From 1896 to 1926, the world famous Economist Thorstein Veblen spent his summers on Washington Island. In 1916 he built a study cabin and a home for his wife and two step daughters. The study cabin has been moved and is being restored on the shore of Little Lake. The Washington Island Heritage Conservancy is responsible for this and other Heritage promotions on the Island. Learn more at www.islandheritageconservancy.com
Washington Island resident Esther Gunnerson became interested in Veblen as a young woman. Working in her family’s Island hardware store one day, the family that had purchased Veblen’s cabin came in to buy a set of lawn furniture. They mentioned that they weren’t sure how to dispose of Veblen’s books and personal effects. In a moment of inspiration, Esther offered to trade a set of lawn furniture for the historically-important materials. The deal was done and the books were eventually donated to the Washington Island Archives, from where they made their way to Carleton College in Northfield, Minnesota, mere miles from Veblen’s childhood home.
Ruth Gunnerson, Esther’s daughter, says that her mother not only was intellectually interested in Veblen, but that she felt a “kinship” with him: “Veblen originally came to the Island to learn Icelandic, and mom came to Gibraltar School in Fish Creek knowing only Danish and had to learn English on the spot. She was always very interested in education and later decided to write her Master’s thesis on Thorstein Veblen at the University of Wisconsin, Oshkosh. She got an “A” on her thesis paper, and received her Master’s in Education in 1968. It was a great personal accomplishment.”
A Remembrance of Esther Gunnerson by her daughter Ruth
“Mom was born in 1928. Her own mother died when she was 13, in the spring, and she stayed out of school for the rest of that year to help on the farm. She finished the rest of high school in two years, graduated at 15, and went to Door Kewaunee Normal School for training as a teacher, graduating at 17, the same year she started teaching on Washington Island. She married Roger Gunnerson at age 19. Dad was an energetic guy, in fact he bought the Island elementary school he had attended the same year he graduated from high school! He then built two additions onto the school, one for our family’s Hardware/General Store, and one for the house.
“Education was always a major focus in our home — Mom completed both her Bachelor’s Degree and Master’s Degree while we were growing up. When she was a student at UW Oshkosh during the summers, Papa would wake us up early enough every morning that each of us could write her letters every day.
“As a family, Veblen terminology such as ‘conspicuous consumption’ and ‘vested interest’ were often used very matter-of-factly. It’s well-known that Veblen asserted his views in his personal habits, and we often laughed at unmade beds as being a Veblen trait. But we weren’t allowed to use that as an excuse for not doing our jobs around the house!”
This paper on Veblen has been the most delightful project I have encountered for some time. I went to bed most of the nights reading Veblen, and I never got out of bed later than 5:30 a.m. and read about Veblen. It is far from complete. I now know so many others that should have been contacted.
Every interview was done by a visit to the house of the individual. I had a charming old bachelor lend me two pictures of Veblen. I wrote Dorfman about one of them, and he says to hang on to the replica I had made as it is rare. I am not sure he has seen the second one I reproduced.
In conclusion, if the professor’s wife would permit it, I would appreciate going into seclusion in some attic room to discover more of the real Veblen
—Esther V. Gunnerson
Washington Island’s Thorstein Veblen
Washington Island is a unique place. Unique because of its location, perhaps, even because of its people. It is a 36-square-mile area bordered by the waters of Lake Michigan and Green Bay, separated from the Door Peninsula by a seven-mile stretch of water. Transportation is available only by a monopoly providing excellent service during July and August. The remainder of the year, the schedule changes to the extent that from December to April, only one round trip a day is made, and even that can be canceled if weather is unfavorable. Population of the Island is at an all-time low with February 1963 showing a total of 415. This is due largely to a worsening economic condition. Commercial fish boats have dwindled to four on a year-round basis, due largely to the devastating effects of the lamprey eel. An Illinois potato grower raises in excess of 500 acres of potatoes and employs local help from May to October to tend the crop. Tourism is on the increase as a source of income, but, once again, because of the geographical location, the season is a short one. Since ways of earning a living are on the decrease, it is only a natural situation that the remaining population is composed of elderly people living on retirement incomes.
