Popular Science Monthly/Volume 47/May 1895/The Office of Luxury

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THE question whether luxury is legitimate or illegitimate, useful or injurious, is most actively debated. The moralists claim that it is within their peculiar field, and it has been one of their favorite subjects for discussion from the days of antiquity down. We can not, however, leave it to them. Economists have an interest in it. It does not concern only precepts and rules for an edifying conduct of life, but bears also upon the direction that ought to be given to production, or to a considerable part of it at least, and upon the influence of certain kinds of consumption on the distribution of wealth and on the respective situations of different classes of society.

One of the difficulties encountered in the discussion, and no small one at that, is that of finding an exact definition of luxury. Most even of the best definitions are insufficient and vague. It is very hard to find an absolute formula for a thing so relative, fluctuating, and variable. The definition we would propose is that luxury consists of that superfluity of enjoyment which exceeds what the generality of the inhabitants of a country at a given time consider essential, not only for the necessities of existence but also for decency and comfort in life. It is, therefore, curiously variable, constantly taking a new position as the limit of ordinary enjoyment advances at a corresponding pace with the increasing wealth and refinement of a society. This definition has the merit of regarding luxury as relative and as changing in standard from age to age.

To the barbarians who ravaged the Roman Empire the simple furniture and wardrobe of a modest household of our middle class of people, or of the better class among our working people, would have seemed to have a profusion of luxurious objects; a few not costly easy-chairs, a carpet, window curtains, cheap wall paper, a looking-glass, a clock, a few vases filled with flowers, a small show of plate, shirts, handkerchiefs, neckties, stockings—all would be new to them, and not essential either for the normal wants of existence or even for decency and pleasant living. The idea of what constitutes luxury varies in the most striking manner according to the country, the times, and the classes of society. Each class considers a luxury whatever its circumstances do not allow it to possess, and which a higher class is, nevertheless, able to enjoy. It has been manifest over and over again that the luxury of one period, or of one social class, tends inevitably to become at least a requisite of respectability for the following age and the next lower class. Civilization is characterized by the gradual, progressive, general distribution of many elements of luxury which thus gradually lose that character. Every ten years, some luxuries cease to be such in consequence of their becoming more common and cheaper.

In speaking of the principle of luxury we should consider it apart from the excesses and excrescences that have been associated with it. A great many men regard luxury as an abuse, a sin, a scandal. Some imagine that if it were got rid of, society would be happier and more moral. Many believe that the superfluities of some are gained at the expense of necessaries of others. The enemies to the principle of luxury may be arranged in two divisions: moralists and politists, and economists.

The political arguments against luxury bear chiefly upon the two points that it increases the separation between the classes of the population, and makes it more marked; and that it enervates man and makes civilized populations more easily subjects for spoliation by barbarians. We have shown in another place that the gap between the conditions of different classes of men is tending to diminish.[1] This inequality, furthermore, has not unwholesome effects only; it is both the result and the stimulus of civilization. In regard to the dangers that luxury may bring upon the state, it should be observed that luxury is one thing and luxurious living is another. We may love and seek luxury in furniture, decoration, and objects of art, and live simply. The physical deterioration assumed to result from luxurious tastes has not been proved. In almost every country of Europe the young people of the most aristocratic classes display, in physical exercises and acts of courage, at least as much vigor and resolution as men of other social grades. Civilized peoples have during the past three centuries obtained most brilliant advantages over barbarians. If civilization is threatened, it is much less by the taste for elegance in living than by the poison of certain doctrines, and by a mental and moral dilettanteism that has no necessary relation, in its adepts, to an enlightened taste for objects of luxury.

When we read most of the criticisms that have been uttered against luxury, even by great writers, we find that they are inspired by a thought as inexact as it is superficial; by the mistake of supposing that the superfluous luxuries enjoyed by the wealthy are acquired at the expense of the necessaries of the poor. If no fine shoes were made, it is said, everybody would have good shoes; but all men in civilized countries have got their good shoes without the manufacture of fine boots for men and women being diminished. Again, we hear, would the world not be better off if, instead of ten or twenty thousand objects of luxury, ten or twenty thousand useful things were made?

The question can not be put in this way. The conception of social activity that lies at the bottom of this reasoning is false. It regards social activity as a factor fixed once and forever; and it imagines that if we take five hundred thousand days' work for superfluities, this five hundred thousand days' work will be lacking for necessaries. We should ask whether man's productive capacity, his inventive force, his energy in working, and the progress of the arts and sciences have not been kept up and extended by the constant seeking for a more embellished life and the satisfaction of more diversified wants; if a society that does not condemn and proscribe luxury has not, even in the matter of common objects, an infinitely greater productive force than a society that does condemn and proscribe it. We should inquire if the taste for novelty and change that characterizes luxury does not contribute to keep the general spirit of a society more on the alert, more ready to institute better industrial conditions and make discoveries and improvements; and if, on the other hand, a society always held down to the same kind of monotonous, insipid life would be as productive, even in agriculture and the common arts, as another, excited to incessant activity by luxurious tastes.

