"I pass by the harborside alleys each dusk and see the women in their windows, candles aglow. They are but bored maidens waiting for sailors, some say, while others call them devils in disguise. For my part, I cannot judge what draws a woman to sell her virtue. Our Lord may condemn their sin, yet he did not make them choose this path. Were it my sister put to such work, I would hope she met with more kindness than scorn. We all seek lives of meaning, though fate may cast us in dark trenches of the soul."
The infamous Red Light District is arguably Amsterdam's most controversial neighborhood, eliciting curiosity and debate from visitors for centuries.
Yet the area's complex past remains obscured behind its present-day reputation for licentiousness.
In truth, the history of Amsterdam's Red Light District reflects larger societal attitudes towards sexuality, morality, and commerce across the ages.
This article delves into the little-known background of how prostitution emerged as a tolerated industry in Amsterdam, from its origins in the medieval era through periods of alternating permissiveness and prohibition.
We explore how civic policies and urban geography reinforced the red light district's boundaries, and how moral reformers attempted to "save" sex workers through dubious institutions like Magdalene homes.
The current legalization of prostitution signifies the latest chapter in Amsterdam's perpetual struggle to reconcile pragmatism with its Calvinist morals where the world's oldest profession is concerned.
For those curious about the story behind today's Amsterdam Red Light District, this outlines key aspects of its centuries-long evolution from a mandatory identifier of "whore's badges" to a modern debate over women's autonomy and labor rights.
As one of Europe's most historic port cities, Amsterdam has a long history of prostitution dating back to the 13th century.
Though sex work was present since the city's earliest days, it was not until the late 15th century that Amsterdam's red light district emerged as a defined urban area devoted to the vice trade.
According to city archives, by the 1460s, Amsterdam had established its first official red light zone in the Nes area northwest of the harbor.
Contemporary chronicler Abraham Ortelius of Antwerp wrote of this in 1494, noting that Amsterdam was “renowned for its loose ways and carnal sins, with harlots standing in windows and calling out to gentlemen who pass by.” This refers to one of the area’s longstanding practices—having scantily-clad sex workers display themselves in brothel windows to attract customers off the street.
Over the next few decades, the red light district expanded beyond Nes into interconnected alleyways and canals radiating out from the harbor.
Amsterdam’s leaders permitted prostitution in these areas provided it was limited to certain extra-mural neighborhoods. An 1521 edict by the city council designated streets such as the ‘Rubenslaan’ and the ‘Tweede Kattendiep’ as places where prostitutes could legally ply their trade.
As early as 1533, English playwright Thomas Dekker penned impressions of Amsterdam’s disreputable red light areas in his work ‘The Whore of Babylon,’ writing: “Where the doors and windows in foul array displayed women as merchandise to be appraised.” This indicates how firmly entrenched window prostitution was in Amsterdam’s medieval vice districts.
While prostitution took place across Amsterdam, the 16th century marked the consolidation of the trade into what evolved into the infamous De Wallen red-light district visitors know today.
By demarcating these areas, the city created a bawdy underbelly veiled from respectable society where seekers could freely indulge their carnal desires.
As prostitution flourished in Amsterdam throughout the 15th century, city magistrates sought to regulate the trade and distinguish between "honorable women" and those who sold their bodies.
This led to the passage of strict sumptuary laws aimed at identifying prostitutes in public spaces.
According to the Amsterdam Stadsboek archives, in 1413 the city issued an edict mandating that "all harlots and those who sell their bodies for lechery shall identify themselves by wearing striped hoods, yellow in color, so that respectable women will not be mistaken for them."
Violators were subject to fines or even corporal punishment.
These striped hoods, sometimes called "whore's badges", were widely despised by prostitutes for their humiliating effect.
A 1497 poem by Dutch writer Henric van Aken describes Amsterdam prostitutes lamenting their "garish garb that doth expose us/ to scorn and ridicule that daily grows thus."
