Transformer columns or pepper shakers, Amsterdam

Amsterdam’s Pepper Shakers

Yes, you better believe it: Amsterdam has lots of pepper shakers on its streets. You have probably seen them every­where, without really registering them, because they are usually completely filled with posters for shows and exhibitions. They are actually transformer housings, providing electricity to a good part of their environment, at the same time doubling as advertising space which the city rents out. Most stem from the 1950s.

Transformer column or pepper shaker at Geldersekade, Amsterdam

Pepper shaker at Gelderse­kade (January 2020).

The originally iron transformer housings were designed in 1911 by architect Jo van der Mey — they are 4 m (13 ft) high and 1.9 m (6.2 ft) in diameter. The iron column rests on a brick foundation. The pointed hat on top is what earned them the nickname. There is one original Amsterdam iron one from 1911 in Diemen which is a national monument. The Zaans Museum in Zaandam shows one with historical posters.

Pepper shaker on Prinsengracht, Amsterdam, and me in front of a pepper shaker near Amstelveld, Amsterdam

Pepper shaker on Prinsen­gracht (July 2021) — Me in front of a (COVID-blue) pepper shaker near Amstel­veld (March 2021).

There is also one on display at the Nederl­ands Open­lucht­museum in Arnhem (Nether­lands Open Air Museum), where it can be admired together with a complete recon­struction of the 17th century slums of the Potten­bakkers­gang (Potter’s Alley) from the Amsterdam Jordaan district, which were moved there in 2012, bricks and wood and all.

Diagram from 1915-1930, electricity from transformer column to junction box to home

Diagram from 1915-1930 showing how elec­tricity is led from the trans­former column to a junction box to the homes (KEMA).

Officially called transformer columns, they were soon nick­named pepper shakers by the public. Or ads columns or glue columns — Amsterdammers like to nickname anything at least twice. The older ones have started to rust, so many were replaced by concrete ones in the same format. But in the coming years some 120 pepper shakers will be replaced, some with modern versions of the pepper shaker, some with new rectangular trans­former boxes. On the Schinkel­kade an iron one and a concrete one once stood side by side.

Rusty iron pepper shaker at Krommeniestraat, Amsterdam

A rusty iron pepper shaker at Krommenie­straat near the Spaarn­dammer­plantsoen (July 2021).

Advertising Spaces

The city rents out the outside of the transformer stations for advertising posters for cultural events, some 640 A0-size spaces are available since 1996. Each pepper shaker can hold 15-18 posters. There are also 60 so-called special columns, which can be rented for full height posters. During the COVID years, many pepper shakers were completely blue, as there were no cultural events to anounce.

Two pepper shakers on Prinsengracht near Leidsestraat, Amsterdam

Two pepper shakers on Prinsen­gracht near Leidse­straat (February 2022).

Pepper shaker on Prinsengracht, looking towards Vijzelstraat, Amsterdam

Pepper shaker on Prinsen­gracht, looking towards Vijzel­straat (March 2022).

Architect Jo van der Mey

Jo (Joan) van der Mey (1878-1949), the man who designed the pepper shakers, was employed by the city as a civic aesthetic consultant — Amsterdam was the first city in the world to enforce a building code in 1901 (Woningwet). He created the façade for the labora­tory building at the Hortus Botanicus, designed bridges and housing complexes in the Amsterdam Zuid district and around the Mercator­plein, but he is best known for his work on the Scheep­vaart­huis (Shipping House). He is, together with Michel de Klerk (who designed the housing complex Het Schip) and Piet Kramer, an important representative of the Amsterdam School of architecture.

Pepper shaker on Van de Veldestraat, Amsterdam

Pepper shaker on Van de Velde­straat (February 2022).

Weteringschans with pepper shaker, Amsterdam

Weteringschans with pepper shaker (March 2022).