Industrial progress and the extension of general wealth make common many articles once regarded as luxuries. Sugar, spices, and coffee were once luxuries; drinking glasses, window panes and curtains, and carpets. Watches and clocks were grand luxuries till they could be made for eight or ten dollars. In articles of clothing, shirts, stockings, shoes, pocket-handkerchiefs (even in Montaigne's time), ribbons, and lace were regarded as superfluities which men and women living naturally could well do without. In London, in the eighteenth century, the use of umbrellas was looked upon as effeminate. In the planning of the household, a dining room distinct from the kitchen, a parlor distinct from the dining room, a sitting room distinct from the bedroom, a bath room and water-closet, were considered useless, and are still by some people. Thus, fortunately, the bounds of luxury keep on retreating. The luxury of other days becomes, if not a necessity, an enjoyment of the present, useful or inoffensive, within the reach of a large number of men. Whether its roots lie in sensuality and vanity, as its critics affirm, or in æsthetic taste, luxury, if it is not in violation of Nature, is propagated through the instrumentality of man's imitatve instinct; of his desire to conform to the ways of those in the highest ranks, and to the feelings and manners prevalent in the community. Thus luxuries are gradually transformed into decencies. Old men seldom fail to call every new fashion, and everything of the uses of which they were ignorant in childhood or mature age, a luxury.

The character of a thing in use should be judged, not according to certain ideas we form of human nature in general, but according to circumstances of time, place, climate, profession, and surroundings.

The evolution of luxury has been divided into three periods: the luxury of primitive periods, which was exemplified in patriarchal times, and in the beginning of the middle ages; luxury of flourishing and prosperous peoples, as in the modern age; and the luxury of peoples in decay, like the ancient Romans and the Orientals.

Primitive luxury is very simple. It consists chiefly in the grouping around the rich man, who is also usually of high birth, of a large number of servants supported by him, and in the practice of an extensive hospitality. The furnishings of this luxury are very limited: fine wardrobes, elegant arms, spirited horses, and rich caparisons. Though pleasant in appearance, and having a family air, this patriarchal luxury has its inconveniences, which are much less apparent in modern luxury. It creates and maintains legions of parasites and idlers. Its world of servants and clients do little work, but are supported by the labor of others. It brings no refinement in living, it is burdensome, nurses conceit, diminishes production, and deprives numbers of people of their independence, exposing them to the vices of indolence. Another phase of this primitive luxury was exhibited in the great feasts, which were characterized by quantity rather than quality, with coarse revels lasting many days. This luxury was occasional rather than permanent, and did not penetrate, as the later living did, into the whole tissue of life. The people's equivalent for the expensive feastings and revels of the grandees was found in kirmesses and carnivals. The forced sobriety of these uncultivated ages was interrupted by periodical debauches. No thought was taken of comforts. Except for the furnishings of the church and drinking vessels, there were few things of beautiful finish. Fashions did not change; there was no elegance and no variety in daily personal life, and workmen's wages were very small. Thus all was for display and nothing for comfort, and waste of men and means was the rule. Very different is the luxury of civilized, intelligent, and thoughtful people, which looks more to the comfortable or to elegance and artistic enjoyment than to magnificence and sumptuousness. It includes and penetrates the whole life, and extends in different degrees over all classes of the people. It is distinguished by the use of an infinitely greater variety of goods, and for each kind of an increasingly more considerable range of qualities. It adapts itself to democratic habits, which it has contributed to introduce. Instead of encumbering himself with a great number of domestics, clients, and parasites the prosperous citizen has around him only the number of people he requires for a good and prompt service; while, on the other hand, he has at his command independent outside workmen who develop into the honored class of artisans. Together with the immense permanent household installations, external distinctions and extensive private establishments of all kinds are given up, their places being supplied by those which may be used in common with the public.

