Popular Science Monthly/Volume 54/November 1898/A Practical Dutch Charity


By J. H. GORE.

HOLLAND, Scotland, and Switzerland, quite unlike physically, have in their institutions many points of similarity, and the impulses and character of their people are almost identical. In religious matters the resemblance is also striking, even though the creed professed be known by different names.

In Scotland the struggle for existence demands something more assertive than the doctrine of laissez faire; the terrible sweep of the avalanche in Switzerland, without any apparent cause for its starting, suggests an acceptance of the belief that "it is, because it must be"; while Holland, in its incessant war with the sea, is continually bidding defiance to natural laws, and protesting against their unrestrained action.

Calvinism found its strongest adherents in the two countries first named, and the faith of Luther answering to the active instincts of the Batavian race was at once adopted by it. In Holland as well as in Switzerland man is ever reminded of life's realities by the watchful care necessary for his very existence, and the material obstacles which must be conquered at every step. Patriotism never becomes dormant because the face of the land shows in its scars its history, and love for home grows with each reckoning of the cost of its retention. The possessions of one day are in many instances no guarantee of the wealth of the next, and the hand now extended in giving assistance may on the morrow be held out to receive. Thus we find the charitable instincts always awake, and societies for the relief of the needy thoroughly organized.

The conditions under which Holland began its geographic formation and the processes afterward employed to hold or enlarge her boundaries, together with the social unrest of the time, caused thoughtful men to put in operation every agency that could direct the innate desire to do good and to give direction to the forces within the kingdom, as well as those which came from without. In Holland, therefore, we find numerous societies for the relief of suffering humanity, and people ever ready to give due attention to the complaints and necessities of the laboring classes. No other try offers such an excellent field for the study of charitable institutions. The Dutch are eminently practical; they made an early beginning in the work of alleviating distress, and this relief, from the nature of things, as pointed out, is not spasmodic as in other countries where nothing short of famine, earthquakes, or floods can awaken the people to a realization of the duty they owe to mankind. Here the call for aid may come at any time, so that those charitably inclined must be ever ready to respond, and the organizations for relief can never become lax or inefficient.

Then, too, the population of the Netherlands is very homogeneous, and the leaders in all good works are not only administering to their own people, but are unbiased by prior experiences under other auspices. Consequently, this country furnishes institutions organized under normal conditions, with an entire absence of external influences, and where the helped and the helpers are of the same race.

England, France, and Germany have sent commissions to Holland to study its organized charity, its school system, workingmen's societies, and like institutions. These countries have but little in common, even though their forms of government are, or have been, outwardly similar, while on the other hand we have always found in the Dutchman "a friend and a brother," and an example well worthy of following. And since it is only after examining remedies for evils found without complications, that we can prescribe for abnormal conditions, the study of Dutch institutions is the best possible preparation for arriving at the means for meeting the necessities in our own country.

In Holland the general awakening to the demands of the people came in the eighteenth century, when the social life was lacking in strength, when the rich were largely given over to extravagance, while the poor were neglected, uneducated, and exposed to want. Everything seemed to separate the two classes—nothing emphasized their interdependence. The citizen class was restive under these oppressive conditions, and needed only the successful example of some neighboring people to start the revolution within their own country.

There was in the Netherlands at this time at least one thoughtful man who foresaw the approaching social revolution and realized the danger which threatened his native land if unaccustomed rights and powers should become the possession of those who heretofore had felt the power of others. This man was Jan Nieuwenhuizen, the founder of the Society of General Welfare. It is impossible to estimate the good which has been accomplished by this organization. It instituted free schools, and gave to the state the scheme on which the present public-school system rests; it established savings banks, and the Postal Savings Bank—now the model of the world—was glad to copy after them; it conducts a sort of neighborhood loaning banks, and it is likely that its plans will be incorporated in the agricultural banks now under consideration. Through its instrumentality people of different classes are brought together in periodical meetings, when the lower can learn by observation from the higher, and lose much of the prejudice and envy which is so often felt, while the higher will become more tolerant toward the lower as they realize the burdens which the latter carry, and appreciate the obstacles which mar their progress, thus leveling many of the artificial class distinctions.

What this society has done for Holland, "Ons Huis" is trying to accomplish in Amsterdam; and though the latter is occupying a more limited field, its energies are more concentrated and its methods are such as to warrant its characterization as a practical charity.

The founder of "Our House," Mr. Janssen, fully realized that outright giving while blessing the giver is of questionable value to the recipient, and alms once accepted suggested in the ease with which it was obtained that a second be asked for, and the feeling of dependence soon calls into existence the belief that the uncontracted debt of a living must be collected. We therefore find a charitable organization in which everything must be purchased, but at cost so slight as to be within the reach o fall, yet being a charge, no benefit is esteemed for naught because it was obtained for nothing.

We find this unique society in a sort of "people's palace" in the very center of Amsterdam's working population. The building, which is the gift of Mr. Janssen, is on Rozen Street, Nos. 12, 14, and 16, extending through to Rozen Gracht, and contains a board room, reading room, library, gymnasium, lecture room, assembly rooms, large hall, kitchen, quarters for the janitor's family, and a restaurant.

