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History of Prostitution

The Hooker Through the Ages

A brief introduction on the history of prostitution

Prostitution comes from Latin and means: Placing in front [pro is upfront and otatuere means placement]. ‘Whore’ is an old Indo-European word, related to the Old Indian word Kama [like in Kamasutra] meaning lust. Historically, levied any at women who stepped outside the norms of modest behavior and upset the status quo. Whore originally derives from the Germanic ‘horon’ meaning “one that desires”. In old Norwegian the word is ‘hora’ [adulteress woman]. In Dutch it’s called: “hoer” and is almost pronounced the same way as the English word ‘whore’.

Did you know that some people in Amsterdam have another accent than other people in the Netherlands? This Amsterdam accent is called “Mokums”. Some words are completely different from the “normal” Dutch language. For example: “Temeier” is the Mokum’s word for whore. In normal Dutch it’s “hoer” or “prostituee“.

History of Prostitution - Brothel in Germany 1550
Brothel in 1550 according to the Monogramist of Brunswick, Germany. In the back a woman and a man “go upstairs”.

The Whore of Babylon

Being a whore is the oldest profession on earth, it is said. The Holy Bible mentions a woman, called The Whore of Babylon. That stood for sinful behaviour. It meant The Roman Empire, that –according to the writers of the Bible- was no more than a bunch of unholy people, with their multitude of Gods and their wrongful morals.

History of Prostitution - Lucas van Leyden painting
Lucas van Leyden Sodom destroyed by God, 1509

The Bible says Sodom and Gomorra were destroyed by God, because of the sinful behaviour of their citizens. Sodomy [love between men], whores, brothels and drunkenness formed the basis of the decay in these two Biblical places. Having sex was only destined for married couples.

History of Prostitution - Lilith by john collier
Lilith according to painter John Collier [oil on canvas, 1892]

Prostitution rituals 3000 years before Christ

But even before the Bible, a woman called Lilith was mentioned in clay tablets. The demon Lilith, emerged for the first time circa 3000 BC in the ancient city of Uruk, in what is now called Iraq. She was a high priestess of the Inanna-temple and was sent by the Goddess “to get men from the streets.” Lilith was one of the Nu-giggs, the pure or spotless, who were worshipped as holy women. The rituals Lilith took part in were later considered as prostitution-rituals.

First legalization of prostitution

Solon was the first to legalize prostitution. He did this 2609 years ago.

Did you know that Solon, the great Athenian legislator, was the first to legalize prostitution? He legalized it 2609 years ago! In the year 594 before Christ, Solon implemented state measures. Firstly to protect marriage and to prevent adultery. Secondly to unlimited satisfaction of all extramarital sexual desire.

How did people react on prostitution?

The whore is always the source of many different reactions. Jealousy is certainly one. And many a spouse was relieved to see her man go to the Red Light District, as she refused to have sex with him. That also was the reason for the Catholic Church to condone whoredom. 70% of all clients of hookers are married, recent scientific reports say.

The whore always made good money and so did those around her, like the pimp, the inn etc., as is apparent from all the inns in paintings, where leisure, beer, kissing and making- out is depicted in a straight forward way. Victorian times hadn’t arrived yet and life was easy with little or no structure to every day life.
In present days, Lilith lives as much as back then. More and more women free their untamable Lilith energy- their free, dark, sexual, tempting and creative powers.

History of Prostitution - Jan Steen - Wine is mocker - 1669
Jan Steen, Wine is mocker, 1669. Woman having too much to drink in front of an inn.

As City administrations have more than once tried to regulate prostitution, the police had an opportunity to close an eye and receive payments for doing so.
Only the women who did serious crimes, next to playing the whore, such as manslaughter, murder or repeated battering, were punished.

History of Prostitution in Amsterdam: Punishments

Year 1413

City Justice made use of City Regulations – such as one from the year 1413 in Amsterdam – which held that a whore, performing her trade outside the allowed place and after having received two warnings, would be buried alive. [Source: Book Of Regulations A folium 4, 1413]. Indeed, several women have actually been buried this way, as becomes apparent from old books of Justice of the city. It’s The Dark Ages, you know? The poor broads.

Year 1650

A woman could also lose her ear if she slept with anyone else but her spouse, or with a man in the church or at the cemetery!
This actually happened to a woman known as Neeltje Pieters, who returned despite her legally being banned from Amsterdam and did wrong things on her arrival back home. As a punishment, she lost her ear at 12 November 1650 [Source: Justice book of the year 1650, folio 21].

