The Ladies of New Netherland

Paper presented before 

The Holland Society of New York,

Bergen County Branch, at Knickerbocker Country Club. Tenafly, New Jersey, October 21. 1954

by Richard H. Amerman, de Halve Maen, 1955

From de Halve Maen, January, 1955 Vol. XXIX  No.4


Without the ladies, our Dutch ancestors in this region would have led a dull life indeed, and unquestionably The Holland Society would never have existed. Emigrating to a howling wilderness, which the 17th-century New York and New Jersey area certainly was, pioneer Dutch women performed miracles of management that have been all too little recognized.

They made the first years tolerable and later comfortable, even opulent. They raised prodigious families in the fear of God. In the villages, they helped develop a civilized pattern of social and community life. Their influence was strong in the emergence of New Amsterdam in 40 years from backwoods settlement to the cosmopolitan town it became by 1664 when the English took over. It is time that tribute be paid to these gallant women. With respect and affection, therefore, this paper is addressed to the ladies of New Netherland.

Without exaggeration, it can be said that Dutch women of the 16th and 17th centuries played an extraordinary part in transforming the Netherlands from a humble province of the Hapsburg crown to one of the foremost powers in Christendom.

Historical examples abound. Perhaps best known is the widow Kenau Hasselaer, who commanded a battalion of women from the first families in the Dutch War of Independence against Spain. Armed with sword, musket, and dagger, the widow and her command took part in many fiercely contested actions, notably at the siege of Haarlem in 1572, with a valor that became legend. Of their high-hearted bravery, the historian Motley writes that Dutchmen could scarcely fail to win that epic struggle when such spirit animated the maids and matrons of the country.

With the instinct of their sex, however, it was more in the home than in public that women exerted an influence which permeated all classes of Dutch society. Now Dutchmen have never been a hen-pecked race on either side of the Atlantic. And yet, the historian Davies reports that a real Hollander hardly ever pretended to be lord and master in his own house. In fact, he says, a man seldom began any enterprise, public or private, without first consulting the partner of his cares. Dutch statesmen of renown within their country and in Europe were accustomed to receive instruction at home with respect and to act accordingly.

The vigor and managerial ability of these lordly sustained the Dutch in war and peace. The empire which the sex obtained, the historian Brodhead relates, was no greater than that which their beauty, good sense, virtue, and devotion entitled them to hold. To their influence is mainly ascribed the decorum of manners and purity of morals for which the society of Holland has at all times been conspicuous.

As in the old world, so in the new. Though the record is scant, the status of women in New Netherland seems to have been superior to that in other colonial societies in America. The average feminine education, Mrs. Van Rensselaer points out, was higher among the Dutch than among the English. Elementary schooling provided for girls was often followed by business training, and education in the classics was not uncommon.

The linguistic attainments of women were widely recognized. The ladies De Milt were esteemed the best Latin scholars in the colony. Sarah Kierstede, wife of Dr. Hans Kierstede, New Amsterdam surgeon, had an extraordinary command of Indian languages. As official interpreter, she helped negotiate Indian treaties, among them the convention with Oratam, chief of the Hackensacks, for the conveyance of thousands of acres in Bergen County.

Another notable dame of that time was Anneke Jans (Annetje Janse), second wife of Domine Bogardus and mother of Sarah Kierstede. This energetic and prolific matron, herself twice married, inherited the Bogardus farm where Trinity Church now stands. A fabulous number of people have claimed descent from Anneke Jans, a fact demonstrated by nearly three centuries of litigation over title to the church property. Had their claims any collective substance, the lady could be clinically described as the genetic marvel of all time.

Eloquent and forceful in the home, it is not surprising that women customarily argued their own cases in court. Shrewd and self-reliant, they took part in commercial life to an extent unknown in the other colonies. Often small shopkeepers, several became merchants on an international scale. Women were eligible for both the “small” and the “great” Burgher Right, entitling them to civic and mercantile privileges. In the Roman Dutch law of New Netherland, a community of goods was recognized between husband and wife. Since the idea of primogeniture had no standing, daughters could inherit equally with sons executed powers of attorney to their wives with confidence that when away from home their business affairs would be managed with skill and advantage. In household and family matters the wife reigned supreme.

Despite legal equality and family position, pioneer Dutch ladies exhibited the feminine foibles and idiosyncrasies which from time immemorial have puzzled and delighted the male of the species.

