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Red Light District

History of Prostitution Netherlands

The History Of Prostitution in the World

Prostitution Meaning

Prostitution comes from Latin and means: Placing in front (pro is upfront and otatuere means placement).

prostitution amsterdam
Prostitution in Amsterdam in the year 1905.

Is Prostitution The Oldest Profession in History?

Dr. Kate Lister – sex work historian: ‘It was actually the Victorian writer, Rudyard Kipling, who first coined the phrase ‘the world’s oldest profession’ in his short story, On the City Wall (1898).

The tale opens with the immortal line “Lalun is a member of the most ancient profession in the world”. Since then, the expression has fallen into common parlance as a historical truth. 

window prostitute
Amsterdam, Red Light District, 1968. A window prostitute. Photographer: Cor Jaring.

But, sex work is not the oldest profession in the world; anthropologists have found no evidence of selling sex within numerous (so called) primitive societies. The northern hill tribes of Thailand had no word for prostitution, and Victorian explorers were surprised to discover that the Dyak people of Borneo had ‘no word to express that vice’, and when Christian missionary, Lorrin Andrews, translated the bible into Hawaiian in 1865, he had to invent new words to teach the islanders about the concept of sexual shame, and infidelity. But, wherever you find money, you also find sex work.’

Kate Lister | Sex Work Expert

What Is A Brothel?

A brothel is a place where people can go to engage in sexual activity with prostitutes. It is illegal in many countries around the world, but it still exists in some form in many places.

In some cases, brothels are run by organized crime groups and offer a wide range of services, including drugs and other illegal activities. In other cases, brothels are simply places where people can pay for sex.

The legality of brothels varies from country to country, and even from state to state. In some places, brothels are considered to be a form of business, while in others they are seen as a form of exploitation. There is much debate over the morality of brothels, and whether or not they should be legalized.

10 Synonyms For Prostitute

✦ Hooker
✦ Nightwalker
✦ Courtesan
✦ Femme fatale
✦ Painted lady
✦ Queens of the sidewalk
✦ Jilt
✦ Harlot
✦ Sex worker

10 Historical Euphemisms for penis

✦ Belly-Ticker (1888)
✦ Brat-Getter (1890)
✦ Giggle-Stick (1944)
✦ Kicky-Wick (1602)
✦ Lather-Maker (1896)
✦ Matrimonial Peacemaker (1788)
✦ Shove-Devil (1653)
✦ Sir Martin Wagstaff (1653)
✦ Un-cunt (1896
✦ Wang-Doodle (1936)

What is a whore?

Amsterdam prostitute 1960s
Amsterdam, Red Light District, 1968. A window worker receives a customer. Photographer: Cor Jaring.

‘Whore’ is an old Indo-European word, related to the Old Indian word Kama (like in Kamasutra) meaning lust. Historically, levied at any women who stepped outside the norms of modest behaviour that upset the status quo. Whore originally derives from the Germanic ‘horon’ meaning “one that desires’. (Source: Dr. Kate Lister – sex work historian)

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’.

Harlotry (in Dutch “hoererij”) was the general term for both paid and unpaid sex outside of marriage. The honour of a women was set by her sexual behaviour. Whores were considered to be honourless women. The word prostitute only became generally accepted in the Netherlands in the 19th century.

history of prostitution in germany
The Brunswick Monogrammist, brothel in 1550. In the back a woman and a man “go upstairs”.

The Whore of Babylon

Being a whore is one of the oldest professions on earth. The Holy Bible mentions a woman, called the Whore of Babylon. That stood for sinful behaviour. It meant that the Roman Empire –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 paintingLucas 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).

The History Of Prostitution 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 prostitution-rituals.

First legalisation of prostitution

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

Solon – the great Athenian legislator – was the first to legalise prostitution. He legalised prostitution 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 to prostitution?

A prostitute is always a 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 prostitution. 70% of all clients of prostitutes are married, recent studies show.

Prostitutes always made good money and so did those around them, like a 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 there was little or no structure to every day life.
In present days, Lilith lives as much as back then. More and more women free their untameable 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.

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

Learn more about the history of prostitution, Dutch culture and the Netherlands. Join our informative tours in Amsterdam with licensed guides.

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 prostitue, 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 women.

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
A 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 prostitutes 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 in the “kaak” (see picture below) as a public punishment and humiliation and she was afterword’s brought by the police to a brothel in the Pieter Jacob Alley, all because Mary was a prostitute 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.”

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 increased.

A new form of brothel in Amsterdam: The Play House

Year 1668 – 1809

In 1668 the City of Amsterdam decided to install street lighting. By 1670 there were already 1800 lampposts in the city that ran on oil lighting. The purpose of the new lighting was the increase the safety in the city. An unexpected side effect was that it led to a boom in nightlife and with it prostitution. The Growth of so called playhouses coincided with the introduction of street lanterns.

In 1681 a booklet was published called: Le Putanisme d’Amsterdam, that described the Playhouse or Music House, that had arrived as a new form of brothel. “The building shows no windows 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'AmsterdamBook cover of “ Le Putanisme d’Amsterdam”.

History of Prostitution - Interior of a brothel "De Pijl" in Amsterdam. 1810
Amsterdam, Warmoesstraat, 1808. Playhouse De Pijl.

This etching from 1808 shows the chic interior of Playhouse De Pijl at Pijlsteeg 27, where nowadays Hotel Krasnapolsky is located. Playhouse was the name for a luxurious brothel. Four girls dance in the middle of the room. Other girls talk and drink with the customers. In the background, a servant lets in new visitors. They must first report to the boss, who is behind a high desk on the left. In these types of play houses, an orchestra provided the music and the visitors drank and gambled a lot.

