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Red Light District History

Amsterdam Red Light District History

(last updated on the 15th of September 2017)

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The Beginning Of The Red Light District
Red Light District History: Street Names
Red Light District History: between 1500 and 1600
Red Light District History: The Netherlands in the 17th and 18th century
Red Light District History: from 1850 till 2013
Red Light District History: Amsterdam’s Oldest House
Amsterdam Canals Construction
Historical Amsterdam Canals Map

The Beginning Of The Red Light District

This section of town is lively, cheerful and it can be a bit noisy. Maybe it was also that way back then, when it all began. Since sex for money is the oldest profession, it was already there back in 1200, when Amsterdam was no more than two lines of wooden houses, together forming the first canal. With at one end of it the harbour, exactly where the Central Station now stands. From 1200 and onwards it as trade that made Amsterdam.

Amsterdam Red Light District History: De Wallen - Oudezijds Voorburgwal 1670
Amsterdam, Red Light District (“De Wallen”), Oudezijds Voorburgwal, year 1670.

De Wallen Of Amsterdam

Did you know that the Dutch don’t call this area the Red Light District? In Holland, this area is known as “De Wallen”. In the early growth days of Amsterdam it was enclosed and protected by earthen walls. That is the origin of the name “De Wallen” for this area. De Wallen immediately refers to sex and prostitution in Holland, and it has been so for hundreds of years. It’s an euphemism: “To say Wall when you mean paid sex.”

Important street names in the Red Light District are for example the Oudezijds Voorburgwal and Oudezijds Achterburgwal. As you can see, these street names end on “wal”. The Dutch plural for “wal” is “wallen”.

Amsterdam Oudezijds Voorburgwal 1895.
Amsterdam, Red Light District (a.k.a. De Wallen), Oudezijds Voorburgwal, 1895.

Amongst other things, in the earliest beginnings of the town, fishery was bringing in a lot of money. Later shipping of timber and even later the trade in Far East  spices (cinnamon, pepper, clove etc.) and tea and coffee brought in huge amounts of money. Amsterdam stored it all in the now famous ware houses, which were part of the living quarters of the a traders. One can see these houses at the Brouwersgracht for instance. They are recognisable by their characteristic wooden hatches at the front.

Red Light District History: Street Names
Amsterdam Gebed zonder End in the year 1892.
Amsterdam, Prayer without end street, year 1892.

Street names like Prayer-Without-End [Dutch: Gebed zonder end] and Monk street [Monnik straat]  are pretty contradictory to the scenes you get to see nowadays.  The Monks Street is named after the Grey Monks Monastery that used to be located in the Red Light District.

Bloedstraat in Amsterdam (Blood Street)

Amsterdam Red Light District History - The Blood Street (Bloedstraat) in 1890
Amsterdam, Red Light District, Blood Street, 1890.

The Blood Street (Dutch: Bloedstraat) is a short and narrow street in Amsterdam’s Red Light District. The street is located between the New Market Square and Oudezijds Achterburgwal Street. Amsterdam used to have 20 monasteries.

Since 1464, the Franciscan monastery and the so called “Vroedschap” church of the Gray Monks were located in this street. The Franciscan monastery was the largest men convent in Amsterdam. It was destroyed in 1578 and then on January 7, 1588 the town council decided to tear down the church too. Therefore, the Blood Street arose on the perimeter and next to it the Monk Street (Dutch: Monnikenstraat). The Blood Street in the Red Light District refers to the former blood chamber of the monastery which might also have served as a torture chamber.

According to historian Melchior Fokkens, Alva – a Spanish general and governor of the Netherlands –  kept his “blood counsel” on what’s now The Blood Street.

Amsterdam Red Light District History: Alva had his blood council on the Blood Street
Amsterdam, 1573. Alva’s last ride through the city. 

Amsterdam was very religious city back then. But it was also a trade point, a raw place with prostitution, sailors and criminality. Nowadays, the Blood Street is filled with window brothels which have red and blue lights. Wanna know who uses the blue lights? Join our tour and our local guide will tell you.

Cripple Alley

The Cripple alley [Dutch: Kreupel steeg] is named after the cripples who came here hoping to be cured. It’s located in the heart of the Red Light District.

Warmoes Street

Amsterdam Red Light District History: The Warmoes Street now and then
Amsterdam’s Warmoes street in 2015 & 1900. 

