History of the Zaanse Schans

‘De Saen anno 1850’ (Peter Sterkenburg – oil on panel)

Members of ‘Zaans Schoon’ in 1952, with Frans Mars in the middle and Jaap Schipper on the far right – the Zaanse Schans would never have come about without these visionaries…


The origin of the name

The idea for the Zaanse Schans first originated in 1947. Post-war innovations meant that Zaan-style timber buildings, with their typical facades, crown posts and overlap cladding on the walls, were in danger of vanishing forever.

Mayor Joris in ‘t Veld came up with the idea of relocating historic houses. Architect Jaap Schipper drew up the design and found the ideal site in the Kalverpolder, while Frans Mars, educator and painter of the renowned mill panorama, suggested the name ‘Zaanse Schans’.

This name refers to the ‘Kalverschans’, a hexagonal fortification intended as a means of defending the terrain.

The Kalverschans was the site where the Zaan residents, the ‘Zaankanters’ (Zaansiders), led by Diederik Sonoy, successfully resisted the Duke of Alva’s Spanish troops during Pentecost (Pinksteren) in 1574. As a reward for their courage, the brave fighters received an extra day off. This ‘Third Pentecost’, called ‘Pinksterdrie’, is a tradition that dates back to the Eighty Years’ War and is still celebrated in the Zaan region today.

Diederik Sonoy, who was appointed governor of North Holland by William of Orange in 1572

More than 400 years of history

The Zaanse Schans encompasses a rich, 400-year history. The oldest oil mill (De Zoeker) dates back to 1609, and the oldest house (Het Jagershuis) in the mill village was built in 1623.

Over the course of the region’s history, a number of mills have stood on the dike where the Zaanse Schans is now situated. Of these, only ‘De Bonte Hen’ now remains. The first mill to arrive in the Zaanse Schans in 1955 was ‘De Huisman’. The first house followed a few years later. The project progressed rapidly after this, with Queen Juliana officially opening the Zaanse Schans in 1972.

1962-01-10 – ZAANSE SCHANS – Polygoon News

1965-09-01 – ZAANSE SCHANS – Polygoon News

  • The first home in the Zaanse Schans in 1960, with the mills ‘De Huisman’ and ‘De Kat’ in the background
  • The official opening in 1972 by Queen Juliana, with ‘De Huisman’ in the background


One of the largest timber ports in the world

Following the invention of the sawmill in 1592, the Zaan region grew to become one of the world’s largest timber ports. The flat landscape, proximity to Amsterdam and excellent waterways made it the perfect location for this purpose.

  • In 1592, Cornelis Cornelisz from Uitgeest decided to install a crankshaft in his mill ‘Het Juffertje’. This converted the rotation of the sails into a vertical, up-and-down sawing motion, which revolutionized timber processing!
  • Timber lying before sawmill ‘Het Jonge Schaap’. The sails and cap of the mill are just visible above and to the left.

The timber port in Zaandam, around 1900

Timber came in from all over the world. Almost all of the houses in the Zaan region were constructed from wood.

A shipbuilding industry developed and flourished there, with numerous sail weavers, blacksmiths and tryworks following in its wake. Over the centuries, the area had such notable visitors as Emperor Napoleon (‘Sans Pareil’) and the painter Monet. Czar Peter the Great also stayed in Zaandam in 1697, to learn about shipbuilding.


Historic buildings and facades

All of the wooden houses in the Zaan region date from 1578 and later. The reason for this is that during their retreat from North Holland, the Spaniards set fire to the Zaan villages on their way out. The Zaan-style wooden house evolved from prehistoric hall houses. The buildings typical of the time, with their exterior walls made from sod and woven mats, did not permit high-rise construction.

The arrival of the sawmills changed that, however. The supporting struts retreated to the sides, creating a timber frame consisting of yokes and struts, with corbels used to enhance stability. The exterior walls (called ‘wegen’ in the Zaan dialect) were clad with wooden planking fixed in place with tough nails. Similarly to roofing tiles, the planks were fastened in an overlapping manner that gave rise to the name ‘getrapte weeg’ (‘stepped wall’). Up until 1900, stone houses were also built around this type of timber structure.






Zaan-style gables are also of great historical interest. Starting from 1500, the gables evolved from a simple spout gable to a simple bell gable (commonly known as a Dutch gable in English), a more elaborate bell gable with geometric end scrolls, and then to a Rococo-style bell gable with decorative end scrolls and a crest. The pilaster facade first appeared in 1790. To this day, houses and mills continue to be added to the residential and working village, with the most recent addition in 2015. Stroll around the Zaanse Schans, examine the differences and similarities between the historic buildings, and enjoy the many old crafts, attractive restaurants, shops and museums that all tell the story of this historical area.

The mills

More than 1,200 mills in total have stood in the Zaan region over the centuries, peaking at 600 mills at one time around the year 1700. ‘De Huisman’ is one example of a mill you can visit. It dates back to 1786 and was mounted on the barn of ‘De Haan’ (the rooster) in 1955. The mill’s nameplate makes a humorous reference to this, announcing ‘A COCK WAS RIDDEN BY THE MAN OF THE HOUSE HERE’. Other historic mills in the Zaanse Schans include ‘De Kat’ (1646), ‘De Zoeker’ (1609) and ‘De Bonte Hen’ (1693).

The Zaanse Schans in the early 1900s…

The Zaan region around 1900

While mills were still a prominent feature of the landscape on the riverbanks and in the polder at the start of the 20th century, their days were numbered. Their demolition proceeded so rapidly that educator and painter Frans Mars founded the ‘De Zaansche Molen’ (The Zaan Mill) Association in 1925, in a bid to stem this tide and preserve the remaining mills for the future. Nowadays, the association manages 13 windmills, more than half of which are located in the Zaanse Schans and include sawmills, oil mills, a paint mill and a spice mill, as well as a flour mill on the other side of the Zaan River. Further away in the Zaan region, there are also hulling mills, a grinding mill and a paper mill. There were once many other types of mills as well, which made the Zaan region the largest industrial area in the world at the time. Visit our village in the Zaan region to see the mills and sawmills that gave rise to industrialization and timber construction, and that helped to shape and build the region’s houses, as well as the ships of the Dutch East India Company (VOC). Stop by the oldest and only remaining paint mill in the world and see how the pigments for Rembrandt’s paint were made, and still are to this day.