Amsterdam grew rapidly from the fifteenth century onwards. Seafaring brought people from all over the world to the city on the River IJ. These visitors often only stayed for a short period. The sailors disembarked with their wages in the harbour beside Zeedijk. This famous and infamous district offered the ‘entertainment’ that the men were looking after months at sea.

Dark alleys

The city sprung up around the harbour. The harbour district was therefore the centre of trade. You could point out the traders with the ship's bowsprit: right opposite the moored ships were the grocers, ship's suppliers, and rope-makers. After the first ring of quays and wharfs around the harbour came the backstreets, home to brothels, lodgings, and pubs. ‘Mooring at the bar’ was easy in ‘Mokum’ (as Amsterdam was informally known), and the freshly earned money could be spent without delay. That sounds pretty much like the ‘Wallen’ district we know today. It quickly became known as the ‘hoerenbuurt’ (literally: whore district). The Dutch word ‘prostituee’ (prostitute) was seldom used until the nineteenth century.

Regulating prostitution in Amsterdam

Some words are heard only in Amsterdam, and there are plenty relating to the city's seedier side. By 1478, the government had had enough of the harbour area’s less savoury entertainment spilling out into other areas of the city. To use a nautical Dutch phrase, the prostitution ‘business’ was de spuigaten aan het uitlopen*. The government took action, insisting on fixed locations and ‘bikkers’ – an Amsterdam expression meaning pimps. Pijlsteeg and Halsteeg (now called Damstraat) were the designated ‘business’ areas. The first brothel district was closer to Dam Square than to the current red light district. In the so-called ‘peeskamers’ – rented rooms or cabins where prostitutes received their clients – in government-approved streets, the men were able to get what they had been longing for during their months at sea. Girls caught soliciting outside these specific alleys were publicly shamed by being paraded through the streets on a cart while bystanders jeered and called them names. Their clients escaped any such shaming and were left in peace.

Resourceful entrepreneurs

Amsterdam is well-known for its entrepreneurial character, and that entrepreneurial spirit extended into the world of prostitution at that time. You couldn't sit around just waiting for sailors to tug at your skirt. A bit of ‘marketing’ was required. To try and get ahead of the competition, the ladies rowed out to meet the seamen as the ships entered the port. Singing, winking, and displaying full bottles of booze under their skirts, they had a whole range of tricks to tempt the men and give them a warm welcome. The men often returned to their ships with a little more than they bargained for: syphilis, gonorrhoea and chlamydia spread like wildfire. Though too late for these men, in the nineteenth century the Maison Weinthal brothel found an innovative solution for these troublesome sexually transmitted infections: it offered virgins! A girl had to show her naked body at a pre-arranged location where the interested men could assess her. The highest bidder got to spend the night with her.

Sex ‘season tickets’

The ladies not only needed acquisition skills; they also needed to build up relationships with their clients – they needed ‘regulars’. A kind of ‘season ticket’ came into being, a variation on the basic service. For instance, a sailor knew that his ship would not be setting sail again for another four weeks, so he would have plenty of time ashore. The lady was all too eager to ensure a reliable source of income and agreed a fixed price with the sailor, to be paid in advance. The sailor was then allowed to visit the ‘woman of easy virtue’ for a whole month. When the month was over, the services stopped. It's funny to think that telecom companies have only recently come up with the idea of offering clients unlimited calls for a fixed sum per month, so they don't have to worry about costs stacking up. So what did a ‘season ticket’ like this cost? About three joeten, joet being an Amsterdam word for a tenner (ten guilders).

Sleep on a rope for five cents

Sleep on a rope for five cents

Translation of the photo description: 19th century sleeping boss: "Morning gentleman, our sweet lord just turned on the light. All rise!"

Photo from the book 'De Stad Amsterdam' published by Uitgeverij Fontein.

Sleep on a rope for five cents

If he had run out of money and his ship was unable to set sail due to an unfavourable wind, a sailor would have had to find a cheap and simple place to sleep. Not only would he have to manage without female company, he would have to manage without a bed, too. The most impoverished sailors were able to sleep ‘in the ropes’ for five cents a night. It's hard to imagine... picture a beam in front of you with a rope hanging below it. You would fold your upper body over the rope and hang your head and arms down on the other side. Until the nineteenth century, these ropes were regular sleeping places for men who had no more money or had got themselves drunk. There was even a wake-up call for the poor souls who had actually held out for eight hours. Oh well... they were used to tough conditions aboard their ships.

There was some slight consolation on the ships in the form of many erotic references. True ship decorations in the form of large ornaments on deck or in the rigging came only in the nineteenth century, but it was certainly not unusual for busts of women with large, bare breasts to be crafted. Then men had to make do with these depictions to keep their spirits up until reaching port again and enjoying the female company ashore. Whether that was his own wife or another woman perhaps didn't matter too much after ten months at sea...

* The Dutch expression ‘Het loopt de spuigaten uit’ is a nautical one. A ‘spuigat’ (scupper) is a hole in a ship's side to carry water overboard from the deck during stormy weather. ‘Uitlopen’ means to flow out. When a gale is blowing, the sea is rough, and there is water on the deck, the water flows out through the scuppers. In short: matters have got out of hand or there is too much of a good thing. In Amsterdam's case, the ‘trade’ was spilling out into areas where the government did not want to see it.

Source: De Stad Amsterdam – Zeemansstad: schepen, zeelui, kooplieden en lichte zeden. Arne Zuidhoek.
Author: Marleen Stavenuiter – Het Scheepvaartmuseum