History of Prostitution in Amsterdam: Brothels, stoves and inns

Year 1377 – 1477

In Burgundian times which ran from the year 1377 to the year 1477, Burgundian Duke Philip of Burgundy re-introduced an old Roman tradition in his countries which included The Netherlands back then: Stoves or Bath houses. They were called stoves because they were heated. A stove was basically an Inn. The present day German word Stube [bar] still refers to that heating aspect of such an Inn.

But Anthony of Burgundy went a step further introducing the Stove as a brothel and an Inn combined. And the upper class liked the Stove, too. Anthony was the son of Duke Philip the Good of Burgundy, who was known for his adultery and fornication.

History of Prostitution - A brothel in 1470.
A bath house-brothel in 1470 with the King on the background. 

This aquarel depicts a man in courtly garb and a king looking through a window in the year 1470, observing debauchery in the baths. Nude men and women bathe and eat together, while two couples in the baths and a couple in an adjacent room kiss and fondle. The prostitutes wear elaborate veils and jeweled necklaces. The painter, the Master of Anthony of Burgundy chose to place the scene of luxury in a contemporary Flemish bath house or brothel.

Brothels with adjacent bath houses and public bath houses that also offered illicit prostitution were common in the late Middle Ages in France, the Low Countries, and Germany. Although prostitution was illegal in public bath houses, proprietors often overlooked the law. Bath house-brothels earned a reputation for vice and licentiousness. Gambling, theft, and drunkenness all appear as complaints in legal documents.

History of Prostitution - Judith Leyster - Prostitute - 1650
Whore painted by the Dutch female master painter Judith Leyster. Circa 1650.

The owner of a Stove could be fined 3 Pounds, the City regulation stipulated.
Young Gentry men had an initiation ritual: they took a freshman student to a Stove, where it was common for this young man, aged 16 or 17, to receive a gift: life-long Syphilis.

History of Prostitution in Amsterdam: Prostitutes and STD’s

Year 1478 – 1564

At a certain point the connection was discovered between the whore and venereal diseases (STD’s) and the City made policies to prevent or diminish it.
Already in a City Regulation of the year 1478 “Rendez-Vous Houses” or “Meeting Houses” were mentioned. Places where women drank with men, “to be merry and to do other things as they liked”, as a source describes it.

On September 18th, 1564 a woman by the name of Mary Simonsdochter [Mary Simons daughter] was put at the “kaak” [see picture below] as a public punishment and humiliation and she was afterword’s brought by the police to the Brothel in the Pieter Jacob Alley, all because Mary had been occupied as a whore and “was seen engaged with a certain married man person.” And “notwithstanding her having received several warnings on the part of the government of the City of Amsterdam.” Ahum…

History of Prostitution - Ad for smoking - Punishment
Being posted on the “Kaak”. A forgotten form of punishment.

Displayed here is an advert for Van Rossums tobacco, with a punished man at the “Kaak”. Mostly the perpetrator was attached to this torture instrument for 3 hours, not longer. Passersby were allowed to throw rotten eggs or tomatoes at the villain, but in this picture a friendly inhabitant makes the crook enjoy his pipe!

At the end of the 16th century brothels were abolished in Amsterdam. Nevertheless prostitution rose in size.

A new form of brothel in Amsterdam: The Play House

Year 1681 – 1838

In 1681 a booklet was published called: Le Putanisme d’Amsterdam, that described a new thing, the Play or Music House, that rose as a new form of brothel. “The building shows no window whatsoever and is only indicated by the lantern at the outside. A hall leads to a large room, where a man plays the spinet [old piano giving a tinkling sound] and where a lot of people are together. High on the ceiling of this room hangs an enormous copper chandelier, like one sees in churches. Also a man plays a violin. Young women wait until they are invited by a man to have a drink and sit together. They are wonderfully dressed and their hair is beautifully done. A chansonnier sings all kinds of songs and the women perform solo dances, of which the Kurat is the most popular.

History of Prostitution - Book cover Le Putanisme D'Amsterdam
Book cover of “ Le Putanisme d’Amsterdam”.

History of Prostitution - Interior of a brothel "De Pijl" in Amsterdam. 1810
Play house The Arrow, Amsterdam, circa 1810. Dress code: Napoleon style.

