Library Archive: The dawn of Amsterdam’s red light district
The dawn of Amsterdam’s red light district: Prostitutes flaunt their wares outside filthy brothels in fascinating photos from the 1900s
- Photographs show Amsterdam’s red light district in the early 20th century
- The area, where prostitutes work legally, is still famous to this day
- New law announced banning tourists from staring at sex workers in the red light district
These historic images show the lives of the sex workers of De Wallen – the famous red light district of Amsterdam, Holland – in the late 19th and early 20th Century.
The fascinating photos show Dutch sex workers waiting for potential customers on the sidewalk, portraits of famous madams, and provocative advertisements for the district’s brothels.
The images have resurfaced on the thirtieth anniversary of the legalisation of prostitution in the Netherlands, as Amsterdam places new restrictions on its iconic red light district to protect sex workers.
Regents of the Red Light: A photo captioned ‘Queens of the sidewalk’ taken circa 1900 show female sex workers in long dresses on an Amsterdam sidewalk. Prostitution was legalised in Amsterdam by the French following the 1811 occupation, after which it was legal for 100 years and saw many brothel’s open in buildings which still houses sex workers today
Behind the windows: The sagging bed of a female sex worker is photographed in Amsterdam in 1919. The image was taken to highlight the poor working conditions of sex workers after prostitution was made illegal in 1911. It took another seven decades – until 1988 – before prostitution was made legal again in Amsterdam
On the job: Portrait of an unknown female sex worker in the Dutch capital circa 1890s – a time when there would have been around sixty-eight legalised houses of prostitution in Amsterdam
Due to its proximity to the harbour, De Wallen had historically been an area that attracted sex workers in Amsterdam – although the trade was technically illegal for many years as the church and state was considered one, and the church considered extramarital sex a sin.
With Napoleon’s annexation of the Netherlands in 1810, the ban on prostitution was lifted and the sex trade was regulated.
This meant meant that sex workers and brothel owners had to be registered with the police – and as French soldiers were the main customers of prostitutes in De Wallen at the time, compulsory health checks were conducted to protect soldiers against venereal diseases.
By 1882, there were over sixty-eight legalised houses of prostitution in Amsterdam. Brothels could be as luxurious as the ‘Maison Weinthal’ which boasted a winter garden and a salon – or prostitutes would wait for customers on De Wallen’s sidewalks accompanied by their pimps or madams.
It’s all business: An advertisement for the Maison Weinthal brothel – a luxurious establishment, with a winter garden and a salon – circa 1900, and right, its founder and manager, Jurjentje Aukes Rauwerda, pictured circa 1860. The brothel was situated within walking distance from the Royal Palace, and Rauwerda was rumoured to have given birth to the love child of William III of the Netherlands
Working girls: Two prostitutes sitting in front of a house waiting for customers, in 1905, as was the traditional way the sex workers conducted their business at the time. The man standing next to them is most likely a pimp, who would keep an eye on the sex workers, also known as ‘street daisies’, and also take care of any aggressive customers
Then and now: De Bloedstraat, pictured left in 1929, and right in modern times, is a street currently well known for housing many transgender sex workers
Life goes on: A scene from Grote Houtstraat, located close to the red light district in Amsterdam, in 1894, a time when the sex industry in the Dutch capital was flourishing
Modern times: Grote Houtstraat is pictured today, with food shops and the red light district just round the corner
Everyday life: The Old Church Square in the Dutch capital’s red light district in May 1894 – a few years before fervent protests and campaigns to make prostitution illegal
The look today: Old Church Square in central Amsterdam is seen in the 21st century
Squalid: Pictured left is the back of a house on Warmoes street in 1905. The woman is possibly a prostitute but it also shows the squalid state of houses at that time. Pictured right is Oudezijds in Amsterdam’s Red Light District, circa 1890s
Back in the day: Warmoesstraat, pictured circa 1900 is adjacent to the famous red light district, where prostitution continued even after brothels and pimping became illegal in 1911
On the canals: A picture taken in 1895 shows another part of De Wallen, also known as the red light district, where tourists flock today to the point where authorities have been forced to introduce a new law banning visitors from staring at prostitutes in windows and from drinking alcohol in the area
But in all 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.’
By the early twentieth century, religious organisations ran campaigns to end tolerance to prostitution.
In 1911, a Dutch parliament law was passed which banned brothels and pimping – and it was officially forbidden to ‘accommodate acts of indecency in one’s house or trade’ in Amsterdam – but prostitution itself was not made illegal.
However, the brothel law was rarely enforced, and by the 1980s, Dutch municipalities began urging the national government to lift the ban on brothels – to help detach crime from prostitution and keep sex workers safe.
And in 1988, prostitution was defined as a legal profession and in 2000, brothels were also defined as fully legal and licenced businesses.
De Wallen is the largest and best known red light district in Amsterdam with approximately three hundred one-room cabins rented by prostitutes.
Prostitution is legal in the Netherlands but not on the streets, which is why prostitutes in Amsterdam stand behind the windows to attract business.
Last month, Amsterdam announced a new law banning tourists visiting the red light district from staring at sex workers, shouting or taking drugs and drinking alcohol in the area.
The Red Light District has come under scrutiny after a string of human trafficking convictions in the Dutch courts exposed horrific conditions endured by women from Eastern Europe.
A HISTORY OF PROSTITUTION IN AMSTERDAM
18th century – Prostitution in Amsterdam is technically illegal under a unified church and state where sex outside marriage was considered a sin.
1810 – Napoleon incorporates the Netherlands into the French empire. His armies’ visits to Amsterdam’s sex workers forces the French occupiers to regulate prostitution in order to protect its soldiers from sexually transmitted diseases, which in effect legalises prostitution.
1911 – Dutch parliament passes a law which bans brothels and pimping – intended to protect sex workers with an opposite effect.
1988 – Prostitution is defined as a legal profession in the Netherlands.
2000 – In October this year, brothels become fully legal and licenced businesses.
2018 – Amsterdam authorities announce a new law banning tourists from staring at sex workers, shouting or taking drugs and drinking alcohol in the area.