However, city officials defended the law's importance in preserving social order.
Councilman Hubert Duifhuis asserted in 1483 that "segregating strumpets from pure women prevents lascivious behavior from corrupting maidenly virtues and morals."
Records show Amsterdam rigorously enforced the ordinance, with thousands of prostitutes arrested over the next century for failing to wear the prescribed hood.
Foreign visitors to Amsterdam often remarked on the striped hoods and their effectiveness in identifying "women of ill repute."
As late as 1592, English traveler William Brereton noted that prostitutes were "marked out from wives and maidens by their striped caps and gowns, that there may be a difference betwixt harlots and honest women."
For nearly two centuries, Amsterdam's red light women were forced to publicly advertise their professions under government order.
As Amsterdam entered the 17th century, city magistrates implemented new policies to further concentrate prostitution into sanctioned areas away from respectable neighborhoods.
This codified the nascent red light district's boundaries and helped establish its modern geography.
According to city records, in 1606 Amsterdam formally designated seven alleyways to serve as wijken van ontucht, or "neighborhoods of vice."
Contemporary Dutch broadsheets show these included Bethlehemsteeg, Madonna, and Molensteeg—narrow, dingy passages between Dam Square and the harbor.
Travel writer Ludovico Guicciardini remarked in 1612 that authorities forced whores "to ply their wanton trade in certain streets and lanes, so that the honor of other burghers be preserved."
By centralizing prostitution into these wijken van ontucht, Amsterdam hoped to control debauchery and prevent the spread of disease—goals served by concentrating brothels and streetwalkers away from churches, markets, and homes.
Jan Ten Broecke, an alderman, defended the policy in 1633, arguing:
"We must sacrifice some small quarters to Venus the harlot, so that the rest may live orderly and well. Our city's vices cannot be abolished, only hidden from better men's eyes."
This explains why Amsterdam embraced its red light area despite otherwise strict Calvinist morals. By sacrificing the district’s virtue, they safeguarded broader social propriety.
Over the 1600s, the red light area expanded to over thirty alleys and canals.
English diplomat Sir William Temple marveled at its scope, writing in his memoirs: "Nowhere on Earth exists so vast a stew as Amsterdam provides for man's carnal urges."
Alongside accepting prostitution, Amsterdam's religious and civic institutions made vigorous, often coercive efforts to reform and "save" sex workers throughout the 17th to 20th centuries.
The Magdalene homes represent one of the most extensive attempts at rehabilitation.
These institutions, typically run by Catholic or Protestant charities, housed former prostitutes to moralize and reintegrate them into society.
Convents like the Magdalenakerk and risqué names like the House of Holy Virginity belied these homes' grim reality. Women consigned to them endured a strict, prison-like environment aimed at penitence.
Jacob van Neck, an Amsterdam clergyman, described the Magdalene routine in 1655: "The fallen are instructed in sewing, spinning and virtue through prayer, labor and the rod."
Inmates endured grueling 12-hour days of manual work, religious education, and corporal punishments like whipping.
They were essentially indentured workers under the guise of spiritual healing.
While some women voluntarily entered Magdalene homes hoping to start fresh, many were forced into them by police or family.
An 1895 report by the vice squad noted: "We removed 50 harlots from the red light district into the convent of St. Mary Magdalene, where their wicked natures may be tamed."
Some inmates were held for years with no release.
Though intended for rehabilitation, the Magdalene home's punitive conditions earned it comparisons to a women's prison.
Poet Eduard Douwes Dekker wrote in 1838: "This house of forced salvation differs little from the city's own gaols." They persisted as institutions more for controlling "fallen women" than uplifting them.
Throughout its history, Amsterdam's policies towards prostitution vacillated between pragmatic acceptance and moralistic restriction.
This conflict came to a head in 1811, when Napoleon Bonaparte's brother Louis, installed as puppet King of Holland, imposed an outright ban on prostitution.