Fun fact: Nowadays, Hotel Krasnapolsky on the Warmoes Street is situated in the building where play house The Arrow used to be. A Play house was a luxurious brothel, where one danced and drank beer and wine. There was music, too.

The Spin House

History of Prostitution in Amsterdam - Warmoesstraat Red Light District

Regularly women were brought to the so called Spin House – a penitentiary for women. The convicted women (criminals, beggars and prostitutes) were punished, sat in a large room and also had to spin and sew. Everybody who paid a nickel could watch them as if it was the zoo. The women were forced to nit and sew and were detained for a certain time.

History of Prostitution - Interior of a Spin House - 1700
Spin house [women’s prison] around 1700, prison for female thieves, hookers, etc

History of Prostitution: A Spin House in Amsterdam
The Spin house in Amsterdam, 1650. Painted by Bartholomeus van der Helst.

This painting depicts several “regents” –  the directors of the Dutch cities in the 17th century and the 18th century. The power was then in the hands of the regent families, who often gave family members powerful jobs. The Spin House had four male regents and two female regents. On the background of the painting you can get a glimpse of the daily affairs of this Spin house. One of the women gets beaten with a shoe. Apparently physical punishment was seen as an integral part of reeducation of the women.

History of Prostitution: A Spin House in Amsterdam Close Up
Amsterdam, 17th-century. A woman gets beaten with a shoe as punishment. 

Already in the 17th century women were brought to Amsterdam, a booming town, from elsewhere, mainly Flemish Brabant, the region just above Brussels. So there was women trafficking, but many women in Amsterdam did their trade voluntarily and came from the city itself. A lot of money was easily made this way.

In an alley called Hasselaarsteeg [Hasselaar Alley], located at 100 yards from the harbor, brothels were left to their own devices, because sailors had to sleep somewhere and many a time they did that just there, in the houses of public women.
The City of Amsterdam only withdrew the license of a public woman after a multitude of complaints about her, as is stated in a Police report from 1838 about a woman in the Handboogstraat [Hand Bow Street].

History of Prostitution in Amsterdam: Repression

Year 1854 – 1882

In the national Penal Law of 1881 it was regulated that keeping a brothel was illegal for a woman not previously reported to the authorities. Meaning that being a hooker was not in itself forbidden. Not mentioning that a woman was a whore, could lead to a maximum of 300 Guilders for the tenant of the brothel.
Even more special is the Law-on-the-Cities of 1851, that recognised brothels and hookers as legal! True!

In 1882 there were 68 legalised houses of prostitution, with 170 public women. In brothels signs were posted with this warning in three languages:
“In Holland, no prostitute can be kept in a house of tolerance, be it for debts, be or for whichever motive. People having doubts, can address these doubts to Police stations [follows the address].”

In 1854 the City of Amsterdam forbade “acquiring the attention by one or more women in a brothel of any one passing by, pouring liquor, beer or wine to a Policeman in uniform, all of which, together or with or without receipt of complaints about irregularities “ could lead to shutting down the brothel in its entirety.
In England movements for abolition of the trade started in 1870, followed up in Amsterdam by The Midsummer night Association in 1888. They were mostly religiously inspired elite, who protested right in front of a brothel, only to give rise to mockery [first], insults [after] and outright fights and up risings [in the end], meaning that this attempt to deal with the oldest profession on earth was doomed to fail.

 “Reines des trottoirs” [Queens of the sidewalk], Amsterdam, late 19th century
“Reines des trottoirs” [Queens of the sidewalk], Amsterdam, late 19th century.

After so many centuries of condoning brothels, only in the year 1902 it became expressis verbis and officially forbidden by Amsterdam City law, to accommodate acts of indecency in one’s house or trade.

History of Prostitution - Police close down brothel 1902
Police sally forth in May 1902 to close down brothel “The Green palace” in the Wijde Lombard steeg [ Wide Lombard Alley].
Cartoon in the Amsterdamsche Courant.

History of Prostitution in Amsterdam: Brothels went provocative

Violation of this new City-rule was punished with shut down by the Fornication Police, who went to the place in full pomp and circumstance!
Brothels advertising openly on the streets and in newspapers in a challenging way, didn’t do much good to the business of prostitution: Authorities reacted by making things harder. New laws were introduced, repression became firmer.

