Tea, coffee and tobacco
Similar to many large companies, the story of Van Nelle business started with a small shop. In 1782, Johannes van Nelle opened a coffee, tea and tobacco shop at the Leuvehaven in Rotterdam. After the death of the founders, their son continued to run the company, selling a stake to the Van der Leeuw family who took over the entire company in 1845.
Coffee, tea and tobacco became increasingly important around the turn of the century. This contributed to the success of the family Van Der Leeuw who established worldwide trade contracts and founded their own coffee and tea plantations in Dutch West India.
The company distinguished itself by an original business approach, including appealing advertising characters Piggelmee and Tureluur, a couple of dwarfs experiencing various adventures related to coffee. They featured on both packaging and merchandise.
In 1916, the company bought a site close to Schie, a waterway in Rotterdam. The construction of the famous factory took place between 1927 and 1929.
The first daylight factory in Europe
Van Nelle was designed as an ‘ideal factory’ with the modular design making it possible to adjust the space according to functions and needs.
Each of the processed gods – tobacco, coffee and tea used a separate section of the building and its form and size responded to the processing needs. The principal idea was to start by bringing the raw material to the top of the buildings to go down a floor after each stage of the treatment plant.
This explains the difference in heights – the tobacco section consisted of eight, coffee of five and tea of three levels. The characteristic overpasses between the buildings were an efficient way to transport materials between the buildings.
Instead of bearing walls, concrete pillars were used to support the building. The steel and glass facade opened the factory to the outside world and enabled the workers to take advantage of the daylight.
Attention to workers’ well being
Allowing the daylight in the building was already an answer to workers’ discontent and an important component of Van Nelle’s attractiveness as a workplace.
The owners valued the well-being of the employee thinking that a happy and proud worker will be more productive. The factory was surrounded by green spaces and water. The facilities were similar to those offered by contemporary start-ups: sports fields for an after-work training, a garden, a dining room and even a library.
The sanitary facilities were excellent for the times. The only way to enter the factory was through gender-segregated staircases, leading to cloakrooms and bathrooms, to ensure the hygiene on the work floor. The availability of showers at the factory was, for the time, an unprecedented luxury.
UNESCO World Heritage
The factory ceased operations in 1996. A complete restoration began in 1998. Both the architecture of the factory and its structure have been preserved in their original state.
In June 2014, Van Nelle Factory was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site. At the moment, the factory houses an office complex, various meeting spaces, a restaurant and a gym. It hosts various events – parties, concerts, vintage markets.
If reading about this amazing industrial heritage site got you excited, we have good news: you can visit the Van Nelle Factory through a guided tour organized by
Chabot Museum in Rotterdam. Put it on your to-do list when visiting this great city!
By Aleksandra Strzelichowska, Europeana Foundation
Europe at Work: Share your Story
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