Such was not the situation when Thorstein Veblen was an Islander from June to September for many years. Transportation was provided by steamer that one could board in Chicago and get off on a choice of two separate docks on Washington Island. There were other boats that provided transportation from Escanaba or Green Bay to Washington Island. Population figures at that time remained at about 1,000 people, with a young, thriving group of Scandinavians made up of Icelandic, Danish, and Norwegian immigrants. At this time, there was also a quantity of Irish immigrants. Everyone made a good living, fishing was good, as was farming if you were willing to work hard.
People who live on an island are a different species. Only anyone that has lived on an island can tell you that. There are many things—independent, trustworthy, learned in their own way, self-sufficient, convivial, gregarious, hardworking, and with a sense of humor. Yet, by and large, they are also suspicious, quick to gossip, lackadaisical, self-satisfied, and critical of anyone who does not live on an island. They are more solidly Republican in total vote count than is perhaps any other township in the State of Wisconsin.
Why did Thorsten Veblen choose to come to a place such as this? I believe his original purpose in coming was to learn Icelandic. To prove this, I shall illustrate with an anecdote related to me by Lawrence Gislason, a hearty gentleman of Icelandic parentage who is now hearing the age of 80. When Lawrence was a boy of nine or 10, his mother took in boarders during the summer. One day, a dark-haired man came to the house to see Mrs. Gislason. He wanted to board there for the summer, but only on one condition: As long as he was around, no English must be spoken. He wanted to learn Icelandic and everyone, children included, must speak Icelandic. Until this time, Mr. and Mrs. Gislason had made no effort to teach the children Icelandic. The Gislasons believed that when one lived in America, one should not speak a foreign language but should speak only English.
The summer progressed with no English evident, and Lawrence finding he must speak Icelandic or get no extra helpings at the table. Mrs. Gislason was curious, as are most women, as to the marital status of Thorstein Veblen, and so she asked him, “Are you married, Mr. Veblen?” Although she asked him many times before the summer was over, the reply was always the same: the Icelandic word for “much.”
During the summer, he lived with the Gislasons, he decided to go for a sailboat ride. He rented a sailboat and set out for a solitary ride around the shores of the Detroit Harbor side of Washington Island. A sudden squall came up with skies darkening quickly and wind gaining momentum. The inevitable happened with the gigantic waves overturning the sailboat, and Veblen was spilled out into the water. A seasoned sailor of many years, Carl Richter—now deceased, whose son owns the Washington Island Ferry—had been watching him from the shore and had started out into the water before the accident occurred to rescue him. He pulled a shaking and indignant Veblen to shore. Veblen promptly stood up upon reaching firm ground, shook himself thoroughly, as a dog would, and stalked off without a backward glance and never a “thank you.”
Information available has it that Veblen spent a number of years staying at boarding houses during the summer before he bought any property. One such place overlooked the Washington Harbor area with busy (now deserted) Johnny Young’s Dock, Schoolhouse Beach, Foss’s Dock, and with easy walking distance to Little Lake, to the cemetery, to a general store and fish docks. Hannah Feagenschau Cornell owned the boarding house. To further prove my point that women are curious, I can only tell of Hannah. Mrs. Cornell was a woman who appreciated knowing anyone’s monetary situation, so, after observing Mr. Veblen’s attire, his books, his habits, and his quantity of mail for some time, she determined she knew him well enough to inquire as to his financial status. “Professors must make a lot of money, Mr. Veblen. How much do you make?” The perfect squelch came with the reply, “It’s hardly worth mentioning, Mrs. Cornell.”
Perhaps the interfering of well-meaning inquisitive women influenced his desire to own property on Washington Island. I would prefer to think that it did not. I hope that his desire for property was motivated largely by the fact that he was satisfied in being on Washington Island. at any rate, he began looking at land in the Little Lake area that he felt was desirable. One spot seemed most suitable. He decided to see the owner and offer him a sum for it. He hunted down Jens Jacobson, even though he had to go out in the field where Jens was working with his three sons, picking peas. When he offered Jens $75 for an area of land that he considered most choice property, Jens laughed and said, “You’d better go buy your land elsewhere.”