Since the eighteenth century, Amsterdam’s city council tolerated these type of luxury brothels. Over the centuries, the administrators had tried to curb prostitution. But the city council had never completely exterminated it. Prostitution was seen as a phenomenon that belonged to a large port city, like Amsterdam.

Many honorable Christian Amsterdammers did experience thorns. For example, on Monday 7 November 1887, the Association for the Fight against Prostitution met in a room on Warmoesstraat. The members were excited about the prostitution that was rampant in Amsterdam. Partly thanks to this movement, the national ban on brothels was introduced in 1911.

What were prostitutes called in the 1800s?

Prostitutes in the 1800s were referred to by a variety of terms, depending on the time period and location. Some of the common terms used to refer to prostitutes in the 1800s include:

  1. Harlots
  2. Courtesans
  3. Prostitutes
  4. Fallen women
  5. Working girls
  6. Ladies of the night
  7. Women of pleasure
  8. Soiled doves
  9. Sporting girls
  10. Streetwalkers

It’s worth noting that the terms used to refer to prostitutes were often stigmatizing and derogatory, reflecting the moral attitudes of the time towards women who engaged in commercial sex work.

It is important to note that the term “sex workers” did not exist during the 1800s to describe individuals who engaged in commercial sex work.

The Spin House

History of Prostitution in Amsterdam - Warmoesstraat Red Light District
Amsterdam, Red Light District, 19th-century. 

Regularly prostitutes 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. A 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.

Around 1700 the city government started to seriously clamp down on the organizers behind prostitution. So called “madams” (female pimps/ brothel owners) were sentenced to life in prison or exile. In 1706 a madam was for the first time put on the earlier mentioned “kaak” for all to see.

From 1722 they also started with flogging in public. Fines were also increased and the expensive clothing of the prostitutes, often owned by the madams, were confiscated. Around 1720 prostitution went underground, a number of large playhouses disappeared and the small whorehouses, where a madam and one or two prostitutes lived, made far less explicit promotion. The women no longer flaunted themselves in Front of the door of whorehouses. Instead they went to the “kruisbaan” (nickname for the street) to find customers. People used to call prostitutes walking the streets “kruisen”. The American word cruising appears to have originated from “kruisen”.

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 of 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.


History of Prostitution in Amsterdam: Legalisation and Repression

Year 1809 – 1882

With the French occupation of The Netherlands in 1809 the ban on prostitution was lifted. Starting from 1809 prostitution was allowed, under the condition that the women and brothel owners registered with the police. The reason for this practice originates from the Napoleonic wars. Soldiers and prostitutes often spent time together. During the Napoleonic wars there was a big increase in venereal disease, with negative consequences for the fighting strength of the army. It was hoped that the registration and checkups, including medical checkups, would decrease the number of venereal cases. The French government in The Netherlands ended the ban on prostitution and with the implementation of code penal in 1811 only prostitution with minors was made illegal. This meant the separation between the law and morals. Even more special is the Law-on-the-Cities of 1851, that recognised both brothels and prostitutes as legal! True!

After the French left in 1813 prostitution remained legal. In many cities, especially garrisoned ones, prostitution was regulated. Amsterdam was an exception. Even though prostitution was viewed as condemnable the local authorities would not interfere with the sector. Still the city of Amsterdam provided medical checkups for prostitutes.

Number of Brothels

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. The debate about prostitution reignited. Hundreds of books and pamphlets were written by proponents – fighting with statistics – defending public health and opponents, who considered the checkups of prostitutes a license for visiting brothels. The proponents for ending prostitution called themselves abolitionists. They chose this name because of its meaning in the fight against abolishing slavery globally. They started protesting 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, criticism against condoned prostitution eventually led to the “zedelijkheidwet” (morality law) of 1911. 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.
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 provocative way, didn’t do much good to the business of prostitution: Authorities reacted by making things more difficult. New laws were introduced, repression became firmer.

History of Prostitution - Provocative Advertisement of brothel Maison WeinthalProvocative Advertisement of brothel Maison Weinthal circa 1900.

Brothel Maison Weinthal was shut down by the Amsterdam authorities on June 20th, 1902.

Now local brothel-keepers went into appeal with the courts, putting forward that the local City-laws were in contradiction to National laws. Eventually the Supreme Court in the Netherlands held that the Amsterdam City law did not 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. They were prositutes 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 civilised nations adhered, sailors of all nationalities can have free treatment of genital diseases. The invention by Alexander Fleming of a new drug: Penicillin, made treatment of venereal diseases possible. Quite a relief!

History of Prostitution: Amsterdam bed prostitute
Amsterdam, Antoniesbreestraat, 1919 – The 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

History of Prostitution in Amsterdam: Politicians and Prostitutes

Amsterdam De Wallen 1969
Amsterdam, Red Light District, Oudekerksplein 34. Photographer: C. Jaring.

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 prostitutes 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, prostitution is accepted, except by conservative and religious political parties, like CDA or CU.

History of Prostitution - Window brothel in Amsterdam

Project 1012

In 2007, the City of Amsterdam adopted a policy called 1012 – the zip code of the Red Light District. It encompasses among other things, buying real estate [from wrongdoers] and installing regular shops in the real estate. 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 brothel windows is decreasing. This means less working space for the prostitutes. On April 9th, there was this big protest in Amsterdam, where sex workers protested against the closing of the brothels. “Don’t save us, save our windows”, sex workers 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.

Hidden Church in Amsterdam Red Light District

ons lieve heer op solder tickets
Amsterdam’s hidden church Our Lord In The Attic.

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.



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