Conspicuous consumption is an economic term developed by Norwegian-American Anthropologist Thorstein Veblen. This term can be readily applied to the actions of European society around the 18th century. This is an interesting topic because while it was occurring well into the 1700’s, the term itself was not invented until hundreds of years later.
In his book The Theory of the Leisure Class, which was not written until 1899, Veblen describes conspicuous consumption as the purchasing of goods in order to display one’s power, wealth, or general tastes. These items are generally classified as “non-necessities” in today’s society and include such things as clothing, food and drink. Those who had the money to purchase these luxuries were deemed the “leisure class” by Veblen, and were often members of the upper class. Members of the middle class did participate in this consumption as well though. This is called “social emulation” and is “the idea that whenever people buy something conspicuously, they do it to emulate their social superiors”(Whitford). This was a phenomenon seen especially in sugar consumption. The mass production of sugar allowed lower classes to then purchase it as well, giving them feelings of being a part of the upper class.
A variety of factors allowed for conspicuous consumption to occur. Among them were increasing populations, advances in industrial technologies, and mass production. Items were made affordable for middle classes to perhaps buy them, while upper classes could continue to buy them in great amounts. An example of this was seen in wine consumption very early in the 18th Century. Toward the second half of the 17th Century, the prices of wine rose a considerable amount. Purchasing this good definitely gave the appearance of great wealth, however it had to be done in large quantities. This is because wine was considered medicine, so it was not uncommon for middle classes to buy wine in the event of an illness. Typically, “merchants of up-and-coming rank and men from the rising new professions would spend lavishly on wine” (Hori 1465). Buying wine in bulk set upper classmen from those of lower rank, who may have also been able to afford wine, but not in the same large amounts. For some individuals on the border between classes, it wasn’t uncommon for them to have to choose between fancy food or fancy clothing, as to which they would use to display their wealth.
Conspicuous consumption was an economic revolution. It marked a time when purchases were now being made out of want, rather than need. Individuals desperately wanted their status among society to be made known, and material goods were their outlet to do so. Due to their large populations, as well as growing industries, most of this consumption was being displayed in France and Britain. This is truly a historical moment, as it was the building block for the outrageous desire for material goods through time, leading us to our current society. The displaying of status through goods like cars, houses and clothes has never been higher than it is today, and the roots of this excessive spending can be traced back to 18th Century Europe.
Hori, M. “The Price and Quality of Wine and Conspicuous Consumption in England 1646-1759.” The English Historical Review CXXIII.505 (2008): 1457-469. Doi: 10.1093/ehr/cen277
Whitford, Kate. “Conspicuous Consumption, Social Emulation and the Consumer Revolution.” New Histories. WordPress, 11 Nov. 2010. Web. 11 Mar. 2013. <http://newhistories.group.shef.ac.uk/wordpress/wordpress/?p=1338>.