For one thing, the women loved parties and finery, having for clothes a special fondness not uncommon to the sex in any day and age. The wife of a prosperous New Amsterdam merchant, for example, would own a dozen or more petticoats, which with bodices and jackets made possible a variety of costumes. To the men these petticoats presented a pleasing appearance on two counts. First they were cut short, reaching just below the knee. Second, they were brilliantly tinted and sometimes striped with gorgeous dyes of red, blue, green, and brown.

In addition, the lady treasured her hoods, cassocks, smocks, aprons, and quilted caps. Her possessions included clocked stockings of red, blue, green, yellow, and brown worsted, and leather shoes with silver buckles. Her wardrobe was incomplete without a supply of gloves, fans, combs, scarfs, and sleeves. She had girdles and other items, similar to those her latter-day sister is said to use, to relax or expand the figure as occasion might require.

A peculiar circumstance was that the Dutch lady, young or old, married or single, habitually wore a good many petticoats at one time. Beauty of person was thought inseparable from the number of skirts worn. The effect was further enhanced by gaily decorated pockets which served as the ladies’ handbag of that day. Encased in six to a dozen of these pocketed skirts, the colonial damsel presented a formidable appearance. In this, however, she did no more than the men, who customarily wore pairs of knee-length pantaloons one on top the other, a mode of dress said to persist in Holland to this day.

To be arrayed in this manner accomplished several objectives. First, it was fashionable and therefore naturally important. Second, the wardrobe was an index of worth, and the lady who possessed an ample inventory of apparel was considered well to do. Third, since nearly all these garments were the lady’s own manufacture, a goodly display exhibited traits of industry that were recognized socially and appealed strongly to the prudent heart of every Dutchman, especially one who was single.

Considerations of prudence aside, let no one think that her weighty appearance made the lady any less fetching to the young men of the time. On the contrary, the degree of attraction is said to have been proportional to the size of the object. A voluminous maiden girt in a dozen petticoats, Irving says was declared by a Low

Dutch sonneteer of the day to be as radiant as a sunflower and luxuriant as a full-blown cabbage (7). That such a mode of dress magnetized the Dutch swain and led to many a fruitful marriage seems incontestably true. The record does not furnish much information regarding courtship, though it appears certain that the custom in New England of bundling was unknown in New Netherland. It is likely, if not provable, that Dutch tradition and habit continued.

Skating parties must therefore have afforded opportunity for acquaintance to ripen. In both old and new worlds, the Dutch always have loved to skate. In Holland it is said that the skate is as much the enemy of Mrs. “Van Grundy” as any device or stratagem ever invented. New Amsterdam winters were severe. The frozen ponds, marshes, and streams then part of the Manhattan scene provided excellent and often used skating surfaces. Available evidence compels the conclusion that the young people of New Netherland had opportunities in due season, and who can say they did not profit thereby.

Once married, the “juffvrow” of New Netherland took an honored and eminent place in domestic and communal life, as we have seen. Within the home every well brought up Dutch lady, then as now, was an inveterate foe of dirt in any form. Each was an artist with mop, broom, and brush. Dutch colonial dwellings were models of cleanliness.

Periodically the ladies scoured the plaster walls and polished silver, copper, pewter, brass, porcelain, and the good Delftware. They scrubbed floors and ceilings, cleaned stoves and stairs, swept cellars and yards. The “betses” (closet beds) and “slaapbanks” (sleeping benches) were dismantled, inspected, cleaned, and put together. Household gear of every description received minute attention. An elderly lady was once seen bathing a cat.

From what has been said, I think we may conclude that the ladies of Old Holland and New Netherland were a noble race—handsome, brave, intelligent, thrifty, sensible, and very feminine—with whom our ancestors were fortunate indeed to have been associated.

(1) J. L. Motley, “Rise of the Dutch Republic.” Vol. II, p. 467. David McKay.
(2) C. M. Davies, “History of Holland and the Dutch Nation,” Vol. III, p. 381, G. Willis, London, 1851.
(3) F. R. Brodhead, “History of the State of New York,” Vol. I, p. 463, Harper, 1859.
(4) Mrs. Schuyler Van Rensselaer, “History of the City of New York,” Vol. I, p. 479, Macmillan, 1909.
(5) J. H. Innes, “New Amsterdam and Its People,” p. 11, Scribner’s, 1902. (6) Van Rensselaer, op. cit., p. 480. (7) Washington Irving, “The Golden Age of New York,” pub. in “Half Hours With Great Humorists,” p. 158, Bedford Clarke, 1884.

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