Glenn Uminowicz - December 2009
Conspicuous and Inconspicuous Consumption on the Eastern Shore
The gentleman of leisure not only consumes of the staff of life beyond the minimum required for subsistence and physical efficiency, but his consumption also undergoes a specialization as regards the quality of the goods consumed. He consumes freely and of the best, in food, drink, narcotics, shelter, services, ornaments, apparel, weapons and accoutrements, amusements, amulets, and idols or divinities. Since the consumption of these more excellent goods is an evidence of wealth, it becomes honorific; and conversely, the failure to consume in due quantity and quality becomes a mark of inferiority and demerit.
From Thorstein Veblen, The Theory of the Leisure Class (1899)
In 2009, we mark the 110th anniversary of the publication of Thorstein Veblen’s masterpiece The Theory of the Leisure Class (1899). Veblen introduced the world to the terms “conspicuous consumption” and “conspicuous leisure.” The former referred to the consumption of luxury goods that enhanced people’s social status and the latter referenced how the intentional non-productive use of time heightened that status even further. In both cases, leisure class activities involved waste, of both time and money.
During the current economic downturn, writers of cover stories on “The New Frugality” speculate that Americans are transforming themselves from spendthrifts into tightwads. In fact, looking cheap is now chic even among some of the wealthy. In June, magazine columnist Steve Kandell coined the term “poorgeoisie” to describe individuals who “look like hoboes, but spend like millionaires.” They sport $150 mussed haircuts and their $300 jeans are sans a designer label. They provide the most extreme examples of what is now labeled “inconspicuous consumption.”
Simply due to geography, the wealthy on the Eastern Shore have always been afforded the opportunity for inconspicuous consumption. In 1912, for example, a reporter for the Washington Herald took an automobile ride from Easton to St. Michaels. He observed, “The most striking feature of the ride is the almost total absence of any sign of habitation.” He soon discovered the need for a powerful motorboat to travel up the rivers and creeks to view “an unfolding landscape of beautiful homes resembling those of a broad avenue as one approaches a big city.”
That same year, a reporter for the Easton newspaper remarked, “Talbot is known for its many romantic and beautiful country homes. Many of them have their beginning in the mists of many generations passed, while others are of more modern origin.” Whether it be historic Ratcliffe Manor (1757) or a “modern” early 20th-century mansion along the Choptank, their owners enjoyed both a calming water view and isolation from road traffic.
Moreover, the wealthy who began summering in Talbot in the 1880s embraced Eastern Shore traditions. They shot ducks, sailed, ate crabs, and built their homes in revival styles that echoed the past. They came to relax. Their leisure was “compensatory,” something completely different from the brusque world of business where they had made their fortunes.
Historian John R. Wennersten observed, “Economically depressed but historically rich Talbot appreciated the arrivistes and gave them what they so urgently craved – legitimacy.” They jumped at the chance to live like a country squire. In turn, they transformed the county into the Shore’s “Gold Coast.”
By contrast, seaside resorts like Long Branch, New Jersey, yielded whole-heartedly to conspicuous leisure. Its chief geographical feature was a twenty-foot bluff rising from the beach past which stretched a grassy plain. Here railroad builder and engineer Cornelius Kingsland Grant, for example, built his enormous “House of Many Gables,” painted bright yellow with green trim. Like a beacon, its towers and chimneys could be seen both from ships at sea and by passengers in fancy carriages passing along nearby Ocean Boulevard.
On the boulevard, an exclusive gambling club offered Wall Street brokers and titans of industry a chance to risk their money. Unlike on the Eastern Shore, they did not seek quiet relaxation. Diamond Jim Brady once drove his new electric car along the boulevard. An obvious vehicle of conspicuous consumption, the car sported interior lights to illuminate Jim while on evening drives.
The wealthy who migrated to the Shore by the early 20th century succumbed to what Wennersten dubbed the “Cavalier imagery of ancestor-worshipping moderns.” He noted that, in fact, consumption held a conspicuous place in the social history of the Eastern Shore. Beginning in the 18th century, a small elite quickly capitalized on the tobacco trade. By 1770, distinct social classes existed based on the ownership of land and slaves.
Wennersten insisted that many of the “tobacco nabobs” lived only for the moment since fluctuations in tobacco prices could transform an aristocrat into a pauper overnight. He concluded, “High-consumption living produced a class of Eastern Shoremen who spent much of their time in foppish pursuits in Annapolis. Dressing in the effeminate Italian fashion of that day, these ‘macaroni’ were a source of vexation to sober-minded farmers.”