History of Prostitution -  Provocative Advertisement of brothel Maison Weinthal
Provocative Advertisement of brothel Maison Weinthal circa 1900.
Only to be followed by shut down of the public whore house by the Amsterdam authorities on june 20, 1902

Now local brothel-keepers went into appeal with the courts, putting forward that the local City-laws were in contradiction to National laws! What a brutality! Eventually the Supreme Court in the Netherlands held that the Amsterdam City law didn’t contravene any higher body of law and the appeals were thereby dismissed.

History of Prostitution in Amsterdam: Health issues

In 1904, the Liquor Law went into force. This was to target females in bars trying to get the male visitors to drink beer, wine and jenever [the dutch version of gin]. These women are called animation girls, since they try to animate you to drink and to pay the bill for both of you. Because, also, they were hookers anyway too. It was forbidden to have female staff in a bar without a specific license from the City, mentioning the women and her address in question on paper.

As a result of the Sanitary Convention of 1916 drafted in Brussels, to which all civilized nations have adhered, sailors of all nationalities can have free treatment of genital diseases. The invention by Alexander Fleming of a new drug: Peniciline, made treatment of venereal diseases possible. Quite a relief!

History of Prostitution: Amsterdam bed prostitute
Amsterdam, Antoniesbreestraat, 1919 – A bowed bed of a prostitute.

History of Prostitution in Amsterdam: Statistics

In 1926, Amsterdam had 1900 working prostitutes in town. They worked on the streets, in houses or in cafes. Back then, 855 prostitutes (45%) worked on the streets. 627 prostitutes (33%) worked in houses and stood behind the window or in the doorway. 209 hookers (11%) worked in cafes or so called cabarets.

The trade of prostitution can be divided in certain categories:

  • Street prostitutes
  • House prostitutes
  • Bar-prostitutes
  • Occasional prostitutes
  • Brothel prostitutes and massage prostitutes
  • Call-girls

Animation girls, a much practiced habit dating back to old times are women in brothels and kinky bars asking their male visitors to pay for their – very expensive – drinks. So don’t be surprised a simple glass of champagne [preferably a bottle!] will cost you 15 € at the end of your evening , appearing on the bill. A bottle 100€. But probably you’re drunk then, so who cares.

History of Prostitution in Amsterdam: Politicians and Prostitutes

Rob Oudkerk, a former Dutch politician and alderman of Amsterdam in the nineties, was dismissed when, in a loose mood at a bar, he told female journalist Heleen van Royen that he frequented whores at an Amsterdam industrial site. Rob Oudkerk, at the moment of publication in the year 2004, was an MP and was forced to resign and disappear from the national political theatre.

Nowadays, hookers are accepted, except by Ultra Right Wing Christians. But trafficking is not.

History of Prostitution - Window brothel in Amsterdam


Project 1012

A few years ago, the City of Amsterdam adopted a policy called 1012. That’s the zip code of the Red Light District. It encompasses among others, buying real estate [from wrongdoers] and installing shops in it. Like a game cafe, fashion shops, chocolate shops, art galleries and so on. That policy has been successful.
But because of this policy, the number of brothels is decreasing. This means less working space for the prostitutes. On April 9th, there was this big protest in Amsterdam, whereby sex workers protested against the closing of the brothels. “Don’t save us, save our windows”, they said.

In the 70’s and 80’s, the Red Light District was all about sex & drugs. At present the Amsterdam Red Light District is a fine place to be and to hang out. There is so much to see! Nowadays, it offers more than just window brothels and cannabis coffee shops.

An old, secret church in the Red Light District

Don’t forget to check Our Lord In The Attic [ in Dutch: Onse Lieve Heer Op Solder], a wonderful 17th century house, where Catholics secretly held their worshipping ceremonies in a time Calvinism became the main religion in Holland [as from 1585]. This 5 story house has a complete church on the highest floor, which is exactly the same now as in those days! The rest of the house shows how people lived in the 17th century without central heating and warm water.

Did you know that Catholics who paid the church were only allowed to sit on one of the benches? The poor (those who didn’t have money to pay the church) were welcome too, but they had to stand in the back.

Hidden church in Amsterdam's Red Light District

Better still is to take one of our tours in Amsterdam’s Red Light District. Our local guides will show you all the best, hidden places that people never see. It’s interesting, fun and healthy!

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