Coming from the Kloveniersburgwal canal towards the Nieuwmarkt (the 17th century 'New Market'), it is striking that the main entrance of the Waag building is placed at a quaint angle. The three other large semi-circular entrances also do not correspond to the streets they are supposed to lead to, viz. the Zeedijk (former Sea-dike), the Geldersekade (canal), and their connecting alleys. The fact that no alignment in the Waag building parallels any of its adjacent streets, or to put it differently, that this cluster of mediaeval towers does not really fit in its surroundings, calls for an explanation.

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De Sint Antoniespoort (later de Waag) voor aanleg van de Nieuwmarkt
Rijksdienst voor het Cultureel Erfgoed, CC BY-SA 4.0 BY-NC-SA

15th century up to 1618: Sint Antoniespoort

No less than 169 weighing-houses have been built in the Netherlands, but only one still stands in the heart of Amsterdam, surrounded by a complex grid of canals and streets, right on the 'New Market'. This stout two-storey structure was built in 1488 as town entrance and was named the "St Anthony's Gate". Amsterdam's oldest stone-tablet is to be found on the small tower facing the Geldersekade. On it you may read "MCCCCLXXXVIII (1488), the XXVIII (28th) Day in April Was Laid the First Stone of this Gate" (in old Dutch, that is). Together with the Haarlem gate (Haarlemmerpoort), the St Anthony's gate was considered to be the strongest of Amsterdam's tower entrances. Originally, the city was fairly open, but in the course of time moats were build, followed by defence walls. In the 16th century the city walls evolved in something more than a physical barrier: they turned into an economic and a socio-political boundary as well. For centuries, Amsterdam closed itself of from the outside world at half past nine sharp. Soldiers would take the keys from the gates to the city-hall to be kept in a special chest. The keys to this chest were in their turn taken to one of the acting burgomasters. At sunrise, the whole ritual was performed again, in reversed order.

(From Geert Mak: Een kleine geschiedenis van Amsterdam/ A short history of Amsterdam)


1543: Within the city limits... and outside

Already in the 16th century the Nieuwmarkt (New Market) area was teeming with political activity. The 'Lastage' neighbourhood situated on the eastern side of the Geldersekade was a somewhat dingy area full of warehouses and wharves. The area was highly vulnerable to attacks from outside as it lay just outside the city-walls. Its inhabitants were constantly at loggerheads with the city authorities who had debarred the people from raising their soggy grounds and would allow them to erect wooden structures only. These measures were taken to offer better protection to the inhabitants at times of war...inside the walls, of course. If an emergency arose, the Lastage was to be vacated and flattened as quickly as possible so as not to provide cover for the invaders. The Lastage was razed to the ground three times in history, lastly in 1543. Only in 1585 an extra bulwark was added, the present day 'Oude Schans' ('old redoubt'). There was an artillery tower at the end of it, the Montelbaanstower. From that time onwards the Lastage area became a proper part of Amsterdam.

From Sint Anthoniespoort to the Waag as trade centre

When the city expanded in 1612, the Sint Anthoniespoort lost its function. The city gate was converted to a new weighing station, as a substitute for the "Plaetse", the weighing station on Damsquare. Above the doors of the building porches were constructed, with below them large balances. The weighing stations were generally situated where in the middle ages and also in later times goods came into or left the city, at the port, or where goods were traded: at the marketplace. The weighing meant an important source of income for the city. So the city council wanted as many goods as possible to be weighed. Weighing became an obligation for all goods before they could be sold. The Waag in Amsterdam had been intended for weighing heavy trade articles, such as bales of tobacco, anchors and guns.


1617: Town gate becomes the Waag

As the St Anthony Gate's came to be situated within the town limits after the accretion of 1614, it lost its role as bulwark. In 1617/18 some restructuring took place whereby one tower was added and the inner courtyard was covered. Thus the Town-gate started a second life as Waag, or weighing-house. The moats surrounding the building were filled up, and a square was the result: it was called the New Market. The Amsterdam merchants were quite pleased with these developments. The old weighing-house on Dam square had become to small in for the ever increasing volume of trade. At first the St Anthony market was held every week, but it quickly became a daily market, since sailors would constantly bring in goods for trading from the nearby harbour.