At the flanks of the Warmoes Street, Amsterdammers had kitchen gardens (Moes literally means vegetables). But since say the year 1600, only houses were built here. Ground had more value with a house on it since the city was growing and the need for houses was high.

Amsterdam Red Light District History: Warmoes street in 1905..

The photo above was taken in 1905. It shows the back of a house that was located on the Warmoes street. Around this time, lots of houses were in really bad shape. Like the one on the photo. These house weren’t properly isolated and very unhygienic.

The Red Light District is the oldest part of town and the Warmoes Street is the oldest street of Amsterdam. The Old Church (De Oude Kerk), the oldest still existing church of Amsterdam. It dates from 1200-1300. It’s located in the middle of the area, just next to the Warmoes Street.

The Miracle Of Amsterdam

Amsterdam has had its own true miracle. Around 1350 there was a fire. A catholic wafer [hostie] was in the midst of it, but didn’t burn: The Miracle of Amsterdam was born. Many came here as a pilgrim, even a Pope and an Emperor. Amsterdam became a holy place.

Oudezijds Kolk Or Kolksluis (Kolk Sluice)

Amsterdam Red Light District History Oudezijds Kolk
Painting from 1839 inspired on the Kolk Sluice in Amsterdam.

This is one of Amsterdam’s oldest, still functioning, sluice – dating from the Middle Ages, first half 14th C. Technically, the ‘kolk’ is the area between both pairs of sluice doors. In times past the ‘Kolksluis’ was part of a system of sluices, that had two main functions: a. protect against high tide; b. help refresh the water in the canal system.

The Red Light District History: Between 1500 And 1600

Until 1578 the area known as Oude Zijde was characterised by the many monasteries. After the Alteration in that same year the convents were given a new destination by the city government, like a prison or orphanage. The alteration meant that  Holland threw off the reign by Emperors or Kings {Philip II of Spain was the Landlord of the low countries as from 1555} and went on as a Republic. The Netherlands had to fight for 80 long years to achieve this. In 1648 Holland was acknowledged its own, separate Republic by the rest of Europe in the Treaty of Munster, where all of continental Europe was rearranged.

Hidden Catholic Churches

The building “Our Lord At The Attic” (Onze Lieve Heer Op Solder) on the Oudezijds Voorburgwal 40 has a complete hidden catholic church in its attic. It was a house that was build in the year 1550 and owned by a true catholic, who freed the whole floor to be dedicated to the service of God. Complete with chairs for the rich (the poor had to stand up) and pulpit for the priest. Now it’s a really nice museum. One can also see how life was in such a house around 1600.

Hidden church in Amsterdam's Red Light District
This is what the hidden church in the attic looks like. Amazing!

Red Light District History: The Netherlands In Between The 17th And 18th Century

From the year 1666 the Netherlands turned protestant when the so called Statue Storm (Dutch: Beeldenstorm) took place all over Southern and Northern parts of the low lands. The south was formed by now Belgians cities like Antwerp, Brussels and Brugge. From then on Catholicism had a hard time, it was even forbidden. But like always in Holland, it was winked at, and the Catholics could have their service at secret places. As long as they didn’t make fuss.

Amsterdam Red Light District History: Casanova visits the Netherlands

In 1758 the famous Italian fraud and womanizer Casanova visited Amsterdam and also “De Wallen”, the Red Light District, since he was obsessed with sex.

The Red Light District History: from 1850 till 2013

In Victorian times, prostitution was illegal. But of course the men could still get their satisfaction secretly, in brothels, inns and taverns. There was always a woman, known for her easy ways.

Amsterdam Red Light District History. "De Wallen" in 1886 in front of the Old Church.
January 1886.  Amsterdam’s Red Light District, just next to The Old Church.

The picture above was taken 129 years ago. You see two women and a man with a derby walking through the neighborhood. What’s interesting to know about this photo is that all the buildings in the back are still here this very day.

The Red Light District in 1894
Amsterdam, Red Light District, Old Church Square, 5th of May in 1894. 

The Old Church is the oldest building in Amsterdam. It stands in the heart of the Red Light District and is surrounded by window brothels, cafes, restaurants and normal residential houses. The picture above was taken by a famous Dutch photographer of that time: Jacob Olie. He shot this photo on a sunny day in 1894, as you can see by the man in the back who tries to block the sunlight with his hand. In those days, people had to stand very still to guarantee a sharp photograph.

