How precious are Your thoughts to me, O LORD ... how vast is the sum of them!

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Book Review: Holland Mania

Last week I finished a very unique book called Holland Mania: The Unknown Dutch Period in American Art and Culture, written by Annette Stott. I borrowed it from a friend, and what attracted me first was the cover: I am obsessed with blue and white.

Holland Mania

And then, not only is my grandmother Dutch-American (hence my interest in this heritage), but this book specifically covered the years from 1880-1920 which is right during the lifetime of the historical character in my novel The Alice Quest, Alice herself. I figured I could glean helpful information and I was not disappointed!

Why is it important to know about this attraction for all things Dutch that many Americans possessed within these forty years? I wondered that, too, before I began, but the book explains itself. It taught me about everything from the American ideals and mindset of that era to the origin of Dutch Boy paint and Old Dutch cleanser. (It also made me quite pleased that I have Dutch blood in me!) Knowing as much as you can about your nation’s history is profitable, and it’s a shame to think that something so many people once valued is overlooked today.

During the 19th century, especially as its centennial approached, the United States was searching for its own identity. Immigrants were streaming in from all sides and Americans wanted to define what “America” was. It was tired of the credit England got for its origin, and so it looked to other early immigrant groups – most notably the Dutch, who colonized New York in the 17th century. As they looked here, they found many similarities and many things to admire. At the peak of Holland Mania, an editor of Ladies’ Home Journal wrote in a 1903 issue that Holland was “The Mother of America.”

There was the Old Dutch Republic, for one thing, which beat off bully Spain in the 16th century, much like the American colonies beat off England in the 18th. The Dutch instituted such liberties as freedom of religion and freedom of the press in their country, liberties that Americans cherished. The Pilgrims spent twelve years in Holland to find refuge for their beliefs right before they sailed to America in 1620. During the last quarter century of the 1800s, several historians began to trace back U.S. values and culture directly to Holland.

As more Americans learned about historical Holland, this mixed with a nostalgia for the simple, rural lifestyle from which the nation was beginning to drift. A larger number of Americans were becoming rich from big business and they spent their money on paintings by Dutch Masters like Rembrandt and Vermeer, or as close as they could come to it, depending on their resources. Artists took note, studied Dutch art, and traveled to Holland to search for the subject matter of the Old Masters. Although Holland was modernizing, too, these artists looked only for the old, country scenes that the Masters had painted, because that was the height of Dutch art – and it just so happened to roughly coincide with the Dutch founding of New Netherland. (Henry Hudson claimed the New York area for the Dutch in 1609; England annexed it in 1664. Rembrandt was born in 1606 and died in 1669.) This older image was what Americans wanted.

Wooden shoes, windmills, tulips, Holstein cows, and the Dutch folk costume entered the American mainstream and became the rage. Holland got to be a popular vacation destination and a charming theme for parties. Everyone wanted to learn about it – or at least its stereotype, what they thought was the “real” Holland. And there was so much to admire about the Dutch character: industry, independence, cleanliness, strength, modesty, piety … these were all things Americans extolled.

Holland Mania began dying toward 1920, with WWI making the Netherlands unsafe to visit and changed at the end; Americans had changed, too. The culture was oversaturated with Dutch things and the stereotype became cliché. Only pockets of people, particularly where there was a Dutch-American community, continued to really appreciate them. They are still appreciated today, most ostensibly with festivals, like the Tulip Festival in Holland, Michigan.

Now, all this is not to say Holland Mania defined America and we just didn’t know it; we all know life is too complex for that. But it’s fascinating to discover what gripped the minds of a portion of our nation’s population, and to see a foreign country from America’s historical perspective.

The book Holland Mania taught me a lot about history and was an enjoyable read; Annette Stott is a skilled writer. I’ve only scratched the surface in this report! Perhaps in another post I’ll write about a few more things I learned from it, if anyone’s interested!

I’m extremely curious! Have you ever heard about America’s penchant for Dutch things?


  1. So THAT'S why the Pilgrim ladies wore those Dutch hats! :D (Being silly here... Heehee).

    Interesting post. I hadn't known much about the Dutch part of American history. Though, granted, I mostly pay attention to the British Isles backgrounds (mostly the Celtic side of that, too...) because that's what interests me most. :) Just goes to show how America is made up of so many different cultures.

    I love blue and white covers too!! They're just so beautiful and... I don't know, fresh, enchanting, cool... like water and snow and sky...

    1. Thanks for commenting!
      I hadn't known much about it either, but after this book, a lot of things made sense -- like why Washington Irving's Knickerbocker stories were so popular (i.e., Rip Van Winkle) and where the very prestigious American families with Dutch last names came from: Roosevelts and Vanderbilts.
      I love how you describe blue and white. : ) Lots of good associations come to mind with that color pair!