The Forgotten History of Conspicuous Consumption

Jennifer Chan
Simple, Not Easy
Published in
5 min readApr 25, 2020

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Given that many of us have had to limit our superfluous spending as a consequence of the pandemic, I thought it would be interesting to learn about the history of conspicuous consumption.

My assumption was that the concept of “conspicuous consumption” was a modern invention, perhaps emerging from the mid-20th century after the Great Depression. It turns out that it has much deeper roots.

Back to the Future

Thorstein Veblen — Public Domain

The term “conspicuous consumption” is over a century old. Thorstein Veblen, the creator of the term, coined this in his seminal work, “The Theory of the Leisure Class,” which was published in 1899.

The gist of his book was that businessmen who owned the means of production engaged in unproductive activities of ‘conspicuous consumption’ and ‘conspicuous leisure’ that bore little meaning or usefulness to society. In contrast, those occupying the middle or lower-class engaged in productive labour that actually contributed to the betterment of others.

As if he was alive in the present moment and typing on his Macbook Pro, Veblen argues that, aside from our instinct for…

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Jennifer Chan
Simple, Not Easy

Productivity, craftsmanship, and the pursuit of excellence at work. Writing now at jennifertchan.substack.com.