The year 1901 till 1910

The Old Church Square in Amsterdam around 1900
Old Church Square between 1900 – 1910. This picture was shot by Tavik Frantisek Simon.

The Old Church Square in Amsterdam is one of the highlights during our tours. Get to know more about this fascinating area and see how the church is surrounded by brothels, cafes, restaurants and even a kindergarten.

Amsterdam Red Light District History: Prostitutes and a pimp in 1905
Amsterdam, year 1905. Two prostitutes sitting in front of a house waiting for customers.

Fun fact: Another word for street prostitute is ‘street daisy”.

The picture is above is very unique and special! It took us quite a long time to find this photo. The reason why it’s so special is because it really shows how prostitution took place back in 1905. The prostitutes wore long dresses, sat in front of houses and waited for customers. In those years, the ladies were also known as ‘street daisies’ (Dutch: Straatmadeliefjes). The man on the picture is most likely a pimp, which was quite normal in that time. He took care of the customers and handled aggressive customers when necessary.

Fun fact: Another word for pimp is ‘souteneur’. It’s a French word and stems from ‘soutenir’, meaning ‘support’ or ‘defend’.

Red Light District History: In The Port Of Amsterdam

The famous Flemish singer Jacques Brel sang an evenly famous song  “In the Port of Amsterdam” describing the raw atmosphere and actions of the sailors and prostitutes. The song was a true tribute to them. The port was adjacent to Amsterdam’s Red Light District.

In the 30ies of the 20th century, window prostitution appeared. Before window prostitution there were brothels or whores picked you up in an inn to go elsewhere or to a room in the inn. Prostitutes were not allowed by the police to lure clients in the door-opening, but were allowed to sit behind the window and do the same, with the curtains almost closed.

Amsterdam Red Light District. Oudezijds Achterburgwal. 1951

A beautiful picture of a snowy Red Light District. 

Amsterdam Red Light District Prostitute 1957

In the sixties and onwards prostitution grew and grew in Amsterdam’s Red Light District (“De Wallen”) and became even bigger; more window brothels and more prostitutes, but also more erotic show and sex shops.

This is how the Red Light District in Amsterdam looked like in 1968. Photo by Elliott Erwitt
This is what the Red Light District in Amsterdam looked like in 1968.  Photo by Elliott Erwitt.  

In those years, a lot of window brothels had a painting of a crying gypsy boy. The sex workers believed it would bring luck, fortune and happiness. The picture above shows a painting like that.

Amsterdam Window Prostitute 1960's
A window prostitute called Parijse Leen. Amsterdam, Red Light District, late 1960’s. Pic by: C. Jaring 

The interior of the window brothels in Amsterdam looked like small living rooms, as you can see on the pictures above. Mind the paper-hangings, lamps, paintings and curtains. Nowadays, the window brothels have a very modern look. They are still quite small though. Usually it just has a bed, a washing table and a chair.

Amsterdam's Red Light District History.
Amsterdam’s Red Light District in 1978. Most sex shops sold porn magazines back then.

One famous brothel in Amsterdam was Yab Yum, founded in 1980, for the rich. It was very luxurious and had a fine interior. It still exists, as a museum though.

Amsterdam's Red Light District History. April 3th 1984
A window prostitute presents herself in the Red Light District. 3th of April 1984.

Police agents in Amsterdam's Red Light District. This picture was shot in the 80's on the Warmoesstraat in Amsterdam.

Prostitution, euthanasia (under strict conditions) and gay marriage were legalised in Holland. That happened around the year 2000. Coffeeshops were condoned from the year 1970 onwards.

In 2009 the city council accorded to label window prostitution as a criminal activity and a criminal branche. After that the the City government decided in 2011 to chase the window brothels [mostly consisting of one tiny room] from for instance the Saint Annen street and the Old Church square [Oude Kerks plein]. The City of Amsterdam aims to help women who are forced into prostitute with these policies.

Since 2010 the city of Amsterdam has campaigned to drive human trafficking out of town. The city buys properties and houses to remove window brothels from streets and squares.

