Forgotten Crafts: Water And Fire Seller

Until WW II, Dutch houses did not have hot running water or central heating. Coal stoves provided most families with heating and a cooking place. Heating up large amounts of water on a coal stove is a time-consuming task. Especially on washing day — typically Monday— that posed a problem, since washing was already time-consuming in itself.

Therefore, Dutch housewives preferred to buy ready-made hot water at a local water and fire store called a "water-en-vuurnering" in Dutch. The water seller was called a "waterstoker", "water-en-vuurbaas" (male) or "water-en-vuurvrouwtje" (female). The first round of hot water was used on Sunday evening. All the dirty laundry was set to soak in hot water: white laundry in one tub and the rest in another. Then, on Monday morning, the real washing could begin. Again, hot water was bought at the water store to fill a large tub. If you needed soap, you could buy it at the store as well. The laundry was thoroughly rubbed on a washboard and then rinsed, and rinsed, and rinsed... The white clothes were first treated with bleach to make them spotless clean. To remove the grey or yellow halo the bleach left on the laundry, a little blue powder was added to the last rinse. This powder sold under the name Reckitts' could also be bought at the water store.

Next, the heavy task of wringing out the laundry could begin. Only the richer housewives owned a wringer. Those who could not afford one would do it by hand or rent one between some neighbors at the water store for a couple of hours to do the wrenching together.

Finally, the clean laundry was hung out on the street and left there to dry overnight. Of course, when the weather was bad, the laundry had to be hung indoors filling the only room most people had with the damp smell of drying laundry.

Most housewives spent their Tuesdays ironing. Electric irons did not yet exist, and when they did appear on the market, they were far too expensive for the common housewife. She would have to do with a coal iron. Usually she would buy the smoldering coal needed to fill the iron at the water and fire store.

Although hot water and fire were the main products, the "waterstoker" sold an array of other household items as well: brooms, brushes, shoeshine, brass polish, kindling-wood, matches, soap, etcetera. He also sold candy. Most women would send their kids to the store to fetch mommy some water or shoeshine. They usually let them spend the change on candy to reward them for doing the chore.

After WW II, natural gas was discovered in the Netherlands and within a couple of decades all houses were fitted with a gas pipe connection. Electricity also became commonplace. By the 1950s, almost every Dutch housewife had a gas stove, a gas water boiler, an electric iron, and gas heating. And so the "waterstoker" — once a central point in social life — disappeared. Some reinvented themselves as small convenience stores selling cigars, magazines, candy and some elemental household items such as soap.