In the 17th century, Holland took over the primacy in world trade from Spain and Portugal. Large vessels shipped in commodities from the far east and the Americas like tobacco, spices, tea, coffee, corn and rice. These were processed in windmills in the Zaan region, outside of Amsterdam, and prepared for consumption. The industry revolving around the windmills contributed significantly to the prosperity of the 17th century Dutch Golden Age.
What was life like in and around a windmill?
A windmill was owned by an affluent trader. He lived close to the windmill. His house was characterized by colorfully painted wood carvings and gold leaved ornaments. All this beauty was to reflect the wealth and social status the windmill owner relished. Today, you can still see several hundreds of these gorgeous merchant houses in the Zaan region.
The windmill owner would travel three times a week to Amsterdam’s stock exchange. There he would buy corn, seeds or beans to grind in his mill. Alternatively, he would sell the finished products, processed in his windmill. The windmill owner would dress up appropriately for the occasion. Wearing his best suit, with his wallet on a chain, he would not forget to put on his top hat. Without it he would be denied access to the stock exchange! By carriage the windmill owner would reach Zaandam, the central town of the Zaan region. From there he would travel by boat to Amsterdam. Samples of the commodities in little jute backs would be examined there. After the transaction, the trade ware would be shipped over the waters to the buyer. Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays were city days. This frequent commute led rich Amsterdam gentlemen to travel in the opposite direction. They would go to the Zaan region for a fishing outing and a nice meal. The other week days, including Saturdays, the windmill owner would visit his windmill to supervise the production process.
The windmill was operated by workers who had to perform heavy manual labor. Working conditions were bad and the wages were low. The windmill worker earned so little money, he could hardly feed himself and his numerous family. The oil mill worker often became deaf from the repetitive noise of the heavy stamping beams that crushed the oil bearing seeds. The pealing mill worker would suffer damage to his lungs from the dust of the pealed rice. When there was wind, the mill had to be operated day and night. A working day could last for 18 hours. The worker would eat and sleep inside the windmill. Only on Sundays he would go home. In his tiny, one room timber beamed house, he would have a good meal, rest, change clothes and go to church. On Sunday evening the working week started all over again. May and June usually were stand still time. In this period of little wind, the mill was often stopped for thatching, carpentering and painting to take place. After all works of maintenance were finished and there was still no wind, there was no work, but no wage either. Nobody had ever heard of collective labor agreements. The windmill worker had only one paid vacation day per year. On that day, he would go to the yearly fair. Money would be saved all year for that outing.
After a fundamental refurbishment or after a fire was extinguished, the windmill worker would be treated with a party. A lot of beer was served, as well as bread with ham, sausage and cheese. Tobacco was at the table and pipes could be smoked to the heart’s content. Sociable games were played. Such a party would preferably take place on a Saturday night, so that the windmill worker could sleep off the drunkenness the next morning.
The contrast between the miserable condition of the windmill worker and the windmill owner’s comfortable wealth, however poignant, does not detract from the historical value and picturesque beauty of more than 1000 authentic windmills that still beautify Holland’s landscape today.