He did acquire an excellent piece of property on Little Lake adjoining the Jacobson property—the only property on Washington Island with frontage on the waters of Green Bay and also frontage on Little Lake. Two cabins were built on the property. All work was done by Veblen himself. The main one was used for an all-purpose cabin, and the other one was used for s a study-library cabin for himself. All of the furniture for both cabins was made by Thorstein Veblen. I now own two rockers that he made. One has two huge wooden blocks placed horizontally to provide for perfect balance. The seats are well proportioned, and the back reclines at just the right angle for very enjoyable relaxing. He made his own seaworthy grey skiff. This craft carried him or either of his stepdaughters across Little Lake to get milk or butter each morning at an Icelandic farmer-fisherman’s home.
It is my belief that he was a different man on Washington Island. I am so convinced in this believe that, were he to enter this room now, I would know what he liked most to talk about. I think I know why he liked the people he considered his friends. Mrs. Gau, a lady from DeKalb, Illinois, felt he was a wonderful neighbor. He had, she said, but one definite opinion and that was that he didn’t want snakes killed. All snakes were useful and needed was his contention. At no time did he ever bring associates, friends, professors, students, or women friends to his Island home.
Washington Island offered little and still does in the form of manmade amusements. Unless one is content with baseball games, church-sponsored amusements, tavern socializing, or private parties, one is not content to stay there. Veblen was not interested in any of the amusements available. He visited with men who interested him most. He was as welcome in their homes as they were in his. What kind of person did he seek out? Gudmundur Gudmundson, one of the original four men who came to Washington Island in 1870, was one man Veblen found thoroughly interesting and would visit frequently. Gudmundur had attended school in Iceland for three weeks at three different times, yet he subscribed to five newspapers all of the time he was in this country until his death. He was truly a self-taught man who delighted in telling Icelandic folktales, sagas, and telling of interesting things that had happened on Washington Island and in Iceland. He had been a fisherman all his life, and he knew the ways of the sea. He had a command of the language that enabled him to write articles that were accepted by an Icelandic newspaper. Many enjoyable afternoons were spent with Veblen having come to visit him from his Little Lake cabin.
Kari Bjarnarson lived just across the lake from the Veblen cabin. In fact, Veblen had purchased his tract of land from the Kari Bjarnarson farm. In the words of Kari’s son Oliver, “Veblen treated my father like royalty!” At each visit, he brought out special Turkish cigarettes for Kari to smoke. These beautiful six-inch long cigar-like cigarettes filled Kari’s sons with envy to the extent that their greatest aim in life was to be old enough to smoke one of those cigarettes. The boys also felt they were pretty lucky to know a man as intelligent as Mr. Veblen. No matter what they asked him, he knew more about the subject than the textbook did. They asked him questions about things that interested them most. Where was the greatest deer population in America? Why? How many? What kind of guns were the best ones to use? Why were they so good? Veblen volunteered the information at one time that he was sure that one could walk through a corn field and hearthe corn grow! Although Veblen was never seen fishing or hunting, he did own two guns, a Winchester rifle and a Fox shotgun. Both were always kept in excellent condition. Each year, before he would go back teaching, he would come to the Bjarnarsons with the two guns and tell the boys he knew they would give the guns better care than he could. They were to use them until he returned.
After Veblen had married for the second time, he brought the new Mrs. Veblen and the two stepdaughters, Ann and Becky, to the Island. This was in the post-Theory of the Leisure Classperiod, and some few wiseacres decided to capitalize on the fact that a man of note was in their midst. Armed with a camera, enterprising Len Lovick, a young Islander, came to the Veblen camp to take pictures. Both of the Veblens hastened him unceremoniously off the property in no uncertain terms. No pictures were to be taken of them or the buildings.
