Irina Ridzuan

A Dutch-style cleaning frenzy?

What has cleanliness got to do with anything?


Student Sweepers in Amsterdam - A number of students sweep the streets in the neighborhood clean. Image taken from Amsterdam Archive . Item no.  OSIM00007003151

Amsterdam and the Dutch as a whole. Torn between two polar characters: a cleanliness-obsessed nation or a country noted as least clean amongst those in Europe. To many foreigners, Amsterdam -even in its densest areas- is relatively clean despite the city’s nightlife reputation. On the other hand, a 2018 survey revealed that the Dutch came last in the list of hygienic countries (Jacobs, 2018). It was also noted that only 50% of the Netherlands wash their hands visiting the washroom. So the reputation remains debatable as to whether this impression of Dutch cleanliness prevails today.

But rewind back to the Dutch Golden Age and anecdotes about a cleaning frenzy is notable in some sources. While the city was also known as 'the fair maiden with bad breath' due to the problems with canals, over 250 accounts written by foreign travelers noted how the domestic and public architecture were meticulously cleaned (Bavel, 2009). By the 18th century, Dutch cleanliness had become a frequent stereotype in some genre. Could it be that this was tool to negate the notoriety of a foul-breathed dame? Maybe. Nonetheless, according to these sources, housewives and maidservants of the Dutch Republic upheld a standard of cleanliness that surpasses any other during the early modern age. What’s more is that this level of cleanliness was noted across social class, and did not only concern the elites (as is the case for some nations at the time). Taking care of personal and public hygiene was a cultural phenomenon and it was indeed significant enough for foreigners to make a mention.

This obsession with cleaning might have come from various cultural and geographical influence: from the weather, to religion, to laws and economical production. By 1498, the Amsterdam magistrate was already requiring for maidservants to keep domestic doorsteps spic and span. Cattle and carts were not allowed on the streets; and some even cut of their cows’ tails to prevent them from fouling themselves. In recent years, scholars have even suggested that this cleaning habit was founded in the high standard of hygiene necessitated by dairy production (Bavel, 2009).

Most fascinating to us is what this pre-modern habit reflects in terms of urban scents. Major European cities at the time appear to be known for their unpleasant smell due to low standards of hygiene and an increasing population)—Amsterdam included. Yet, somewhere in cloud of putrid stench exists a pocket of literature which describes an alternative Amsterdam: whose scent lacked an odour synonymous to our idea of a pre-modern stench.