The purpose is declared to be "to promote the moral and material development of the people—poor as well as rich—both in giving and receiving by inducing those who are blessed with knowledge or money to assist their fellow-beings whose lives are monotonous and devoid of comforts and pleasures." The very name—"Our House"—is intended to show that within its walls all enjoy equal rights, that the less learned are the younger members of the family whom the less ignorant will gladly instruct, and that the purposes and aims of all classes should be the same. Both sexes have equal privileges, and the religious and political views of those who attend the meetings or enjoy the benefits offered are never inquired into. The adherents of all faiths are treated with equal deference, and the only condition imposed is the observance of such principles of etiquette as should find favor in every home. Since the day of rest of the various religious sects is not the same, all days are regarded as of equal importance, but, to meet the objections of the Protestant clergy that the exercises here kept people away from the church services, it has been decided not to open the building on Sundays until noon. But as the hours of employment of many persons are so long that their evenings are not free, the reading room is open on this day after the hour named, and certain instructive lectures are given during the afternoon. At these the average attendance is about five hundred. A strong effort was made to have the building closed during the whole of Sunday, however. The argument was made that as long as beer gardens and places of amusement were open on this day, the people should not be restricted on the only holiday of the week to those places where money is spent for trifling pleasures. The large number of persons who spend Sunday afternoon in the reading room proves that the opportunity to make good use of their time is fully appreciated.

Before giving in detail the plan of work in hand, it should be said that the director has secured the assistance of about one hundred and fifty men and women who are willing to contribute their time to the furthering of the purposes as outlined. They are divided into fourteen groups, or committees, each looking after a single interest. The means as at present constituted for attaining the ends in view may be classified as follows:

1. Reading room for men and women not under eighteen years of age; open daily.
2. Wednesday evening lectures on literature, history, physics, pedagogy, political economy, and travel. These lectures are open for debate.
3. Courses of lectures on different topics for men and women separately, or for both together. These discussions are marked by an intimate tone.
4. Sunday evening meetings: musical or theatrical performances, magic-lantern pictures, tableaux, etc. These are given in the large hall, which accommodates five hundred and twenty-five persons.
5. Legal advice.
6. Clubs for boys, girls, men, and women. Friendly intercourse. Discussions on scientific subjects. Chess club. Travel club.
7. Lessons in Dutch, French, English, and German, bookkeeping, reading and writing for adults, needlework, mending, making and cutting of one's own clothes, cooking, drilling for boys and girls, fencing, acting, chorus singing.

The reading room is provided with a large number of daily and weekly papers, magazines, and technical journals, together with such books as could be purchased or obtained as donations. The user of the reading room pays ten cents a quarter, with the privilege of bringing one friend a week as a guest. Every conceivable device is employed to induce visitors to make use of the books; for example, the lecturers frequently choose a literary topic, and refer to the books in the library, or one of the members of certain manual-training classes read aloud while the others work. Then some of the social evenings are given up to the discussion of a new or popular author, and persons skilled in reading aloud are asked to read or recite choice extracts. To accommodate those who feel that three months' subscription is for too long a period, the regular admission fee of two Dutch cents—equivalent to eight tenths of a cent of our money—gives the right to make use of the library during the visit. It now looks as though the impulse to secure a shortening of the work day would come from this organization in its desire to secure for its beneficiaries a longer time in which to profit by the use of the books and special opportunities for study here placed at the disposal of the workingmen. The reading room is looked after by a committee of twenty, some of whom are always present to give aid and advice to the readers, to answer such questions as may arise, and to keep the books and papers in place.

The lectures conducted in Our House are of a twofold character—individual discourses and a series of discussions of a given topic. Every Wednesday evening between November and April is provided with a speaker by the lecture committee, who treats in a popular manner a subject of his own choice, and allows the auditors at the close of his talk to ask questions regarding the topic in hand. The average number of persons attending these lectures last winter was about three hundred, and the charge for a single admission is two cents, with a considerable reduction when four or six tickets are purchased for one family. In the course lecture the most popular topic so far has been natural science, especially botany, physics, and chemistry. In this connection it is interesting to note that the luxuriant flora of the East Indies, with which the Dutch became acquainted long ago, gave an impetus in Holland to the study of botany. The people of all classes are fond of plants and flowers, and it is not surprising to learn that twenty persons followed a course of instruction in botany. A prominent physician of Amsterdam gave a course of ten lectures upon "The first Aid to the Injured," and eighty men and women profited by the practical discussion of this subject. The cost of these lectures is four cents apiece.