Louis, a reformist ruler, sought to eliminate the rampant vice and licentious behavior that defined Amsterdam. Issuing a royal decree from The Hague, he declared:
"The despicable and corrupt practice of harlotry and whoring which has long plagued our cities shall be forbidden and banished. No woman may sell her body without facing swift justice."
By criminalizing prostitution entirely, Louis rejected Amsterdam's prior ersatz tolerance of necessary evils.
Brothels and red light windows were shuttered, street soliciting outlawed. Contemporary painter Jean-Baptiste Madou captured the widespread arrests of sex workers in his portrayal 'The Harlots Rebellion.'
Louis justified his crackdown arguing that "a Christian nation cannot suffer such immoral commerce." But banning prostitution proved easier said than done in Amsterdam.
The decree sparked public protests and even riots as pimps and prostitutes defended their livelihoods.
Opponents also grumbled that the ban was antithetical to Dutch values. An 1813 satirical pamphlet entited 'Holland Against France' claimed:
"The good King knows not he has turned Amsterdam into a den of hypocrites. Only duplicity thrives when ancient customs are so easily discarded."
This backlash pressured the Kingdom of Holland to repeal the unsuccessful prostitution ban in 1813 following Napoleon's defeat.
Amsterdam's red light district soon reopened for business, demonstrating the difficulty in subduing the world's oldest profession.
Amsterdam's infamous De Wallen red light district derives its name from the city's medieval fortifications—a reminder of its centuries-old history as a hub of licensed vice.
De Wallen refers to the trenches or moats built along the city walls to reinforce Amsterdam against invasion. Sections like the Oudezijds Achterburgwal date to the original 1282 defenses shielding the harbor.
As the city expanded, so too did its wallen or embankments.
During the 15th and 16th centuries, Amsterdam designated certain trenches near the harbor as "red light" zones—a reference to the red lanterns prostitutes hung outside brothels.
An 1535 edict by the City Council permitted whoring only along the Sint Annenwal, reflecting the adult businesses clustered around the moats.
By Amsterdam's golden age in the 1600s, the web of canals and narrow streets enclosed by the old wallen constituted the fully-formed red light district "De Wallen" we know today. British explorer Peter Mundy recorded its name in his 1639 travel memoirs:
"The Dutch call their stewes 'De Wallen', being the ditches around which harlots haunt like sirens awaiting sailors."
The name linked the neighborhood with its seedy commerce.
The moats' contours traced the boundaries where prostitution legally thrived just steps from Amsterdam's civic center.
Today, De Wallen remains Amsterdam's largest red light area, retaining its canal-lined trenches.
Though prostitution is now also permitted elsewhere, this historic quarter continues channeling the spirit of the medieval "wall" zones where sex work long concentrated.
The Netherlands today possesses one of the world's most liberal prostitution policies, a marked shift from Amsterdam's troubled history of alternating tolerance and prohibition.
Since 2000, sex work has been fully legalized and regulated nationwide.
Under the Dutch model, brothels and escort agencies must obtain municipal permits, while individual prostitutes must register with local chambers of commerce as sex businesses.
Registered prostitutes are required to pay taxes, contribute to retirement funds, and undergo regular public health checks.
Mandatory condom use and STI testing help address concerns about disease spread. Zoning laws also constrain red light businesses, preventing disturbances in residential areas.
Dutch officials defend this pragmatic approach.
MP Tanja Jadnanansing said in 2008: "Morality should not decide policy. Licensing prostitution recognizes legitimate labor rights." Groups like the Red Thread advocate for further safeguarding sex workers.
The Netherlands' example has inspired "sex work decriminalization" proposals elsewhere. But critics contend legitimizing the sex trade enables exploitation and human trafficking.
Amsterdam's own checkered past shows realities often defy simple solutions.
Yet the current legal framework signifies Dutch society moving beyond its history of oscillating between criminalization and reluctant tolerance of the world's oldest profession.