Thorstein Veblen and the Leisure Class

Cue Card preview image

General Information

NBC News
Event Date:
Air/Publish Date:
Resource Type:
Video Mini-Documentary
NBCUniversal Media, LLC.
Copyright Date:
Clip Length:


A Norwegian American sociologist coined the phrase "conspicuous consumption" to describe the lifestyles of the newly wealthy in early twentieth century America.



"Thorstein Veblen and the Leisure Class." NBC News. NBCUniversal Media. 4 Mar. 2008. NBC Learn. Web. 16 April 2015.


(2008, March 4). Thorstein Veblen and the Leisure Class. [Television series episode]. NBC News. Retrieved from


"Thorstein Veblen and the Leisure Class" NBC News, New York, NY: NBC Universal, 03/04/2008. Accessed Thu Apr 16 2015 from NBC Learn:


Thorstein Veblen and the Leisure Class

NARRATOR: Industrialization in the late 1800s transformed the workforce of America. And it also transformed the way people lived when they didn’t work. Suddenly, the new class of Americans with time and money came to be known as the “Leisure Class.”

Professor SARAH E. CHINN (Hunter College): With industrialization you get two things happening interrelatedly at the same time which is you get mass production and you get people who are working in factories or who are working at jobs that depend on factories like a whole professional class. Lawyers, accountants, bookkeepers, who are needed to make the industrial system run, right, to keep track of the money. These men are going out into the world making money and they're bringing the money home. And their wives are at home. Their wives don't need to be productive anymore. They don't need to make things. They can buy them.

NARRATOR: Along with the leisure class came commentary about it. Thorstein Veblen, a sociologist and economist, published a critique of American consumerism called The Theory of the Leisure Class.

Veblen coined the phrases “conspicuous consumption” and “conspicuous waste” to talk about the luxuries and extravagances that gave the late 1800s the name “The Gilded Age.”

The rich built palatial homes filled with expensive artwork, plush oriental rugs, and marble columns. They held lavish parties and served extravagant meals on gilt and crystal table service.

They went golfing and horseback riding and, in the evening, to the opera or theater.

Veblen’s theory was that all people, rich and poor, bought new items to show others they were rich enough to afford them.

Professor CHINN: He saw this as sort of a corruption of American society that the leisure class, and I think the fact that he chose this term, the leisure class-- That these are people for whom work is an inconvenience.

NARRATOR: But the idea and practice of leisure had its own impact on the American economy, with a growing industry offering entertainment activities like amusement parks, movies, and vacation resorts.

Professor CHINN: People start taking vacations. They have disposable income. And entire industries form around the fact that these people have money to spend.