Within the historiography of gender and urban space, a division has been made between the public realm of the street and the private realm of the home (Van den Heuvel 693). According to this narrative, domestic work should be seen as an activity of the last category. The city street, on the other hand, is regarded as part of the public realm. This strong narrative calls for a better understanding of the daily practice of street use in early modern cities – the subject of examination of the research project The Freedom of the Streets led by Danielle van den Heuvel. A type of source material that cannot be overlooked when investigating the everyday street life of early modern Amsterdam is the topographic art genre of cityscapes, which became popular among eighteenth-century artists in the Dutch Republic. Among all the places, buildings, people, and events that were drawn or painted to portray the streets of Amsterdam, domestic work took place in the streets of those cityscapes. By depicting women doing domestic work on the streets these visual sources broaden our view on how and where domestic work took place in early modern cities. This blog post will focus on one specific type of domestic work portrayed in several eighteenth-century cityscapes: the activities of washing, drying, and bleaching laundry.
In the second half of the eighteenth century, a whole new genre of painting the urban space had evolved in the Dutch Republic: the cityscape. Unlike the traditional manner of drawing the urban space as a background component of a painting representing a historical event, the cityscape itself was the dominant subject manner (Bakker 6). Although the roots of this genre were already visible in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, during its heyday in the second half of the eighteenth century ‘the cityscape’ was a full-grown artistic genre with its own rules for perspective and composition. Painting the city environment as truthfully and with as much detail as possible was part of the genre’s conventions. Artists sometimes used a canvas or a panel, but most of the time, they worked with pen and pencil on paper, which enabled them to be at their drawing locations. Characteristic of all cityscapes from this period is that they contain detailed information about the street life of the city they portray.
In his essay on the cityscape as an art genre, Boudewijk Bakker discusses three striking characteristics of the Amsterdam cityscapes that point towards a coherent “well-defined model of the cityscape” as a genre (26–27). In most cases, the main topic of a cityscape is a specific building, church, gate, street, canal, garden, or park. Bakker notes that cityscapes depict not only well-known or wealthy parts of the city but also less-known and insignificant locations. Another characteristic of the Amsterdam cityscape is the fact that most are populated “with a great variety of representatives of the urban population: young and old, rich and poor” (27). Lastly, the city of Amsterdam is shown at its best, meaning that all buildings and streets are in perfect condition, everything looks clean, and the weather is always nice. In the catalogue Kijk Amsterdam for the 2017 exhibition at the Amsterdam City Archives, 229 cityscapes of Amsterdam are collected and categorized. This catalogue provides extensive material for research into the depiction of domestic work on the streets of eighteenth-century Amsterdam.
The cityscapes collected in Kijk Amsterdam portray a wide variety of people, places, and activities in the streets of Amsterdam. We see people walking and chatting together, buying and selling various goods at various locations (markets, streets, door-openings, shops, canal bridges), children playing, women cleaning the street or their doorways, and women washing, drying, and bleaching laundry. It is this last category of depicted events that offer us an interesting view of the gendered street use of Amsterdam. Of the cityscapes collected in Kijk Amsterdam, seven paintings portray activities involving laundry. In some of those paintings, the women washing, drying or bleaching their laundry are situated at the foreground of the image; in others, they are part of the background. An example of the latter is the painting of the Herengracht by the art collector and amateur painter Johann Edler Goll van Frankenstein, who lived on this canal and who presumably painted the view from his own doorstep (figure 2; Baker 131). To the right a woman is drying white laundry on the railing of the canal bridge, using the public built environment to do her laundry work.
Another woman using the public environment of the city of Amsterdam to do her laundry work is seen on a painting of the Montelbaanstoren at the canal the Oudeschans by Reinier Vinkeles, a Dutch draughtsman and engraver who lived and worked in Amsterdam for a large part of his life (figure 3). In front of the Montelbaanstoren, which is the central subject of Vinkeles’ cityscape, there are a few small ships including a so-called ‘waterschuit,’ which carries around drinking water. The man on the gangplank has just filled two buckets of water from the pump. The woman uses the flat top of the water boat to do her laundry. In the distance, you can see the IJ river along with various sea-going vessels.