The luxury of these prosperous and democratic periods reaches in multiplied and infinite gradations all classes of the people; then, supplying itself with durable objects and permanent arrangements, it becomes an accompaniment of the whole life. Its great characteristic is variety and elegance in necessary and usual objects. The extension of this luxury into all grades of the population is aided by such technical knowledge as permits the substitution of less costly goods for those which are more so, whereby things formerly enjoyed only by the wealthy are put within reach of persons of modest means: thus plate and white metal take the place of silver; electrotypes, of carved work; lithographs and photographs, of engravings and paintings; and figured papers, of tapestries. Cotton and silk mixed or silk waste give the illusion of silk; tulle and gauze, of lace. New substances, like nickel and aluminum, make it easy to possess watches, clocks, and the like, elegant in appearance and yet cheap. Improvements in the mechanic arts aid in this; and everything is imitated, even pearls and diamonds. There is nothing immoral in this sort of luxury, which varies, brightens, and embellishes life, and incites the man to better care of his house and his person. It is, rather, a motive of good economical and domestic habits. And it promotes a kind of saving. A man who will not lay up for old age will save money to buy a gold watch or a chain, or nice furniture. Fondness for variety is one of the characteristic traits of the luxury of intelligent and prosperous peoples. Variety in food, clothing, furnishings, and in amusements is an excellent stimulant to industry, a preventive of enervation of man's mind. It is likewise one of the most vital needs of human nature, one of the legitimate charms of life. The luxury of industrious and prosperous peoples is predominantly exhibited in the dwelling and the furniture. It creates permanent establishments that make life more pleasant. It transforms the house from a simple shelter into a commodious and pleasant mansion, beautified and vivified with numerous and interesting objects. Herein lies the inappreciable benefit of national modern luxury. This it is that has divided up the house according to the various wants and conveniencies for which it is intended to provide. The result is a more becoming, more private, and more independent daily life for each of the members of the family, as well as a more hygienic régime. The example spreads from the upper to all the social classes. The house becomes the center of man's efforts to embellish. Many bad habits and many vices are abandoned. It is a general opinion that whenever the workman shall have a sufficiently ample abode, diversified and adorned, the family life will retain more attractions and the saloon will lose them.

While modern taste expends liberally on the construction, furnishing, and decoration of the house, it encourages sobriety in the wardrobe. It is one of its characteristics that it makes itself compatible with civil equality and with fraternity in social relations, colliding with them in nothing. The dress of the men bears witness to this. Men are no longer to be seen, as Henry IV of France used to say, "wearing their mills and their forest estates on their backs." Lace, in sleeves and frills, formerly habitual with middle-class people, has long been left off by the men, and there is no prospect of its returning. Who, when he looks at an assembly of two or three hundred men, including representatives of all classes, from the highest to the most modest, can tell from their dress which are the wealthy ones? It is true that women still indulge in these little extravagances; but this does not prove that the majority of the rich expend more now upon dress than those similarly situated have done during the past three or four hundred years. We complain that maids wish to be dressed like their mistresses, farm-servants like the farmers' wives, and these like the landlords' wives. A few may be extravagant; but nearly all these people, servants and farmers, save; and a little luxury in their lives does no great harm. By virtue of the blending of these shades of luxury between one social stratum and another, the difference in the lives of men of the several classes is much less as to the real enjoyments they are all able to procure than as to the cost of what they possess.

External luxury is becoming less conspicuous. There are no more gilded carriages with footmen and outriders, except to mark the state of ambassadors. The simple carriages now in use, however elegant their forms may be and handsome the horses that draw them, are otherwise as democratic in appearance, without showy harness decorations or extraneous ornaments, as the old-fashioned post chaises.

Judicious investment in luxury constitutes a kind of revenue fund for emergencies and times of need. This is true for all classes and for the whole nation. Jewels, pretty pieces, tapestries, pictures, and choice collections may be sold in periods of misfortune without loss. Even among those in more moderate circumstances the watch, the chain, the clock, and the cheap jewels are adequate to procure in days of distress or illness, if not much, something that could not be had otherwise.

Such luxury as this, far from being immoral and deleterious, is legitimate, commendable, and useful, provided that with it allowance is made from the income for future emergencies, and for saving.

Quite different is it with the luxury of periods of decay and of corrupt classes; for morbid social groups may exist even in a country generally sound. This luxury becomes immoral and unintelligent when, instead of responding to natural and normal physical and intellectual wants, it consists solely in the seeking for costly pleasures and objects simply because they are costly, in systematic waste, and in the single satisfaction of an extravagant vanity. These features of social life were marked among the wealthy classes of the Roman Empire, but appear only in individual examples and a few narrow circles in modern life. It is not by such eccentricities, which have become rare among modern peoples, that luxury is to be judged. As we have described it, it is impossible to condemn it. Regarded in a general aspect, and apart from its abuses, luxury is one of the principal agents of human progress. Mankind has it to thank for nearly everything which to-day adorns and embellishes life, and for a large proportion of what makes life more pleasant and wholesome. It is the father of the arts. Neither painting nor sculpture nor music, nor their popular accompaniments, could ever have become so greatly developed and so widely diffused in a society that had declared war on luxury.