Veblen seemed best remembered by all who had conversed with him as wearing out-of-style clothes. One lady said that no matter how old the clothes were, he always wore a necktie. He presented a neat appearance, even if out of fashion. Veblen had insisted the daughters wear clothes he approved of. For that reason, they were always seen in long skirts, boys’ shoes, and plain blouses. All clothing was gotten from a mail-order house because Veblen felt the quality was more sturdy. On a boat trip to Escanaba one day, the two girls were seen boarding it in their usual garb carrying suitcases. By the time the boat had reached Escanaba, the girls had changed into clothes of the latest fashion. It was not possible to pick them out of the group because they did not look out of place.
One day, a telegram came to Thorstein Veblen from one of his brothers saying he was in the hospital in New York and needed $50. Veblen snorted, “What’s $50? I’ll send him $200!” He promptly did just that.
In the last few years that he came to the Island, he developed a friendship with Henry Koyen, the son of the general store owner in Washington Harbor. One day, Veblen said, “Henry, I’d like to have you own this property. Why don’t you buy it from me?” Henry was aghast. He had no spare money and was sure the property cost would be far out of his reach. He promptly told Veblen so and the incident was forgotten. Some years after Veblen’s death in 1929, Henry wrote Becky that he was interested in buying the property if he could meet the amount of the cost. Becky wrote back that she wanted $300 for part of it and $200 for the second parcel of land. Henry was shocked at the low cost and sent off a check by return mail for $500. He became the owner of the loveliest piece of property on the Island. The two cabins contained a wealth of material, dishes, blankets, all the regular housekeeping goods, with the second cabin being his personal study with books, papers, and material he had used for sources of information for many years. The calendar hanging on the wall was dated August 1926. Mrs. Henry Koyen told me that Henry went through the papers and burned many things “he felt were not fit for the human eye to see.” No one will ever know how many things were burned that would be of inestimable value today.
I feel responsible for the following course of events. The second cabin which housed the books was not being used or kept in the proper state of repair. Because of this, I indirectly contacted the State Historical Society during the winter of 1957. They contacted Mrs. Koyen at her Fisher, Illinois, home. Within two days of their arrival in the summer of 1958, the representative of the Society came to look at the collection. He decided the collection was too varied to be of value to them. Mrs. Koyen’s daughter decided the books were a downright nuisance and should be destroyed or taken to the town dump. Mrs. Koyen knew I was interested in the books, so she came to me with the offer that if I wanted them, I could have them, but I would have to take them all. I could not pick and choose titles I might want. Our station wagon left Veblen’s cabin that night loaded with books. Books with titles well known by authors such as the following: Robert Rives La Monte, Sir William Petty, Turgot, Rev. J. S. Watson, J. R. Green, James Harvey Robinson, Jacques Loeb, William Morris, A. H. Keane, Sidney and Beatrice Webb, Benjamin Robinson, Lothrop Wethington, Thomas Goodell, William Shakespeare, Charles Dickens, John Keats, Edmund Spencer, Thomas Malory, George Rawlinson, Adam Smith, Daniel Defoe, Eugene Mason, John Franklin, Charles Darwin, David Hume, Edwin Cannon, P. Kropotkin, S. Reinach, Hector Denis, Gustav Schmoller, Jonathan Swift, Thomas Moore, David Atkins, John Stewart Mill, Thomas Huxley, Hutton Webster, John Dewey, Tobias Smollett, Herbert Spencer, and many, many others, including a large amount of volumes from the Smithsonian Institute. These volumes were etnological report. Incidentally, he used the etnological volumes as a source of material for much of his writing.
Veblen’s Life to Position at University of Chicago
Thorstein Veblen was born on a farm in Cato near Valders, Manitowoc County, Wisconsin. The farm is now owned by a young man by the name of Lierman. It is located one mile north of Valders and about the same distance one mile west of Clarkes Mills. His father and mother came from Drammen, Norway. His father’s name was Thomas Anderson from the farm called Veblen and, as was customary, he took the farm name in coming to America. Thomas Veblen was a strong believer in the value of education. He moved his family to Northfield, Minnesota, where he took up a 290-acre tract. Two hundred of the 290 acres were wild prairie land, but Thomas Veblen set about making all the acreage productive. He was the first in that section of Minnesota to install drains, he was a successful beekeeper, first to plant an orchard and to buy a harvester.
