Friday, 9 November 2012

Part XIII - Domestic Servants and 'Modern' Life

This is part of a series The Theory of the Leisure Class, Thorstein Veblen.  His third chapter is on Conspicuous Leisure. 

A theme that runs through Veblen’s book is that the code of conduct of the highest class influences the lower classes even into modern times, which for him meant 1899, but perhaps the argument still holds true.

Not that long ago even in only moderately well-to-do households domestic servants were employed.  Bill’s mom had a ‘daily’ and my mother adored her maid, Gussie.  Veblen says servants were ostensibly necessary because the wife (chief servant) had too many social duties or that the work was too difficult or there was too much of it.  He says the real reasons were that under the ‘mandatory code of decency’ the time and effort of the household members must all be spent in a ‘performance of conspicuous leisure’:  making calls; going for drives; attending clubs, sewing circles, sports, charity organisations, and other social functions.   These people will claim that all these required activities along with the proper clothes and other evidences of  (his first usage of the phrase he’s given us) conspicuous consumption are very irksome but unavoidable.

He acknowledges that under the ‘requirement of conspicuous consumption of goods, the apparatus of living has grown so elaborate and cumbrous, in the way of dwellings, furniture, brica- brac, wardrobe and meals, that the consumers of these things cannot make way with them in the required manner without help’.

Modern people don’t general like having servants to “fulfil the routine of decency” but they are “endured and paid for, in order to delegate to them a share in this onerous consumption of household goods.”  Indeed, the presence of domestic and/or body servants “is a concession of physical comfort to the moral need of pecuniary decency.”

Now Veblen, for many reasons, was considered a radical in his time.  He seems to have shared some of the views of Quentin Crisp, who is quoted as saying that after the first four years of not cleaning, his home didn’t get any dirtier.

Veblen had this to say about housework: 

The largest manifestation of vicarious leisure in modern life is made up of what are called domestic duties. These duties are fast becoming a species of services performed, not so much for the individual behoof of the head of the household as for the reputability of the household taken as a corporate unit — a group of which the housewife is a member on a footing of ostensible equality.

So Veblen does note that the woman’s position in the home has improved a bit and that being ‘house proud’ is about maintaining the reputation of the household as a whole, not just of the master.  In this way they fall out the category of vicarious leisure in its original sense of serving as a symbol of status. 

The next post will begin talking about Chapter Four:  Conspicuous Consumption.


Beryl said...

Great phrase - "the apparatus of living has grown so elaborate and cumbrous". Sort of describes the enormous amount of brick-a-brack that the Victorian home needed. Which made it too hard for just the lady of the house to dust.

Anonymous said...

This post brought to mind a story that we study in American Literature. It's by Harriet Beecher Stowe (of Uncle Tom's Cabin fame). I suspect that housekeeping prior to all the labor saving devices we have today was very time consuming.

Susan Partlan said...

No wonder Victorian furnishings make me feel claustrophobic.

Gam Kau said...

I know many people who still live just like this. Idle (leisure) with many servants and staff.