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Life in 16th and 17th Century Amsterdam Holland: Prostitution

Prostitution in Amsterdam

Cor Snabel

Although prostitution has always been against the law, the magistrates of Amsterdam never did much about this phenomenon. As a trading city the town was always full of sailors and loose women were always found where the sailors were. In 1500 the area behind the "Dam" square was the official "prostitution-zone". Women who walked the streets outside this area were escorted with flute music and drum roll into the official zone.

Brothels were not allowed, but some were actually run by the magistrates, "in order to keep control". In some public baths men and women could bath together, listening to music, drinking wine and afterwards they could retreat to a separate room. Prostitutes and customers found each other in the inns, musico's (theatres) and dance-establishments run by a Madame. In those days the customer not only came to the brothel for sex, but listing to music or playing cards or dice were an important part of the entertainment in these establishments. Even bars with topless waitresses were known in the 17th century, most of the time the barkeeper had an understanding with these women; during opening hours they would encourage the clients to drink and after closing-time they could take the customers along. So what has changed in 400 years ?

At annual fairs the brothels had competition from large groups of prostitutes, who traveled from town to town. In 1611 one Willem Mouring offered 80 guilders to the magistrate of Wassenaar, if he was allowed to locate "his" group of Amsterdam girls near the horse fair. His request was denied, because the amount of 80 guilders was too poor for such a lucrative license !!

In the 18th century the contrast between rich and poor became much clearer and the luxurious brothel was accepted. The customer could even bring his wife along to take a look around. The house of Madame Traese was so well known, even Prince Eugene of Savoy visited it in 1722 during his official stay in Amsterdam. At the end of the 18th century "De Pijl" in the Pijlsteeg and "De Fortuyn" on the Nieuwmarkt were the establishments, where big money was spent. The owner of "De Pijl", Jan Banes, owned an estate.

Amsterdam even had its brothels for homosexuals, often under the cloak of an intermediary for servants and employers. The insiders, even from far out of town, knew where to find these brothels. In 1730 the authorities found out about this and it became a scandal, all "guilty", poor and rich, were arrested and sentenced to death. Till the introduction of the criminal laws of 1811 the penalty for "sodomy" was capital punishment.

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Dutch Introduction in Amsterdam Holland


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