It has been objected that if luxury did not exist the world would be better provided with articles of use. The millions that are spent in luxury, these objectors say, could be better applied to the production of wheat or of potatoes or of common clothing; if some were not too-rich, none would be poor. This reasoning is at fault in two points: First, a million's worth of luxuries does not, as some persons think, represent the amount of labor and human force required to produce a million's worth of wheat or potatoes or common clothing or plain furniture. The cost of luxuries bears only a comparatively small relation to the quantity of good work; by far the greater proportion of it is paid for quality. An accomplished jeweler or engraver can earn three or four times as much in working at the art in which he excels as in applying the same quantity of labor to a coarser trade—blacksmithing, for instance. And if luxuries were abolished, and the artists now employed in producing them were set to some common labor in farming or the ruder trades, they would not be able to produce at them more than one third of the value which they now bestow upon the world of taste and refinement. In the second place, we need not deny that materially, and aside from a fact to be noticed, if mankind would limit its wants to bread and meat, to the commonest clothing, the most modest abodes, and the simple articles of use, it would be able to get a considerably larger number of such things. If all the painters, engravers, upholsterers, pleasure-coach makers, jewelers, makers of fine furniture, lace-makers, embroiderers, etc., should return to tilling the soil, spinning, weaving, and knitting, a more ample stock of the products of the common callings might be obtained. This is only possible. It is not certain. In assuming it we leave out of view the indirect consequences of such a profound modification in men's desires, in their life, in their motives to effort as such a change would work. We overlook the depressing, stupefying influence which monotony and uniformity in occupation would exercise upon man's activity, his spirit of initiative, and his zeal in research and invention. A society in which all were engaged upon nearly the same tasks, living in identical conditions, having narrow wants, none of them enjoying visions of a brilliant future different from that of his fellows, would fall dead with inertia and routine. It would lose in elasticity and inevitably becomes stationary, and finally retrograde; and it would not be paradoxical to assert that the suppression of luxury would result, in the course of time, in a diminution even of objects of ordinary consumption.

The stimulating action of luxury is incontestable, and operates upon every grade of the social scale. While luxury is not the only instigator of human activity, or even the principal one it is one of unquestionable importance; and there are none too many instigating forces to arouse man from inertia and idleness. At the highest degree of the scale, some men—we will not say all—impose additional work and mental tension upon themselves in order to have an elegant house, fine gardens, and high style; in the middle of the scale, other men will put themselves to additional trouble in order to procure some comfort which was only recently a luxury, and can still hardly be distinguished from one, or in order to reach a certain standard of respectability in their manner of living, to which decorations and superfluities will contribute. At the bottom of the scale numerous men and women work longer or tax their ingenuity in order to procure for themselves some secondary elegances which have become common but are nevertheless luxuries, in that the abundance of them does not contribute to the satisfaction of man's rudimentary wants.

The influence of luxury is very great upon social progress and the arts, and upon the course of literary and scientific advance. Industrial advancement is usually brought about by the efforts of individuals of remarkable will and intelligence, but sensitive to the attractions of material rewards. The surest of such rewards for the numerous spirits not solely devoted to an ideal is wealth, and this to many men would lose its value if they were deprived of the luxuries which they could obtain with it. While there are many men of noble aspirations among great inventors and the projectors of important enterprises who would be satisfied with the good they accomplished, there are others, energetic, capable, and ardent, and valuable in economic progress, who are guided by less noble ideas, and who, in themselves or their surroundings, have keener perceptions of the attractions of luxury than of pure intellectual enjoyments and the satisfaction of an elevated self-respect. It is important for mankind as a whole that such men do all they can for it.—Translated for The Popular Science Monthly from the Revue des Deux Mondes.


The Congo natives of all tribes, Mr. Herbert Ward says, are ready speakers, flowery in expression, adepts in the use of metaphors, clear in reasoning, and alert in debate. The sonorous effect of their speech is greatly aided by the soft inflections and harmonious euphony of their language. In many of the tribes it is common for the speaker to hold in his hand a number of small sticks, each representing a preconsidered point of his argument. Each point is subsequently enumerated and emphasized by selecting and placing one of these sticks upon the ground. A speaker will often begin his address by referring to events that happened in his earliest recollection, and in this manner will refer to every favorable incident in his career, whether his stories apply or not to the subject under discussion.
  1. Essai sur la répartition des richesses et la tendance d'une moindre inégalité des conditions.