Somewhat related to the above are the concerts, Sunday evening meetings, and performances of various kinds which are given under the auspices of the appropriate committees. Perhaps one of the most profitable evenings of the winter is when manufacturers and employers are invited to meet those of the working class who may wish to be present to discuss in an informal manner questions of common interest. Under the genial leadership of Mr. Janssen and the director, much of the restraint usual on such occasions is thrown aside and the employer and employee sit side by side, and each listens to the undreamed opinions and experiences of the other. At one of these meetings the question of a shorter work day was discussed from the standpoint of the employer, the laborer, and the humanitarian. The investigations of our own Bureau of Labor were quoted to show the benefits resulting from a shortening of the day of work, and it is more than likely that the outcome of the discussion will be an intention on the part of the manufacturer to curtail the hours of work just as soon as possible, while the laborers, in learning of obstacles of which they were ignorant, will await more patiently the action desired.

The classes or individual pupils contribute their services to the committee in charge of entertainments. This committee sees to it that three Sunday evenings of each month are provided for, either from the ranks of home talent or with the aid of outside artists. In the concerts some of the best performers of the land have gladly taken part, and the music of the greatest composers has been heard here. As in all other cases, there is a charge for admission—four cents for one and six cents for man and wife. A feature here in vogue might well be copied. In arranging the selections for a concert the effort is made to always include at least one popular piece, or a song of national, artistic, or patriotic interest; then on the programme the words of this song are printed. The audience may be asked to join in the chorus, but even if this is not practical the people can catch the air, and with the words before them in later days they can make melody in their homes. If we recall the class of people for whom these provisions are made, and keep in mind the limited avenues of enjoyment open to them, we will appreciate the boon of such a considerate act.

It might be tedious to enumerate the various classes here conducted, and give even in brief an outline of the methods, experiences, and results. Each lesson costs from two to four cents, and the pupils—many of whom have reached middle life—show a commendable zeal in prosecuting their studies. However, two topics deserve mention—the lessons in mending and in cooking. Since it is the poorer people who are to be benefited by the work of Our House, lessons in economy are needed, if not demanded, and the earlier opportunities for acquiring these lessons have been meager. The authorities have therefore wisely decided to so instruct the housewives of these people that their clothing may look well even if mended and the family meals be palatable though simple. It is believed that the result of such teaching will make many homes more attractive, and keep the men from seeking outside of the house conditions which they should find within.

The clubs also serve as valuable adjuncts to the work in hand. They are usually groups of persons of the same sex and near the same age who meet under the guidance of some experienced man or woman for social intercourse, for practice in debate, playing of chess, the reading of some standard author, or the discussion of places and peoples. In all of these meetings, as well as under all circumstances, the people in attendance are taught polite behavior by example rather than precept, and every precaution is taken to avoid any reflection or invidious comparisons that might tend to keep away the people whom Our House is intended to benefit.

A word might be said about the travel club. Early in each autumn a proposition is made that during the following summer a trip will be taken to such and such places, usually naming one near by, within the kingdom, and another farther away, as Brussels or the upper Rhine. Persons desiring to visit either of the places named unite in forming a club. They meet at stated times to listen to accounts of the place selected, its historical associations, and the points of interest en route, and also to pay into the treasury an amount agreed upon. For example, last summer one club, upon the saving of a cent a week by each member, was able to go to Haarlem and spend the day in seeing the city and the many places of interest in the neighborhood. In another, each member contributed ten cents a week, and the club was able to make a two days' trip to Brussels. By this simple means persons otherwise unable to go beyond the confines of their native city have the opportunity to get at least a glimpse of the outside world, and under such conditions and with such special preparations as to obtain from the trip the maximum interest and profit.

The only thing that is free in Our House is legal advice and the writing of legal documents. In Amsterdam, as elsewhere, the poorer people have too frequently an exaggerated idea as to their rights, and rush into "law" for fatuous protection. Such persons are liable to fall into the hands of unprincipled lawyers who help to nurse the fancied wrong and encourage a suit for damages, or put up an idle defense for the sole purpose of winning a fee. To protect this class by giving them the most unselfish advice possible, a number of the best lawyers of the city have cheerfully offered their services, and every Thursday evening from eight to twelve o'clock one or two stand ready to give gratuitously the best advice they can upon such legal points as may be presented. That this service is appreciated may be seen in the fact that from ten to twenty persons profit by this privilege every evening. On this evening persons are present for the purpose of writing letters for those unable to write, and also to draw up legal documents for such as need them.

Mr. Adma van Scheltema—a name closely identified with every good work in Amsterdam—has organized in Our House art loan exhibits. For one half of the days during which the exhibit is open there is no charge for admission, while a slight fee is exacted on the other days. From these exhibitions much pleasure as well as instruction has been derived, and, located in a section which sends but few visitors to the art museums, one can realize that they perform a good work, as missionaries in cultivating the people's taste.

Such is, in short, an account of a practical charity—a charity, in truth, not because something is furnished for nothing, but that so much is given in return for so little. During the past year more than three thousand persons were registered as enjoyers of the privileges offered. Mr. Janssen gave the building and in one sense endowed the work; Mr. Tours gives his time, wisdom, and energy in directing its affairs; they both ask the wiser men and women of the city to give a few hours of each month or year. They have not asked in vain, and the cheerful responses give promise of the coming of the time when the only answer to the question, "Am I my brother's keeper?" will be an energetic "Yes."