Thorstein Veblen was not liked by the neighbors that made up this predominantly Norwegian community. He was known for being lazy in that, when he ran the harvester for his father, he used as little motion as possible. He was known for pestering old people with stinging sarcasm and giving them nicknames of such originality that they stuck all through the years. Everyone said he had inherited his quick-wittedness and love for learning from his mother.
Thomas Veblen decided, through the influence of his older son, Andrew, that Thorstein should enter Carleton College Academy along with his sister, Emily. Thorstein was not consulted. It was not until he actually arrived at the school that he was told where he was and for what purpose. Veblen spent three years in a preparatory course and three more in a college course at Carleton. He was not well liked by students or faculty because of his biting tongue and lazy manner, except for John Bates Clark, at whose theory of distribution he was to aim his sharpest criticism year afterward. He was a graduate of the class of 1880. He was one of three receiving a B.A. in Classics. He also began studying the Icelandic sagas at this time, prior to graduation. This love for Old Norse stayed with him to the day of his death.
Romance, too, entered his life during his stay at Carleton College. Ellen Rolfe, niece of the president of the college, was the unusual choice. She was an exact opposite to him—a dreamer, a girl from a wealthy, distinguished family who delighted in fantasy. Perhaps the best impression of her can be given in the book The Goosenberry Pilgrims, published in 1902 by the Lathrop Publishing Company of Boston. He story has the illogical quality of a dream. No one episode leads into another. She needed to discipline her imagination as much as Veblen needed to develop his.
Through the efforts of his brother Andrew, he secured a teaching position at Monona Academy at Madison, Wisconsin. At the end of the year, the Academy was closed permanently. Thorsten decided that he would go to Johns Hopkins with Andrew, who had saved a little money while teaching at Luther College. Veblen did not like Johns Hopkins and, before the year was up, went to Yale. He spent two-and-one-half years at Yale, plagued with a constant need for money. He studied at Yale with President Noah Porter and social theory with William Graham Sumner. He received his PhD degree in 1884, but no teaching post seemed available, no matter how hard he tried. During this time, he complained constantly of ill health.
On April 10, 1888, he married Ellen May Rolfe. They decided to settle down on a farm in Stacyville, Iowa. A period of seven years is covered here. Years that were the blackest in his life. He decided to go back to school in 1891 at the age of 34 as a graduate student. He became friendly with J. Lawrence Laughlin so that when Laughlin was called to head up the new Economics Department at the new University of Chicago, he asked Veblen to come with him on a teaching fellowship in 1892−1893 at $520 per year. In 1896, he became an instructor and in 1900, an assistant professor, In 1899, his book TheTheory of the Leisure Classwas published, which brought him prominence overnight.
Veblen’s Life from Chicago to 1929
Veblen’s classes at Chicago attracted few students, but those that were his students were able ones. One student, Henry Waldgrave Stuart, said of Veblen:
It was his feeling always that a man should follow his bent as the surest guarantee of his accomplishing whatever he might, by any chance, have in him the possibility of doing and becoming. He was never more in earnest about anything than about helping a man to discover his true bent.
Students in his course on socialism heart as much about the practices of the Hopi Indians, the Samurai, the Hebrew of the Old Testament, the Andaman Islanders, and the trading pirates of the North Sea as they did about Populism and Karl Marx. Veblen scarcely ever gave any students a grade higher than a “C.”
Women seemed to be much attracted to Veblen, and he knew how to hold their interest. In these interests, it seems he was the pursued rather than the pursuer. In 1906, he went as an associate professor to Leland Stanford Jr. University. He stayed there for a little more than three years. When he was asked to leave, it was for the same reason that he had left Chicago—being involved with a woman. When one of his friends had suggested that the woman might be the cause of the trouble, Veblen had replied, “What is one to do if the woman moves in on you?” Through prolonged efforts of Herger Davenport (author of Value and Distribution), Veblen began teaching in 1911 at the University of Missouri.
