well to get two weeks of annual leave.
Fifth, the social elite may set themselves apart by means of special dress. An expensive tennis dress, equestrian outfit, or ski apparel readily distinguishes the rich from the poor. And, of course, expensive accessories such as watches, rings, and necklaces clearly distinguish the rich from the poor. An individual wearing a $14,000 Patek Philippe classic men's gold watch readily sets himself apart from a person sporting a $25 Timex watch.
Sixth, prestige can be clearly indicated in terms of travel costs. The nouveau riche can travel to Paris or Monte Carlo for a leisure outing, whereas lower-status individuals stay and play at home. Similarly, the ultra-wealthy can go hunting on an African safari, while very poor go hunting in their local swamp.
Seventh, social status can be denoted by amount of expendable assets. The modest spend a few dollars on bingo or a friendly game of poker, whereas the wealthy can gamble for millions in reserved settings at Las Vegas casinos. Significant symbols of affluence include living in an exclusive neighborhood, having at least a second or vacation home, and sending one's children to expensive and exclusive secondary schools, colleges, and universities. And if an individual wants to be especially conspicuous in their display of consumption, they can order white truffles at $2,500 per pound, or pay $738 for a box of twenty-five Cigars, Aniversario No. 1, Dominican Republic from Davidoff's.
In addition to Kaplan's seven status distinctions, individuals can advertise their place in the status hierarchy of society by appearance and manner, that is, style of involvement. For example, "the dominant classes engage in leisure pursuits that stress manners, deportment, disinterestedness, refinement, self-control, and social distance" (Booth and Loy, p. 10).
As Douglas Dowd concludes in his summary account of Veblen's Theory of the Leisure Class: "We do not consume in order to satisfy our basic needs for comfort and survival . . . but in order to create a decorous appearance. And the appearance sought for is the appearance of membership in the leisure class" (p.13).
See also: Gilded Age Leisure and Recreation
Booth, Douglas, and John Loy. "Sport, Status, and Style," Sport History Review 30 (May 1999): 1–26.
Dowd, Douglas. Thorstein Veblen. New York: Washington Square Press, 1964.
Kaplan, Max. Leisure in America. New York: John Wiley and Sons, 1960.
Lieber, Jill. "Few Can Afford Membership in Private Club." USA Today (10 April 2003): 3C.
Levi, Albert W. Philosophy and the Modern World. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1959.
Nichols, C. W. de Lyon. The Ultra-Fashionable Peerage of America. New York: George Harjes, 1904.
O'Connor, Richard. The Golden Summers: An Antic History of Newport. New York: G. P. Putnam's Sons, 1974.
Van Rensselaer, May King. Newport, Our Social Capital. Philadelphia: J. P. Lippincott, 1905; reprint, New York: Arno Press, 1975.
Veblen, Thorstein. The Theory of the Leisure Class. New York: Macmillan Company, 1899; reprint, New York: New American Library, 1953.
John W. Loy
In The Theory of the Leisure Class (1899), American economist Thorstein Veblen (1857–1929) distinguishes between two classes of individuals, the class that is focused on productive labor and the leisure class, a division that developed during the barbarian/feudal stage of society. These groups can be understood as similar to Karl Marx’s (1818–1883) notion of classes within capitalism, in which the proletariat and the capitalist (bourgeoisie) class are in conflict over the distribution of society’s wealth, power, and the division of labor. However, Veblen incorporates culture into this division with an understanding of production and consumption, material life, status, and economic stratification. According to Veblen, modern economic behavior was based on the struggle for competitive economic standing, as the aristocratic consumption of luxuries served as a litmus test for elite status during the peak of capitalist industrialization. The leisure class itself consists of social elites, businesspeople, and captains of industry (those at the top of the social-class pyramid), who engage in pecuniary activities that detract from the productive aspect of society.
Members of the leisure class attempt to garner status and competitive social advantage through their patterns of consumption (of goods and symbols) and their conduct, thereby driving economic life around status rather than utility. Social status is symbolized by the leisure class through conspicuous waste, conspicuous consumption, and conspicuous leisure, which are used to communicate and enhance social position and social standing and to obtain heightened self-evaluation. Conspicuous waste is evidence that one can afford to be frivolous with items as well as time (no need to work); conspicuous consumption is the socially visible display of expensive goods that signify class status. Both of these activities indicate wealth and the ability to afford leisure, meaning the lack of a need to perform manual and useful labor.
Conspicuous leisure is the benchmark for determining elite status and serves as a symbolic statement that one is above laboring. In this way, it functions similarly to what Pierre Bourdieu (1930–2002) referred to as cultural capital in that it is a description of class compounded with status. Lower-status groups emulate the leisure class in an attempt to increase their own status. Veblen discusses how women are exploited by men through vicarious conspicuous consumption, waste, and leisure, where women perform the conspicuous activity of leisure, and men benefit in terms of status from these activities. For example, ideals of feminine beauty (frailty, weakness, paleness—indicating that the woman is not able to labor), certain restrictive fashions that incapacitate labor, and the removal of women from socially visible productive labor all contribute to the good name of the household and its master.
SEE ALSO Capitalism; Conspicuous Consumption; Stratification; Veblen, Thorstein
Bourdieu, Pierre. 1979. Distinctions: A Social Critique of the Judgment of Taste. Trans. Richard Nice. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Tucker, Robert, ed. 1978. The Marx-Engels Reader. New York: Norton.
Veblen, Thorstein.  1994. Theory of the Leisure Class. New York: Penguin.
Ryan Ashley Caldwell