Red Light District History: Belle

At the open day of the Red Light District on 31 march 2007, for the first time male sex workers stood in the windows. On that day a bronze statue of the female artist Els Reijerse was also revealed honouring prostitutes. It was an initiative from the well-known Mariska Majoor, an ex-prostitute and advocate for sex workers. The statue is named “Belle” and looks like this:

Belle, a statue which stands in the heart of the Red Light District in Amsterdam.
Amsterdam, Red Light District, Old Church Square. Belle – Respect sex workers all over the world.

A prostitute in Amsterdam's Red Light District
In 2006 a prostitute showed herself outside in the heart of the Red Light District.

Red Light District History: Amsterdam’s Oldest House

A few years ago, it was thought that the wooden house from 1528 in the Begijnhof, was the oldest preserved house in Amsterdam. Since 2012, we know that the Warmoesstraat 90 building is really the oldest. The house’s wooden skeleton dates back from 1485. Amsterdam still has a couple of really old houses built around 1500. The most famous two were the Houten Huys in the Begijnhof and the café Int Aepjen on the Zeedijk 1. A house has recently been added to that list, and it is immediately Amsterdam’s oldest house: Warmoesstraat 90.

The oldest house of Amsterdam.
This is the oldest house in Amsterdam.

The discovery was made after years of research on the wooden skeleton of the property. The building is the only preserved house from the late Middle Ages in Amsterdam. From the outside, the old age of the house is not recognisable as the façade dates back to 1800. The discovery of the oldest house in Amsterdam was by chance, done by a construction inspector who walked through the property with the owner and noted the typical late medieval parts of the wooden skeleton. After research done on the growth rings in the wood, the exact date could be determined. Several people, including a wine-maker, and sheet merchant have inhabited the property. The property has been a hotel for some time now and prior it was also a gay bar for several years.

How Did Amsterdam Get its Canals? Info On Amsterdam Canals Construction:

Back in 1275 the city only consisted of just a few rows of houses on the east bank of the Amstel. The early origins of this district (now the Red Light District) around the Warmoesstraat is reflected in the names of canals and accompanying street like the Oudezijds Voorburgwal and Oudezijds Achterburgwal and Kloveniersburgwal (literally translated ‘old-side frond city-wall’, ‘old-side rear city-wall’ and ‘harquebusiers city wall’.The expansion of Amsterdam was accompanied by the digging of new canals which, up until the 17th century were used for among other things defence, and up until the 19th century, for transportation. The pictures and text series below will give you a good impression of the Amsterdam canals construction and history.

Amsterdam Canal Construction

Above, the natural watershed: A system of streams en tributaries gently drains excess water off the swamps and marshlands to the sea via the Amstel River.

Amsterdam Canal Construction

Above, the dikes: Early inhabitants of Amsterdam built their homes up on raised mounds of earth. When during that time the sea level began to rise the settlers constructed the Zeedijk (sea-dike) and the Nieuwendijk (new-dike) along the mouth of Amstel as a protection against the elements.

Amsterdam Canal Construction

Above, the windmill: The sea level kept rising but the new innovation called windmill allows the farmers to keep the water level in their fields artificially low. A side effect however, since the peat shrinks as it dries, is that the level of the land sinks, thus increasing the dependence on dikes and windmills for Amsterdam canals construction.

Amsterdam Canal Construction

Above, the pattern of city growth: As Amsterdam grows the surrounding areas must be filled In order to bring it up to the same level as the older parts. Canals are dug which provide drainage and sewage disposal as well as door-to-door transportation for commerce. The canals are flushed at low tide and re-filled with the high tide. Windmills are built on the southwest outskirts where they become the focal point of convergence of many industries.

Amsterdam Canal Construction

Above, the city walls: Political and military considerations encouraged the building the building of walls (as well as canals), later to become fortified. The immovability of these walls in turn encourages maximum use of the space inside.

Amsterdam Canal Construction

Above, expansion: A thriving economy and a rapidly increasing population causes a period of tremendous growth in the 17th century, which lead to an increase in Amsterdam canals construction. It was not the first nor the last, but certainly the most dramatic expansion. In about fifty years a huge additional area of lands enclosed within new, fortified city walls, is constructed.

Historical Amsterdam Canals Map

In the pictures below you can see the various stages of the development of Amsterdam’s canals. The canal systems of the earlier periods are shown in black overlaying the current (light grey) situation.

Amsterdam Canals Map

Amsterdam Canals Map


Would you like to know more of the Red Light District history? During our tours we’ll tell you even more interesting facts.