The History of the Canal House

The Museum of Bags and Purses resides in a monumental canal house on Herengracht 573 in Amsterdam. The canal house is part of the UNESCO World heritage Canal Ring Area of Amsterdam. Very few Amsterdam canal houses have been as well-preserved as this 17th century mayor’s residence. The building has a rich history, colourful inhabitants and a captivating story.

The Building Phase

The first inhabitant and builder of the mansion, Cornelis de Graeff, was a very rich and powerful city councillor and mayor of Amsterdam. Together with three other gentlemen, he acquired a number of building parcels on the Herengracht at an auction in 1664. De Graeff bought two parcels. With the other owners, he agreed that the construction would be ‘to a single height, a single facial and a single gable’. This uniformity has been preserved until today and is unique in the ring of canals. Cornelis de Graeff passed away shortly after the acquisition, even before construction had started. His son Pieter de Graeff continued the building scheme; on April 17th 1664, the first stone was laid. Pieter de Graeff was every bit as illustrious as his father. In 1668, he too became councillor of the city of Amsterdam. He was the brother-in-law of the famous statesman Johan de Witt and moved in the highest circles of the Republic of the Netherlands.

The 17th and 18th Century

Obviously, such a man’s residence should testify to his position. The furnishing and decorating of the period rooms started towards the end of the 17th century. Firstly, around 1682, the five coffers of the ceiling of the small period room were painted by Paulus de Fouchier (1643-1717). The central coffer depicts the Amsterdam City Virgin as the centre of the world; around it we see an allegorical representation of the continents of Europe, Asia, Africa and America. Australia had not been discovered yet and is therefore missing among the continents. The next inhabitant was Pieter’s extremely wealthy grandson, city councillor Gerrit de Graeff. By that time, the De Graeff family had accumulated a substantial fortune in trading with the Dutch East Indies and through a number of large inheritances. Gerrit, who was especially notorious for his greed, lived in the canal house until 1752. In the first decades of the 18th century, his successors had the building thoroughly renovated and modernised. This was when both period rooms found their present shape: in the Large Period Room the ceiling and the chimney piece were decorated and in the Small Period Room the chimney piece was sumptuously decorated as well.

Jeltje de Bosch Kemper

During the 19th century, the mansion was inhabited by Lady Jeltje de Bosch Kemper. She was one of the first women to rise against the deadly dull existence to which young upper class ladies were invariably condemned. She extensively wrote about the subject in her diary. Jobs were out of the question, and after school no other option was possible than to stay at home and idle. During those years, Jeltje was fired with terrible anger, an anger she vented in passionate articles advocating women’s right to paid work. Together with some like-minded people she founded the Amsterdamsche Huishoudschool (a girls’ school for housekeeping). The last inhabitant, Maria van Eik, bought the mansion in 1893 for 44.000 Dutch guilders (approximately €20.000 Euro) and lived there until she died in 1906. In 1907, the building was sold to the Hollandsche Brand Assurantie Sociëteit and since then, various companies have occupied it. In 2007, after a radical renovation, the Museum of Bags and Purses moved in.

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