From coffee, tea and tobacco to UNESCO: Rotterdam’s Van Nelle Factory

view of factory across a canal with trees and shrubs in foreground

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.

Square pink tea can with a Chinese dragon and a lotus flower, Rectangular blue coffee tin by Van Nelle with a Piggelmee dwarf offering a lady a cup of coffee, Deventer musea, CC BY-SA

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.

RELATED: Read our blog about connections between tea and literature

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. 

RELATED: See the factory in these photographs of a group visiting in the late 1950s

Van Nelle Factory Rotterdam; Overview of the factory complex. Seen from the entrance of Nelleweg, Nanette de Jong, Beeldbank van de Rijksdienst voor het Cultureel Erfgoed, CC BY-SA

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.

Van Nelle Factory Rotterdam; ‘Mushroom’ columns on the office floor, Nanette de Jong, Beeldbank van de Rijksdienst voor het Cultureel Erfgoed, CC BY-SA

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.

RELATED: Explore more modern photos of Rotterdam’s Van Nelle Factory

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.

A lie down concert by Jeroen van Veen in Van Nelle Factory, Aleksandra Strzelichowska, CC BY-SA

RELATED: More photographs of factories in this ‘In the factory’ gallery

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

Did you or your family work in the Van Nelle Factory? Share your story and help us tell the story of Europe through our working lives in the past and the present.

photograph of man working in a factory surrounded by machines, the words 'Share your story' and a logo saying 'Europe at Work' are above

Feature image: Van Nelle Fabriek Rotterdam, Nanette de Jong, Beeldbank van de Rijksdienst voor het Cultureel Erfgoed, CC BY-SA

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