Coffeehouse Pickup Spot

19th-century photo of the North Holland Coffee House, with Centraal Station in the background
Stadsarchief Amsterdam

Coffeehouse Pickup Spot

19th-century photo of the North Holland Coffee House, with Centraal Station in the background
Stadsarchief Amsterdam
The restaurant Loetje Centraal, as seen from across the water

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The Story

Check out that white building on the water. If you came here about a century ago, that’s where you’d go to get yourself checked out. This was the North Holland Coffee House. (Well, technically, it’s a reconstruction of the building.) You see, Amsterdam in the 1920s and 30s wasn’t San Francisco in the 1970s, but it did have a gay nightlife – if you knew where to look. And people came from all over the country to look for it, which is where the North Holland Coffee House comes into the story.

The North Holland Coffee House wasn’t part of the gay scene per se, but it was where you could be introduced to the gay nightlife. You see, the nearby neighborhood called De Wallen (the Red Light District) was home to underground gay bars and drag scenes, among other things. These weren’t the kind of places you could just find, however, and these weren’t the kind of streets you should be strolling down on your first night in town. Many an LGBT-curious visitor got off the train and lost their nerve. They’d stop by the coffee house just outside the station and tell themselves they were getting the lay of the land.

Well, word got around Amsterdam’s gay community. It wasn’t uncommon for those on the prowl to swing by the coffee house to see if anyone looked to be gearing up for an adventure. This became an especially important lesbian scene for a couple of reasons. First, both social conditioning and the actual crime in De Wallen made women less likely to brave the district on their own. Second, there was a cultural issue prompting women all along the Kinsey scale. Let us explain.

The age of marriage was getting later and later in the early 20th century across the social classes. There was some lip service paid to “male virtue”, but it was by and large assumed that men had affairs or hired sex workers until they got married. Women, on the other hand, were expected to abstain entirely from male contact until they were married. You can see how women who were not entirely straight might be drawn to the whispers of a lesbian scene, one that would allow them to fulfill their marital obligations without being chaste into their late 20s. Suffice it to say that any number of wild Amsterdam nights began with a conversation between a nice girl from the countryside and an Amsterdam lesbian at the North Holland Coffee House.

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