Ellen Rolfe finally consented to getting a divorce from Veblen in 1911 with the court saying he must pay her $25 a month support money. In 1914, Veblen married Anne Fessenden Bradley, a divorcee whom he had known in Chicago and California. She had two daughters, Anne and Becky. She brought them up in strict accordance with what she had read in TheTheory of the Leisure Class.He stayed for seven years at the University of Missouri, although he described Columbia as a “woodpecker hole of a town.” In 1918, he moved to Washington, D.C., to become a member of the Food Administration. That job lasted only five months. He moved his family to New York in the fall of 1918 to become an editor of the DialMagazine, along with John Dewey, Helen Marot, and George Donlin. Shortly after the move to New York, the second Mrs. Veblen began suffering from delusions of persecution and had to be removed to a sanitarium. The stepchildren were sent to live with friends in Massachusetts. He was with DialMagazinefor only one year, then joined the faculty of the New School for Social Research.
In 1925, Veblen published the Laxdala Saga, an Icelandic saga that Veblen had translated to English. It was 37 years since he had first begun the work.
Ellen Rolfe passed away in 1926. She had made arrangements in her will that her body be given to a research group in the interest of science. Examination showed her physical development to have been greatly retarded, scarcely even to have passed beyond early adolescence. At about this time, Veblen returned to California with Becky, his stepdaughter. On February 27, 1927, while still in San Diego, he wrote Lubin, a former student, “Becky and I will be leaving for the East—probably for the Island—again in a few weeks.” At another time, Ardzrooni, another former student, told Veblen he thought The Theory of Business Enterpriseshould be revised in order to include a discussion of the Federal Reserve System. Veblen agreed and suggested they both go to Washington Island to do the work, but they did not and the book was not revised.
Veblen’s worries were many at the time—his raisin industry had collapsed, his oil stocks were worthless, and money he had given a student was not repaid, but he was given a house instead that he could barely get enough rent revenue to pay the taxes. He was not in good health and he was lonely. Another student, Mitchell, hoping to help him financially, grouped a number of his essays to be published and sent them to Veblen. Veblen sent a note saying, “I have no fault to find and no changes to make. Indeed, I should trust you farther than myself, any day, to make the right selections to reprint.” And, as a certain Icelandic adage says, “It is not for me to shake my fist at my good luck.” In April 1929, he told Becky he wanted to return to Washington Island. He said he had a nostalgia for the place. Funds were supplied him by friends for the trip, but he did not go.
He passed away on August 3, 1929, with records showing heart disease as a cause of death. It was his wish that he be cremated and his ashes scatted over the Pacific Ocean.
Veblen’s Work and Evaluations
Veblen produced a number of works during his lifetime. The most widely discussed volume is The Theory of the Leisure Class, published in 1899. This was followed by The Instinct of Workmanship, published in 1914. Next came The Theory of Business Enterprise(1915), Imperial Germany (1915), Inquiry into the Nature of Peace(1917), Higher Learning in America(1918), Vested Interests(1919), Engineers and the Price System(1921), and Absentee Ownership(1923).
His impression on the economic world was great. Whether the economic scholars agreed with his trend of thought means nothing in comparison to the fact that he stimulated thought.
Robert L. Heilbroner says in The Worldly Philosophers:
What was needed was the eye of a stranger—someone like DeTocqueville or Bryce who could view gthe scene with the added clarity and perspective that comes of being foreign to it. In the person of Thorstein Bunde Veblen—an American by birth but a citizen of nowhere by nature—such an eye was found.
John Kenneth Galbraith wrote:
Thorstein Veblen is regarded as the uniquely American economist. Veblen believed that those who talked of progress were mostly idiots or frauds. According to Veblen, business always wins in the conflict between business and industry. It was Veblen’s belief as he grew older that the evolving economic society was destroying not only itself but all civilization.
In summation, I think the finest tribute paid was the celebration held at the department of Economics at Columbia University in honor of the 100thanniversary of Thorstein Veblen’s birth. The papers given by various economists were compiled and edited by Edward Dowd and published in 1958. Everyone felt his contributions to the economic world were many, including the printed word and his influence on students and their contributions.