Defining Etiquette

In the nineteenth century as capitalism was established in many developing countries around the world, the middle class grew significantly. People began to have more money and high society and socializing became something that was not just for the aristocracy. Thorstein Veblen discussed this phenomenon in his Theory of the Leisure Class where he wrote that this upper class consumes just for show and as a performance to solidify their social standing. He also briefly mentioned that women were responsible for consuming and demonstrating on their own behalf, but also to show the wealth and stature of their husbands. ((Veblen, The Theory of the Leisure Class, 1899)) While Veblen wrote in 1899, he was clearly observing a phenomenon that was put in place partially by works such as The Book of Household Management by Isabella Beeton. This work outlined what the rules and duties of a woman were in this time, especially with regards to their relationship with their husband and the best and most proper way to run their household.

Isabella Beeton was an English woman, married to a magazine editor and publisher. She began writing by publishing weekly magazine articles for her husband’s publication on cookery and French fiction. She then began writing longer pieces for his “Englishwoman’s Domestic Magazine” about the correct etiquette for Victorian society. These pieces were eventually published into a single Book of Household Management, which described how to conduct oneself in a variety of situations from hiring servants to throwing a dinner party. ((Isabella Beeton, The Book of Household Management, 1861)) The book became extremely popular and the name ‘Mrs. Beeton’ became synonymous with a domestic authority. One reason that this book was likely so popular was that many women were entering into the upper middle class society for the first time. The middle class was growing, and many women likely looked for a codified authority on what proper etiquette was so that they would not make any social blunders or embarrass their husbands in social settings. Victorian society was also one with a lot of rules and standards of what was considered acceptable and not, so having this book with the rules written down likely assisted many women in making sure they fully understood what the proper action was in each situation.

Mrs. Beeton’s Book of Household Management is still being published today, and while it is now largely used as a study on Victorian etiquette, are there other similar publications today? Do magazines such as Good Housekeeping, Better Homes and Gardens or the Oprah Magazine perform similar functions as The Book of Household Management? Is social etiquette as clearly defined today as it was in nineteenth century England?

Does our background influence how we look at others?

In the “Theory of the Leisure Class” by Thorstein Veblen, he critiques the upper class for their behaviors regarding their dress and speech. He observes that their odd behavior stems from capitalism and the effect is has on their need to consume goods that are seemingly un necessary. He starts off by critiquing the way they dress and the emphasis they place on the value of clothing and its ability to show ones status. His tone remains critical throughout the entire reading, stating that he sees it as wasteful to place such an emphasis on clothing for status rather than for the obvious use of clothing. He then goes on to critique the English they speak. According to Veblen, the upper class spoke in classic English, as opposed to the regular English that everyone else spoke.

Veblen is very critical of the upper class, perhaps this comes from his back ground, being raised by an immigrant family and not knowing wealth as many people he later observes do. Do you think that where we come from, our backgrounds, influence the way we look at others/society? Do you think it is fair to have these biased views about others? Perhaps they were born into a family of wealth, but does that give us the right to judge them?

Veblen’s Leisure Class

Author: Thorstein Veblen, Conspicuous Consumption (1902); American-born son of Norwegian immigrants who owned a farm where he spent his youth; his rural background may have led to his prejudice against the so-called “wasteful consumption” urban dwellers engaged in, leading him to write this essay

Context: beginning of the 20th century, during a period of rapid urbanization; the influx of Americans to large cities allowed the economy to grow because of the rise of the middle class, or the “leisure class” as he calls it

Language: he seemed to have disdain for the rise of the leisure class; he often mentions these people’s spending habits as wasteful and unnecessary

Audience: seems to be written for educated individuals, perhaps directed at those within the leisure class; may have been an address to enlighten those who participated in “conspicuous consumption” about the faults of their actions

Intent: again, it seems to have been written as a wake-up call to those within the leisure class to prevent them from further spending wastefully; he wished to highlight the divide between the middle class (those who in his eyes spent money wastefully and those who appeared to be more thrifty)

Message: The essay noted the rise of a socioeconomic class that fell somewhere between the upper class as he knew it and the lower class. This developing class could not be grouped as consistent however; those living in urban areas adapted the traits of those around them–the upper class–by spending money on things other than what was necessary for survival, like clothing, for this group of people was wont to appear to fit with those around them. Meanwhile, others of similar economic situations living in rural areas found no need for such frivolous spending because of the lower amount of human interaction. These, he argued, were people who spent their money wisely, because it was only done in an effort to survive, and not to acquire unnecessary materials. He scorned those in urban areas for trying or pretending to be something that they were not, and asked them (although not directly) to look to those he considered fiscally responsible for guidance on how to spend money properly.

Veblen’s Conspicuous Consumption

Author: Thorstein Veblen was born in 1857 in Wisconsin and moved to Minnesota where he spent the majority of his childhood working on his family’s farm. His family was a part of an immigrant farming community that stressed hard work and dedication, explains his disdain for the effects of capitalism, as shown in his book The Theory of the Leisure Class.

Context: Veblen wrote about Conspicuous Consumption in 1902 in his book The Theory of the Leisure Class and coined the phrase as a way to describe the behavioral characteristics of the emerging social class that was a result of  acquired wealth during the Second Industrial Revolution.

