Pillarisation — or why do the Dutch have big windows

Pillarisation (‘verzuiling’ in Dutch) is one of the most distinctive — and fascinating — characteristics of Dutch history and society. Yet, it’s not very well known by foreigners.

The idea behind it is quite simple as it basically means that Dutch society is divided into pillars. Characteristic for each pillar is a unique system of political and social organisation. (Sounds confusing? Don’t worry, we’ll go more into detail below!)

Ultimately, a pillar fuses people together around a shared ideology and common values. Instead of relating to their fellow Dutch countrymen, Dutchies end up identifying themselves with their pillar. So, we’re talking about many micro-societies within the one big society.

This also leads to strong social control. Not too cool.

The history of pillarisation

Let’s turn back the clocks to the end of the 19th century when a long history of division between the different religions in the Netherlands kickstarted pillarisation.

Catholics, conservative Calvinists, and the (non-religious) socialist and working class, in particular, rivalled to preserve their unique identities and values. Therefore, they started to create their own social and political institutions, creating a number of parallel societies living next to but with their backs turned — to one another.

This division into pillars was also a way for the elites to resist modernisation and secularisation, and to keep control of the population as long as they could.

The role of media

So, essentially, the whole society was divided as each pillar had its own institutions: its own school, hospital, shops, political party, media — you name it!

Having their own media was particularly important. Through their own broadcasting companies, it was very easy for the elites to disseminate a cultural identity that people could then reproduce.

1931-cartoon-from-de-groene-amsterdammer-newspaper-showing-pillarisation-broadcasting
Man refuses to listen to a radio station not belonging to his pillar. Image: Johan Braakensiek/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

Consequently, Dutch society was completely divided into different groups. People from one pillar rarely mixed with people from another — they basically didn’t really have to! Not to mention that it wasn’t only socially unacceptable but that doing so could be strictly forbidden.

Good to know: As with most things, pillarisation in the Netherlands wasn’t black and white! There was overlap between the different pillars. For example, many members of the working class were both political socialists and practising Christians.

Some strict Calvinists, however, live in separate communities until this very day! Check out our article on the Dutch Bible Belt.

Societal changes shake up the pillars

Even though it lasted for some decades, the pillars started to break down in the 1960s.

Firstly, the economic growth of this period allowed the development of the Dutch welfare state, meaning that people didn’t rely as much on their pillar’s members. 👋 Medicine, money, and support were now controlled by higher levels of governmental organisation, rather than being provided by peoples’ immediate community.

The welfare state also allowed more Dutchies to get a higher education and to own television sets — in these ways people no longer relied on their pillar to know what was happening in the world.

Secondly, the pillars started to fall around this time because of the free spirit of the 60s. ✌ As you can imagine, the peace-and-love mantra didn’t match well with people telling you how to behave and who to interact with.

dutch-hippies-in-vondelpark-amsterdam-black-and-white-photo
Hippies chillin’ out in Vondelpark. Image: Hans Peters / Anefo/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

The effects of pillarisation on freedom of expression

Before this time, the identification with a pillar was so strong that it altered the freedom of expression.

In the pillared society of the Netherlands, freedom of speech was effectually limited since you were supposed to follow the rules and the values of the pillar to which you belonged.

The elites didn’t only tell you how to behave, they were also telling you what to do if you wanted to truly belong to the group and reap the benefits of it. Yes, the social control in the pillared system was extremely strong but you couldn’t just leave it behind — unless you like to be completely on your own. 😅

Today, it seems crazy to think that this was happening in the Netherlands, famous for its tolerant and forward-thinking culture.

Pillarisation nowadays

To all the future internationals in the Netherlands: breathe in, breathe out. The pillars indeed broke down and the Dutch society is no longer pillared.

If you pay attention, however, you can still see some remains of it today. Take for example the big windows the Dutch have. You can easily see inside peoples’ homes! (Something which new internationals often find very strange).

READ MORE | Why don’t the Dutch like to use curtains?

But why do they have them? Because of pillarisation! With the very strong social control, one had nothing to hide and the idea was that people could even check that.

It makes more sense now, doesn’t it?

Have you noticed the big windows in Dutch architecture? Do you like them? Tell us in the comments below!

Feature Image: Cebas1/Depositphotos

Editor’s Note: This article was originally published in August 2016, and was fully updated in May 2022 for your reading pleasure.

Marianne Chagnon
Marianne Chagnon
History and political science graduate from France, now living in Utrecht to study Human Rights. Enjoying (too) many things related to History, Politics and Culture.

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4 COMMENTS

  1. Since taxes were paid according to the wideness of the houses: the broader your front was, the more tax you paid in the old days, typical Dutch Houses were build small, but very deep.
    But when your house is deep and has a small front, you need large windows in order to have daylight in the middle of your house, if not it would feel as if you’d be living in a cave.
    This is the real reason why the windows are that large.

    The matter of pillarization on itself is true, but the large window-story is more of a romantization in that respect. The traditional houses were build way before the pillarization was that big of a phenomenon.

  2. This is stupid.. We have large windows so more sunlight can come in the house. These houses are called ‘doorzonwoningen’. And looking in houses / living rooms is not considered rude, as long as you don’t stare to long/openly.

    In fact we have decorations in the windows for people walking by to look at.

  3. Narrow buildings and extremely narrow stairwells also meant furniture went in through the windows. A lot of the old buildings still have the posts the pulleys were affixed to. I don’t know how often that still needs to occur, as my time there was all in student housing, but I climbed many a stairwell I would not have wanted to carry even a twin mattress upwards within. And verzuilling was more than a little bit observable while I was there, although not so cutthroat as this seems to suggest.

  4. My understanding is that WWII was a big driver of the breakdown of pillarization. For example, the resistance movement brought together catholics, calvinists, socialists, liberals, etc., fighting a common enemy, or they were forced to go underground (like my father) rather than get conscripted to go to Germany to work, and stayed with someone not in their pillar. Through this, the various groups found out the ‘other groups’ were good, normal people. As a result, the pillars didn’t make sense any more for the rank and file, despite the efforts by the leaders to return to the pre-war social fabric.

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