Planters from Caroline County were among those who trekked to Annapolis during the winter. After the Revolution, their dress consisted of “tight fitting coats cut to display their fancy waistcoats, knee breeches fastened with silver buckles, long light-colored silk hose, and low black shoes with silver buckles. Their soft linen shirts had pleated frills.”
In order to demonstrate a wearer’s “pecuniary strength,” Veblen observed that clothing must be both expensive and also “make plain to all observers that the wearer is not engaged in any kind of productive labor.” He also noted that the behavior of the leisure class would be aped as far down the social scale as possible.
Eastern Shore tenant farmers lacked the means to mimic the sartorial splendor of the ‘macaroni,’ but they did illustrate that some leisure class behaviors could be democratized. Serious-minded planter John Beale Bordley of Wye Island, for example, complained that tenants “hurry to the tavern, the race, nine pins, billiards, excess upon excess of toddy, and the worst nonsensical and idle chat with exclamations and roarings.”
Between 1750 and 1865, Wennersten insisted that the Talbot County gentry enjoyed a lifestyle equal to that of their British counterparts. He observed, “They lived well, dined sumptuously, rode to the hounds, and got hilariously drunk on grand occasions.”
Regarding food and drink, Veblen observed that expensive entertainments, such as dinner parties, offered hosts and hostesses opportunities to put their “opulence in evidence.” As for drunkenness, it demonstrated an honorific use of a stimulant marking “the superior status of those who are able to afford the indulgence.”
Riding to the hounds linked the lifestyle of the 18th-century oligarchy to the era of the “Gold Coast.” In 1911, Outing Magazine published an article on Fox-Hunting on the Eastern Shore of Maryland. The article made clear that the sport offered opportunities for social advancement. Its author wrote, “In days gone by the first step made by an aspiring young planter was to buy him a thoroughbred and a few couples of hounds and industriously hunt them. A fine hunter or a hound with a keen scent was oft-times the open sesame to the coveted society of his social superiors.” He insisted that the most popular sport on the Shore remained the fox-hunt. The names of members of the area’s “red-jacket gentry” graced the pages of the annual blue book.
As for owning a thoroughbred, Veblen noted that a fast horse was “on the whole expensive, or wasteful and useless.” It also afforded a rider a chance to convert the “animate” forces of nature to his own use, thus expressing his “dominating personality.”
The dominant force of nature on the Shore is, of course, the Chesapeake Bay. Appropriately, Wennersten insisted that the dominant passion of the “Gold Coast” is yachting. In 1912, the owner of Hope House, William J. Starr, neared completion of “the largest pleasure craft ever launched in Talbot” – the 78-foot ketch Esperanza. In 1913, the vessel served as the flagship for the commodore of the Chesapeake Bay Yacht Club. While designed for cruising around the Bay, newspaper reports emphasized that the vessel could sail the Atlantic. At the boat’s unveiling, its galley, main cabin, and other amenities provided “real old Southern hospitality to the many who boarded her.”
Starr designed the Esperanza himself, even selecting construction materials. An unusual stand of “blue oak” from northern Wisconsin, for example, was cut for the keel and framing. Veblen classified yachting among those activities engaged in with “a view to gaining repute for prowess.” Since Starr designed, oversaw construction, and later sailed his cruiser, he proved a triple threat in this regard. In fairness, however, Starr also proved himself to be what Wennersten labeled a “true yachtsman of Talbot.” He understood the workings of his boat and was a capable helmsman. The Esperanza was no mere “floating cocktail lounge” tied to a dock. She was built to sail. Prowess does possess some value over mere consumption.
The “new aristocracy” on the Shore includes sportsmen, corporate executives, government officials and celebrities. Hopefully, like those who established the “Gold Coast,” they will value local traditions and consume in a somewhat inconspicuous manner. As for the new frugality among Americans, after the Great Depression and a world war, America transformed itself into a “consumer republic.” During the recession of the 1990s, forecasters predicted the “death of conspicuous consumption.” Did that happen? Veblen observed that people do not sacrifice the last of their “more excellent goods” except “under stress of direst necessity.” He concluded, “Very much of squalor and discomfort will be endured before the last trinket or the last pretence of pecuniary decency is put away.”