Class and Leisureat America's First ResortNewport, Rhode Island1870-1914

Conspicuous Consumption

In the nineteenth century, property ownership was a symbol of financial and social success. Acquisition and display of goods became the basis of self-esteem and peer respect. Further, adoption of traits from Europe demonstrated that one had cultivated tastes.

Thorstein Veblen
Thorstein Veblen
In The Theory of the Leisure Class, published in 1899, economist Thorstein Veblen coined the phrase "conspicuous consumption" to describe the excessive consumption of goods for the sole purpose of display. [1]

According to Veblen, wealth and social status must be "put in evidence" in order to be esteemed. Building palatial estates, importing gowns and furnishings, and giving extravagant balls and dinner parties were all ways that upper-class families displayed their wealth. These activities legitimated their status as upper-class Americans to themselves and to other classes.

Newport's upper-class families engaged in various forms of conspicuous consumption. In order to gain entrance into society, these families had to have the following:

  • Wealth

  • Pedigree

  • Property

  • Servants

  • A fashionable wardrobe

Isaac Bell
Isaac Bell
Maintaining one's place in society required considerable expense. The cost of running a summer estate was between $2,000 and $4,000 a week. It was not uncommon for a family to spend as much as $70,000 on one evening event. [2]

The struggle for upper-class families to outdo each other extended to summer entertainment. At one event, Theresa Fair Oelrichs decorated her estate, Rosecliff, with white flowers and swans and had a fleet of white ships constructed to float at shore. Grace Wilson Vanderbilt shut down a popular Broadway show and brought it to Newport to play at a specially built theater on her estate, Beaulieu. [3]

Upper-class summer residents did not share Newporters' liberal views toward other races and ethnicities. Most of these families were of European descent, and they expected their peers to have the same background.

Samuel Ward McAllister and Caroline Schermerhorn Astor, the creators of "the Four Hundred" social list, established a "third-generation rule" to weed out brand-new money on the presumption that it took three generations to make one worthy of society. In addition to being from an old-monied family, one had to have at least $1 million in cash and live a life free from labor. [4]

To maintain their families' status in society, many upper-class women arranged for their daughters to marry European noblemen. These marriages gave the illusion that America's upper-class families were like Europe's landed gentry.

An Arranged Marriage
Cartoon from
Life Magazine
Alva Vanderbilt betrothed her daughter, Consuelo Vanderbilt, to Charles Richard John, the Ninth Duke of Marlborough. The marriage gave the Vanderbilts added notoriety. And with the Vanderbilts' gift of $2.5 million, plus $100,000 per month for life, the marriage was a significant financial move for the Duke. [5]

Roles for women were limited in the nineteenth century. Many women who dreamed of success married men of wealth and pedigree.

But many of these marriages did not last. The Vanderbilt-John marriage ended in divorce. Consuelo later remarried, this time selecting her own husband. Alva Vanderbilt also divorced and remarried. In later years, both Alva and Consuelo Vanderbilt took up the cause of women's rights. [6]

at Marble House
Purchase and display of expensive, beautiful objects was another example of conspicuous consumption.

To be accepted into society, upper-class families needed to have summer homes, typically based on European models; fine furnishings from Europe; gowns designed in Paris; and elaborate coaches.

Upper-class families preferred authentic goods from Europe to mass-market reproductions. Imported furniture, gilded interiors, and specially made gowns legitimated wealth and class status. [7]

on the Cliff Walk
Servants were an important part of the legitimation process. In their desire to emulate European nobility, upper-class families selected European servants to run their households. English butlers, Irish maids, English and Irish nannies, and French governesses worked at the estates.

Veblen argued that employment of domestic help was evidence of wealth and class status. Domestic workers vicariously consumed goods through their employers and received "badges" of merit for work performed, such as the liveries they wore for their employers. [8]

A Fashionable Wardrobe
Fashion on Display
on Display
Women were the consumers of upper-class households. Their job was to display the wealth their husbands made.

Whereas men displayed their wealth through material possessions—homes, horses, carriages, and so on—women displayed their wealth through fashion. A large wardrobe of fashionable clothing was necessary, as society women changed their gowns several times a day. [9]

Describing this behavior, an author in Munsey's remarked:

"Society in Newport is always on dress parade, and while it concerns itself little with what the 'other half' is doing, the other half takes a great interest in it, watching its every movement, following its every step. This vast other half fills hotels and boarding houses, and while it plunges into the surf or sprawls on the sands, or wheels along the beautiful roads, it has one eye always on society. And some of the magnates, though they pretend to have a great indifference to its watchful gaze, cannot quite conceal the pleasure that such attention gives them, and add a little more pomp and ostentation to their mode of life for the benefit of hoi polloi [the masses]." [10]

Kay Davis, University of Virginia, © 2001