This combination of weighing-house and market was the reason why the New Market became recognised as a general market in 1755, and subsequently developed into a thriving trading place in Amsterdam. Every morning, when the members of the various guilds (such as the smiths, the masons, the painters, and the surgeons) would converge towards the Waag , the merchants would have already displayed their wares all over the place. The Nieuwmarkt was divided in plots, just as the old market on Dam square. Merchants would trade in various goods from these plots. Farmers, hailing from the Amsterdam outskirts, sold butter, cheese, and eggs. The "cloth devils", as traders in textile goods were called, peddled their wares at the top of their voice. Slightly further down the road, on the canal between Koe(=cow)straat and Barndsteeg, gardeners from Rijnsburg, Noordwijk and Hillegom would be selling medicinal herbs. This trade in herbs was the origin of Jacob Hooy's emporium, Amsterdam's oldest spice and herbs shop that is still in business.

Theatrum Anatomicum and its shields

The anatomic theatre (Theatrum Anatomicum) Amsterdam was the first city in the Netherlands where public dissections were performed. As a result the city had a prominent position in the realm of medical studies. The first - illegal! - anatomic lesson took place in the St Ursula convent in 1550. Then, in 1555, the Spanish King Philip II - who also lorded over the Netherlands at that time - granted official permission to dissect corpses. As a consequence, the surgeons' guild rapidly developed into a full-fledged professional body. The surgeons went on to establish the Theatrum Anatomicum in the Waag in 1691.

Its name is still to be seen above the South eastern entrance to the building. In the niche above the surgeons' entrance there used to be a bust of Hippocrates, the Greek "father of western medicine". The surgeons' guild-room was located behind the windows of that entrance, i.e. on the first floor. It was here that from 1619 till 1639, lectures on the dissection of corpses were given.

In 1690, the surgeons had a larger auditorium, with a cupola, built on the second floor. This extension gave the building its present, definitive shape. The surgeons gave their lectures in what came to be called the Theatrum Anatomicum. They dissected the dead bodies of recently executed criminals before an audience of medical students and colleagues. On certain special occasions, market or fair days for instance, the general public was allowed in and could take a look at skeletons or the prepared skins of those criminals. There was also a collection of stuffed exotic animals to be marvelled at. The Amsterdam lessons in anatomy acquired their world fame from the paintings Rembrandt made of them. "The Anatomy Lesson by Professor Tulp" is dated 1632, the lesson by Professor Deyman is from 1656. Rembrandt was not the only painter who immortalised dissections. In the Theatrum Anatomicum, between 1731 and 1789 the healers-gentlemen had no less than 87 coats of arms painted in the higher reaches of the cupola. 

The municipal militia and several guilds were accommodated on the top floor of the Waag building. The militia had a guard-room, and the guilds established their chambers. Every guild had its own access to the building. The symbols of the various guilds were affixed above these entrances, e.g. the pastry makers-guild, that of the painters and cobblers and of course, the famous surgeons' guild. Masons and surgeons played a major role in the building's history. The masons undertook most of the embellishments inside and outside the building. They build the staircase and the hearth, chiselled the windowpanes, and put up the ornaments on the towers.

The Nieuwmarkt as centre for trade and discussion

At the close of the nineteenth century the Nieuwmarkt had developed into such an extensive and thriving centre of business that merchants literally fought for a space there. Things went badly out of control and the city authorities resorted to closure to restore some order. All previous stalls and structures had to give way and a new official arrangement of the market was worked out. There were about 240 stalls in those days. In 1892 two scores of them had to be cleared for the tramway line to run via the Nieuwmarkt. Plans of the city council to relocate the whole market on the Waterloo square came to nought. Though the merchants went to their new abode with bad grace, despite the canopy the authorities had erected for them, their customers simply did not follow suit. Lobbying by a few merchants who wanted to go back to the Nieuwmarkt was successful, and the city council rescinded its previous orders in January 1893.