A similar event in which two women are washing laundry is portrayed in one of the other cityscapes, by Henrik Keun, depicting laundry work in a canal in the city centre of Amsterdam (figure 1 and 4).
Different laundry work seen in several cityscapes is the bleaching of linen on grass fields. An example is the drawing by the Dutch draughtsman Jurriaan Andriessen from the late 1780s, showing the Nieuwe Prinsengracht in the Plantage (nowadays Artis). Two groups of two women are bleaching white linen on the grass next to the canal (figure 5).
The bleaching of laundry by groups of women is also central in another drawing by Vinkeles (figure 6). His painting of the Haarlemmerpoort is part of a series on the eight gates of Amsterdam (the Haarlemmerpoort, the Zaagmolenpoort, the Raampoort, the Leidsepoort, the Weteringpoort, the Utrechtsepoort, the Weesperpoort, and the Muiderpoort). However, the people around the Haarlemmerpoort, and especially the eight women bleaching their laundry on the grass field on the top of the city wall, are more eye-catching than the gate itself.
Together these cityscapes depicting laundry in the streets of eighteenth-century Amsterdam do not tell us anything about specific women drying, washing or bleaching laundry on a specific date; we do not know whether the artists based their drawings on one specific observation. Yet, what those images do tell us is that around the time these cityscapes were painted, women were engaging in those activities at those places. Drying, washing, and bleaching laundry took place in several public places in Amsterdam. It is noteworthy that all persons participating in the depicted events are women.
Looking at the information from these images, there are three distinct groups of images. In the first group, women are washing laundry in a canal. The second depicts a woman drying laundry on the railing of a bridge in the Herengracht. In the last category, several groups of women are involved in bleaching laundry on the grass on several locations – some by spreading out white textile on the grass and/or waiting in the grass for the textile to be dry, others by carrying baskets of laundry before or after bleaching it on the grass. Several activities are thus involved in ‘doing the laundry’ in eighteenth-century Amsterdam, and several women are doing the same activity in the same place. By far the most women were involved in ‘laundry activities’ relating to bleaching laundry on the grass.
The women bleaching laundry and the women drying and washing laundry tend to do their work in different locations. All bleaching laundry on the grass takes place in relatively quiet, green areas at the outskirts of Amsterdam: at the Plantage, the border of the Plantage, the area around the Utrechtsepoort, and the area around the Haarlemmerpoort. Drying and washing, on the other hand, happens in the city centre within the canal belt of Amsterdam. This suggests that there were several ‘hot-spots’ of bleaching laundry at relatively quiet, green areas at the outskirts of Amsterdam. It also suggests that women might have to carry their laundry over quite some distance to those green hot-spots, especially because the activities of washing, drying, and bleaching laundry do seem to be in the same locations. This, together with the fact that bleaching laundry took plenty of time, made laundry work a very time-consuming activity.
These observations on women bleaching laundry in the outskirts of Amsterdam raise a couple of questions. Who were those women and what was their position? Although it is clear that the women are involved in domestic work, it remains an open question whether this was private or paid work. The existence of several hot-spots with groups of women suggests the latter. Moreover, the identical white linen apron as part of their clothing suggests the women are servants. If this is the case, another interesting question would be whether the groups of women working in the same location were in some way related to or interacting with each other. Doing the same time-consuming work at the same location must have created some sort of mutual understanding or connection. Maybe these laundry hot-spots functioned as social spaces in which women could communicate with each other.
These cityscapes depicting laundry in the streets of eighteenth-century Amsterdam are a good example of how visual source material can provide insights and raise new questions on early modern everyday street life. They show that laundry work was part of the street life of early modern Amsterdam, taking place in different streets, canals, and areas of the city. In this way they shed new light on the narrative in which domestic work is inherently connected to the private realm of the home.
A previous version of this blog appeared on The Freedom of the Streets website. Marie Keulen is a graduate student in History at Leiden University.
All images reproduced with permission.
References and Further Reading
Bakker, Boudewijn, et al. Kijk Amsterdam 1700 – 1800. De mooiste stadsgezichten. Bussum: Uitgeverij Thoth, 2017.
Van den Heuvel, Danielle. “Gender in the Streets of the Premodern City.” Journal of Urban History 45.4 (2019): 693-710.