A New Year’s Salute from the Amsterdam Lamplighters’ Guild

Craftsmen handing out printed cards to their business associates to give them the best wishes for the New Year. That may seem like a modern practice, but lamplighters, nightwatchmen, drummers and bell-ringers have done it for centuries. In various towns across the Netherlands craftsmen distributed broadsides to the public. The gesture was surely appreciated at the time, however, the sheets were rarely preserved for the ages. One early example of a salute from the Amsterdam Lamplighters’ Guild recently turned up at Trinity College Library.

Street literature

The printed New Year’s wishes have been around at least since the early 17th century. It is a subgenre of street literature, that is, types of publication that include news sheets, governmental proclamations, catchpenny prints, murder ballads and other ephemera, sold by peddlers at the streets, markets, fairs and carnivals. The New Year’s wishes were not so much sold, but handed out. It was a widespread habit at the end of the 18th and beginning of the 19th century. Some isolated examples from the 17th century suggest that the tradition must have been much older.

The broadsides usually combine a woodcut illustration and a song or poem. Most of the examples that we know were issued by – or in the name of – the guilds of lamplighters, nightwatchmen and other professions that had some connection with the transition of night and day. A quick scan of the collections of Dutch libraries, archives and the Rijksmuseum shows that there are hardly any 17th century copies. As always, the question is if this is a matter of production or survival.

A New Year’s salute for the year 1695 from the Lamplighters’ Guild in Amsterdam. Dublin, Trinity College Library Fag.E.1.34:10.

Lamplighters’ Guild

The example that was identified in the collections of Trinity College Library (Shelf mark: Fag.E.1.34:10) was presented by the ‘fillers and lighters of lanterns’ to the ‘magistrates, merchants, citizens and residents of Amsterdam’ at the beginning of the year 1695. Street lights had been introduced in the city in 1669. Within a year 1800 lanterns had been placed that needed to be lit every night. The woodcut on the broadside depicts the fillers and lighters at work at one of the Amsterdam canals, with the moon high in the sky above the Westerkerk.

Interestingly a similar broadside from the lamplighters’ guild for the year 1694 turned up at an auction some years ago. The title of that copy, which presumably ended up in a private collection, has the exact same composition, and according to the description of the auctioneer it also has a large woodcut. The printer of both broadsides is Johannes Stichter, so it is likely that the similarities are not a coincidence.

The main difference between the broadsides of 1694 and 1695 is the caption below the woodcut. On the broadside of 1695 it reads ‘Letter N, in the district number 2’, while the one from 1694 has ‘Letter F, in the district number 6’. This presumably refers to the civic militia districts in Amsterdam. The division of the city in 60 districts had taken place in 1684, and apparently individual districts issued their own broadsides.

Map with civic militia districts, circa 1737
Map with civic militia districts, circa 1737.

Statistics & Survivors

If all sixty districts issued broadsides on a yearly basis, there must have been some 10,000 different issues for the Lamplighters’ guild in Amsterdam between late 17th and mid-19th century. Even with a modest print run, we are talking about millions of copies. That can’t be right! After all, only a handful copies have been preserved. Try to imagine the numbers we are talking about if we take in account other cities and other guilds.

The truth is that we don’t know for sure how regular and wide-spread these publications were. To me, it seems plausible that these broadsides were printed only occasionally in the 17th and the greater part of the 18th century. It is telling that the surviving copies that we know, cluster around certain years. Next to the examples from 1694 and 1695, there are three copies from the years 1791-1794, all using the same woodcut illustration, all printed by the heirs of the widow of J. van Egmond, but none from the same district. Were these broadsides issued by just one district each year? Or did the printer change the name of the district on the press, resulting in many different states of the same broadside?

Rather than speculate about production statistics and survival rates, we should start with analyzing on the basis of autopsy what actually survived, register that in one central place, such as the Short-Title Catalogue, Netherlands. Because no matter what comes forth from the collections of Trinity College Library in Dublin, there is still a lot of work to be done in the libraries, archives and museums of the Netherlands!

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