On the 30th, market banners were again flying on the Nieuwmarkt. Meanwhile, the 'New Market' had evolved into a place where more than just trading took place. On Saturday evenings especially, groups of people would gather around the Waag building to discuss the political and social issues of the day. Socialists, Catholics, Jewish communists and anarchists would throw their opinions at each other. Before soon, the market got the reputation of a place where there was always something on. The occupation by Nazi Germany during World War II spelled the end of the market around the Waag.



The Nieuwmarkt and the Jewish neighbourhood

Before the so-called Civil Equality Act of 1796, Jewish people were restricted in the scope of professions they could take up to earn a livelihood. At the turn of the 18th century, this resulted in poverty being endemic among Jewish Amsterdammers. Few avenues of permitted activities were left unexplored in search of an income. There were lots of beggars, and many people took to street entertainment. Harlequins and pranksters were a favourite attraction. People from the Amsterdam Jewish community also organised fairs, circuses, horse-shows and acrobatic troops. The circus or horse-show appeared at the end of the 18th century and was a combination of horsemanship and acrobatics. The audience was seated around a pit. For the common people, the big fair was the yearly top of the bill entertainment. It offered an extensive range of curiosities and amusements. There were new inventions, freaky people as well as animals, besides al kinds of performances such as horse-plays, dances on the tight rope, and various acrobatic tricks. The large circuses that came to the yearly fairs in the 19th century were run by foreign companies. The smaller ones and the acrobatic troupes were mainly owned by a limited number of closely inter-linked Amsterdam Jewish families, such as the Blanes. Moses Blanes, a strikingly clad gentleman with a long astrakhan fur-coat, pink jersey, black velvet pants and a plus four, was the ringmaster of a small circus from the 1830s onwards. Every now and then he would show up in front of the Waag with his horses. Mr Blanes appearance got him a lot of attention and he was famous for his quips and jokes.

Though the Nieuwmarkt was not the focal point of the Jewish quarter, it was an important corner of it. Beside, the market had acquired an increasingly Jewish flavour over the years. Soon after the occupation began in 1940, people started to stay away from the market, for fear of round-ups by the dreaded German police. Then the whole area around the Waag and the Nieuwmarkt was blocked off and surrounded by barbed wire. Jewish and non-Jewish merchants alike disappeared, together with their customers. Many of them in the most literal sense of the word: very few within the large Jewish community in the Netherlands survived the Holocaust. The Waag market never regained its old lustre again.

Waag's inhabitants in the 19th and 20th century

In 1819 the Waag finally also lost its function of weighing-house and a motley assemblage of institutions moved into its premises. The Waag thus saw use as municipal fencing-hall, office of the Cholera commission, and workshop for the public lighting department when street-lamps were still oil-lit. A Mr Van Herpen ran a furniture business. From 1807 till 1879 death sentences were carried out on the market side of the building. In the Waag, the anatomic museum, the fire brigade and the municipal archives were accommodated in turn. During the First World War in which Holland managed to remain neutral, the support committee (for refugees) had its offices there, together with the commission for social affairs.

Thanks to a bequest of 20.000 guilders from two ladies in the Van Eeghen family, the Amsterdam Historical Museum was able to take over the Waag in 1926. When the Historical Museum moved to a new location its place was taken by the Jewish Historical Museum. By 1996 the Waag had stood empty for years on end. Since june 1996 however, it has a new, worthy occupant with the Waag. The organisation is, among other things, active in the realm of the soci(et)al consequences of new developments in information and communication technology. It also strives to promote Amsterdam's position as an international centre for information, communication, and media. The ground floor of the building houses the café and restaurant 'In de Waag'.


De Waag bij de Bevrijding in 1945