Five rando facts about life in 17th century Amsterdam

Just some fun and utterly contradictory things about life in Amsterdam during its Golden Age:

  1. Dutch children were unruly. From the ages of three to about six, the children spent their days outside in the street, largely unsupervised, doing whatever — to whoever — they pleased. They jeered at people they thought looked funny, threw stones and mud at people they assumed to be foreigners. Foreigners, in turn, were scandalized by the rowdiness of the young mob rolling through the streets. But attempts to confront parents about their misbehaving kids were often met with disbelief or anger. No one wanted to believe that their spoiled angel was a problem.
  2. Did I say parents were indulgent? Apparently, that indulgence ran out eventually. Amsterdam’s prison was called the Rasphuis and was not just for criminals but lazy people and sons who displeased their fathers. The Dutch were particularly industrious and not only prized hard work, but absolutely disdained those who refused to work. So the Raphuis had an engenius punishment. Those who refused to work were thrown into the building’s cellar, which slowly filled with water. The only way to empty the water — and save their own lives — was to continually work a hand-operated pump.
  3. Women had their own prison — the Spinhuis. It was mostly for prostitutes and daughters who had run away from home, as well as husbands who wanted to get rid of their wives and so accused them of drunkenness or misconduct or whatever they wished to dream up.
  4. It wasn’t just the husbands who could be strict. The Dutch Reformed Church of the time was notorious for frowning on anything fun. Before weddings, it often appointed someone to visit the bride- and groom-to-be to entreat them to not have any dancing at their upcoming nuptials, as dancing was of the flesh and too sinful to be tolerated.
  5. Yet among all the seriousness and piety, the Dutch were swimming in ridiculous wealth. What you’ve heard about Tulipmania is pretty much true. It was the first recorded economic bubble in history. At the height of it, one common Amsterdammer was able to make 60,000 florins (about $3.6 million in 2019 US dollars) just by growing tulips in his courtyard. But in order to do so, home gardeners had to jealously guard their cash crop. Men stayed up all night to keep watch over their bulbs, and some built elaborate theft detection systems outfitted with warning bells to alert them to would-be thieves. Of course, it all came crashing down when buyers fled the market, leaving people who held pricey tulip bulb futures holding the bag. Then, like now, the government stepped in, devising a plan to annul contracts at the price of 10 percent indemnity paid by the buyer to the seller. Even so, many fortunes and future dreams were crushed by the crash.

Source: Zumthor, P. (1994). Daily life in Rembrandts Holland. Stanford: Stanford University Press.

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