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The things Dutch windows tell

By Lorraine Nencel I clearly remember moving here in 1978 and one of my evening pass times was walking through my neighborhood on garbage night scavenging along with the professional scavangers for useable goodies – proletariat recycling. But for this New Yorker who grew up with small windows blinded by venetians, Dutch windows were a delight to my eyes. Big and open, if it would not have been so obvious I could have stayed for hours in front of the window watching people enjoy their 8 o’clock coffee, sitting around the television, in each home generally positioned in the same corner, with Father sitting on the arm chair while mother and children are sitting on the couch.

Far in the back you could see the dining room set with a lamp hanging over the table. Maybe there was a crochet fringe hung at the top of the window, usually made by the lady of the house, but the windows were open for all eyes to see. In fact I think I unreflexively discovered how standardized Dutch home culture was just by looking at/through the windows on garbage night.

Years passed and windows have changed. Some are covered by vertical blinds that let you look out but make it difficult to look in and the most recent development is the frosted contact paper in different designs that for a brief moment give you the sensation of frosted glass. But what gives it away is the frosted glass is at the pedestrians eye level, making it very difficult to look in and see anything, unless you are above or below average length.

Nonetheless, the windows still give insight into cultural tidbits of dutch life. Even more so living in a village where generational differences are expressed by the half-open laced curtains with brass and copper pots filled with geranium-like plants in front of the window vs. the Jan Bouvrie look of identical large vases on both windows sills with identical plants. But Dutch windows tell more. For a culture in which curiosity is not really valued as a virtue and most people wait to be told instead of asking, Dutch windows reveal a lot about Dutch lives. Some things, that funny enough would be considered private in other countries. For example,

Age: “Honk twice for Jan because he has seen Father Abraham”(it means he has turned fifty). Sara dolls of all shapes and sizes including giant ones that are kept inflated by a small generator for the woman of the house who has turned 30. Plastic inflatable numbers hung in front of the window to announce that someone in the house has turned anywhere between 1-65. Anniversaries of 50, 60 and maybe even 70 years are announced on preprinted cardboard posters, honoring the “bride and groom”.

Births:  A variety of storks including one that appears to crash through the window with half of his body sticking out on the outside and half in. This is accompanied with paraphernalia that indicates in blue or pink what sex the child is and more often than not displays in some original way the newborn’s name.

And finally, every June the Dutch Flag with the school bag filled with books signifying that someone in the household has past their final exams and received their diplomas. Murmurs and gossip circulate the neighborhood where the school bag is not hanging out but should have, indicating that the boy or girl did not pass their exams.

As anthropologists we all know that inanimate objects are cultural artifacts and that they are more telling than one can imagine. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. What does your window tell us about you?

Lorraine Nencel is associate professor at the Department of Social Research Methodology at VU University Amsterdam. She focuses on anthropological  and ethnographic research methodology.


  1. Dear NENCEL,
    Wonderful topic.. Indeed, the Dutch love to keep their curtains open and I have had several talks about this with foreign friends visiting. It was something I had not been aware of before, but it does seem to fit with the Dutch habit of being direct and upfront, nothing to hide..! Wat strikes me, is how people are tempted dearly to look inside through the windows when they pass (even more so when the view is somewhat blocked by the small rainforest of geraniums, orchids, ferns and palms) but will often get an angry look as a reply. My suggestion for these cases: use a universal remote control to change their TV channels (hehe)..

  2. […] The things Dutch windows tell « Standplaats Wereld As anthropologists we all know that inanimate objects are cultural artifacts and that they are more telling than one can imagine. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. What does your window tell us about you? […]

  3. bitstomper bitstomper

    There is one thing wrong in your article (I am Dutch so I know..) Sara and Abraham both relate to celebrating one’s 50th birthday. And not for her 30th birthday. This comes from the tradition where a woman turning 50 received a bread puppet in the form of a woman which was called ‘Sara’. The man on the other hand was said to have seen Abraham when he turns 50. This realtes to a passage in the Bible where Jezus claims he had seen Abraham when asked by jews: ‘you have not turned 50 and yet you did see Abraham?’ (believing this would be impossible as Abraham had already died some time ago).

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