Language: Veblen’s tone is educated and informative. He provides an in-depth analysis of conspicuous consumption and how if affects society as a whole.

Audience: Veblen wrote for a more sophisticated and educated audience, as his text is quite complex. He also writes from a more philosophical standpoint.

Intent: Veblen sought to inform his audience about what he defines as a further division of labor—that between different servant classes. He saw one portion of the servant class, mainly those whose pursuit is leisure, who had undertaken the hobby of the various consumption of goods. Veblen wanted to educate people about the families of the upper class who used their wealth as a way of revealing their social prominence and power.

Meaning: In his text, Veblen vehemently criticizes conspicuous consumption, which he considered to be the unnecessary spending of money on luxury items and services as a means to display societal power. According to Veblen, people should only spend what is necessary to live an adequate life. He writes; “When the quasi-peaceable stage of industry is reached, with its fundamental institution of chattel slavery, the general principle, more or less rigorously applied, is that the base, industrious class should consume only what may be necessary to their subsistence.”

Leisure Class

Author: Thorstein Veblen, born in 1857, was a respected American sociologist and economist. He was raised in Nerstrand, Minnesota by successful Norwegian parents who accentuated the values of hard work and education while contributing to his disdain for lavishness. He began his formal studies in economics at the age of seventeen and worked under the tutelage of many prominent economists.
Context: Veblen’s renowned economic treatise, The Theory of the Leisure Class, was published in the United States in 1899. The Gilded Age, a period of economic growth and increased immigration in the U.S., was just reaching its conclusion. Veblen accused the leisure class of squandering the advantages of the Gilded Age through their ostentation, or conspicuous consumption.
Language: The prose in The Theory of the Leisure Class is intelligent and complex. Using precise word choice and sophisticated sentence structure, Veblen was able to squeeze a substantial amount of insight into little space. The tone of the treatise is derisive and overflowing with contempt for the leisure class and their conspicuous consumption.
Audience: The language reveals that Veblen wrote his book for an educated audience with a prior understanding of economic and sociological theory.
Intent: In ridiculing the leisure class, Veblen elucidated his desire to reverse the prevailing sociological mindset of conveying economic reputability. Veblen sought to warn his contemporaries and the public of the wastefulness of conspicuous consumption and urged consumers to rely on prudence instead of propriety.
Message: The primary aim of The Theory of the Leisure Class was to denounce the leisure class’s use of conspicuous consumption as a vehicle to enhance their apparent economic or social stature. Veblen provided an appropriate example of conspicuous consumption in identifying society’s preoccupation with how people dress. He recognized attire as the most prevalent expenditure in any line of consumption because of its immediate observability and effectiveness in indicating one’s economic standing. Regrettably, the desire to be fashionable overwhelms the need for a practical and comfortable wardrobe. The growth of the economy during the Gilded Age led many people to purchase extravagant items in an effort to enhance their observable economic standing, which Veblen condemned as a squandering of potential advantages.

Vicarious Consumption

Author: Thorstein Veblen was born in Cato, Wisconsin on July 30, 1857. He spent the majority of his childhood working on his family farm as part of a Norwegian immigrant farming community.  His parents stressed hard work and education, an emphasis that would factor into his disgust for conspicuous consumption. Veblen studied and worked at several universities including Johns Hopkins, Yale, and Cornell.  Veblen wrote The theory of the Leisure Class when he was in his early forties.

Context: The Theory of the Leisure Class was written in America in 1899.  America was amidst the Gilded Age, a period of immense economic growth and industrialization.

Language: Veblen’s tone is satirical. He saw the leisure class as a hindrance to the progress of society. Veblen stated, “no one finds difficulty in assenting to the common place that the greater part of the expenditure incurred by all classes for apparel is incurred for the sake of a respectable appearance rather than for the protection of the person.”  Veblen used dry humor to make his point.

Audience: Veblen wrote for the Academic world.  After Veblen graduated from Yale, he was unable to obtain an academic job due in part to prejudice against his Norwegian ancestry and because most universities considered him insufficiently educated in Christianity, so he returned to his family farm and began avidly reading.  He then left to study economics as a graduate student at Cornell University and obtained his first academic appointment at the new University of Chicago. There he published his best-known books, The Theory of the Leisure Class (1899), and The Theory of Business Enterprise (1904). These books made him famous overnight.

Intent: Veblen felt that other leading economists’ views were too narrow. He wanted economists to more fully understand the social and cultural causes and effects of economic changes. Specifically, he thought the focus should be on the social and cultural causes that were responsible for shifts in industry such as hunting to farming, and the effects of such shifts.

Message: Veblen argued that there was a split between the working class. He saw two groups in this division of labor: one group making wealth via industry and the other via exploit, which he identifies as the leisure class. The leisure class became vicarious consumers of ostentatious products in dress, food, furniture, and housing. Class pecuniary standing was based on public display of wealth via dress. Veblen cited the leisure class as the root of social conformity. As a model for dress and livery, the leisure class set a social precedent, which compelled those in classes below them to match. Veblen believed the demonstration of wealth was done solely for social status and thus criticized the leisure class. He associated the leisure class with waste and he also viewed such waste as a hindrance to economic productivity.