In a Land of Giants, It’s a Small World, After All

badge_AmsterdamInterNationsCompared to other countries, Holland is the size of a postage stamp—about as big as Maryland, USA in land mass. California is nearly 12 times larger. Indeed, three hours on the clogged I-405 in my home state will get you from Los Angeles to Bakersfield. In contrast, you can travel through the entire Netherlands, from Maastricht in the south to Groningen near the northern tip, in the same amount of time.

As countries go, Holland is the size of a postage stamp, especially at Madurodam, showcasing the Netherlands in miniature.
As countries go, Holland is the size of a postage stamp, especially at Madurodam, an interactive park showcasing the Netherlands in miniature.

While Holland is tiny, it’s home to some 0f the world’s tallest people. The average male Dutchie is six-foot-one—four inches taller than most American males. Dutch girls also outstrip their American sisters in height, averaging five-foot-seven inches compared to a puny five-foot-four inch average in the USA.

It's a small world, even beyond Disney's amusement park ride.
It’s a small world, even beyond Disney’s amusement park ride.

A perfect storm of genetics, disease prevention, a protein- and dairy-rich diet, and a 95% child vaccination rate contribute to Dutchies’ robust stature. Some of the world’s best healthcare also helps, especially during prenatal and early childhood development, when it matters most. By studying ancestral skeletons, Leiden University’s Professor George Maat concludes, “Health, nutrition, living conditions, genetics—everything…goes down to one thing that represents all of that, and that is stature.”

Since the 17th century, the gap between rich and poor has narrowed in Holland.
Miniature statues depict upper class wealth and domesticity at Amsterdam’s Museum van Loon.

Government also can play a role in vertical superiority. According to economics history Professor J.W. Drukker of the University of Groningen, the mid-19th century Dutch growth spurt coincided with establishment of the first liberal democracy. Earlier, Holland grew rich off its colonies, but wealth remained in the hands of the elite. After democracy settled in, money trickled down to all societal levels. Incomes rose and average heights went up, narrowing the gap between rich and poor. Today, that gap remains narrow compared to countries like Chile, Mexico and America, land of opportunity, now 4th among countries in the developed world with the most uneven distribution of wealth.

Architecture reflects vertical evolution in Holland. While 16th century doorways might require average-height males to hunch, a new minimum for business and residential doorways is seven feet, eight inches—adequate for above-average Dutchies, as well as tangible evidence these giants have grown taller through the ages. And they’re still growing, vainly attempting to reach that elusive sun! Alas, they’ll never win that battle in the Netherlands.

In a land of giants, many things are tiny.
In a land of giants, many things are tiny.

At this point, you may be saying, “So what? Who cares if Dutchies are taller than Americans and virtually every other nationality? Does height really matter?” The truth about Holland’s soaring population goes deeper than a vertical measurement. Historically, tallness is among the most important indicators of a nation’s success, reflecting not only wealth but a country’s overall health and well-being. At the height of the Roman empire, Romans were the world’s tallest humans. America led for two centuries, reaching new heights during the frontier years. These days, the Dutch and Scandinavians rule, guaranteeing them the best seats at concerts around the world.

Dutchies' love for diminutives is reflected in their window collections.
Dutchies’ love for diminutives is reflected in their window collections.

Oddly, in this land of giants, diminutives are used ad nauseum to describe anything sweet, cute or funny. Just as Americans refer to a nice dog as a “doggie” or cute cate as a “kitty,” Dutchies add je (or a few other suffixes) to every other noun to indicate fondness, endearment or sometimes sarcasm. A dog (hond) or cat (kat) becomes a hondje or katje. Diminutives also can describe objects, i.e. a table (tafelje) or glass of beer (biertje). In some cases, the diminutive is embedded in a phrase, e.g. een goed woord doen (to put in a good word) is conventionally expressed as een goed woordje doen.

Find more highlights in my AFAR Guide to Amsterdam.

With their incessant emphasis on cuteness, Dutchies can sound like children trying to manipulate their parents. While growing upward not outward is their statistical pattern, they use the diminutive form for snacks they regularly consume—a kroketje, sateetje or patatje—possibly to minimize the calorific value of these deep-fried treats in their minds. To see the full force of their emphasis on small things, watch Dutch performer Wim Sonneveld stringing diminutives together for comic effect in this YouTube clip. Even if you don’t speak Dutch, it’s easy to recognize the je (sounds like “chuh”) sounds throughout.

The Weichman Hotel in the Jordaan sports a collection of teapots.
The Weichman Hotel sports a teapot collection.

Beyond language, Dutchies’ love for diminutives is expressed in their windows, usually sans coverings, open for all the world to see. With their Calvinist roots, they’re raised to believe they have nothing to hide. Rather than shrink from the world, they display collections of miniaturessome cute, whimsical or odd, others frankly bizarre.

Window collections can be funny, weird or just plain bizarre in Amsterdam.
Amsterdam window collections can be cute, funny, odd or frankly bizarre.

Which brings us to Madurodam, an interactive amusement park near Den Haag where a postage stamp-size country becomes even smaller. Here you can learn how Holland transformed itself in the Golden Age and became a destination with world-class cities and a rich historical legacy. In this small, small world laced with landmarks, historical scenes, battles and monuments at 1/25 scale, even shorties will feel like giants.

At Madurodam’s small world, even shorties can feel like giants.



  1. Fascinating. I had no clue about the correlation of height with a stable liberal democracy, economic viability and income equality. Good to know. Thanks, Melissa.

  2. Really interesting take on the spatial world. I’ve also just never heard the argument that height is an indicator for the welfare of the people. Thanks!

  3. This miniature city looks incredible! I would love to take a trip there on my trip through the Netherlands. As a six foot tall woman, I’m excited to meet some fellow tall people 🙂 I feel like a freak in most places! For an interesting look at the role of nutrition in height, check out the Dutch famine studies done in the mid 20th centuries…a fascinating look at how epigenetics modified the height and weight of a whole generation.

  4. This is my childhood dream come true. It’s like a land of dollhouses! However, I’d probably feel even more like a giant, being that I’m 5’8…

  5. I’ve made a note to visit Madurodam when I visit Den Haag… This reminds me of a similar miniature theme park in Australia’s capital Canberra, called Cockington Green. They have recreated many of the world famous architectural landmarks to scale. Visiting this place as a definitely sparked a life long keenness to see these places for real!

  6. Madurodam looks so interesting and cool! It must be amazing to see in person how developed and structured the whole country must look from the outside, in. I didn’t know that height contributed to success. At least I enjoy wearing heels since I’m only 5’5 for an American.

  7. Looks quite interesting 🙂
    definitely wanna go here..
    will look it up get directions..

    • It’s actually quite touristy. If you know a bit about culture + history in Holland, it’s more interesting…as well as strange to see a miniature country in miniature ;-).

  8. I love this entry! So symbolic how a nation’s health and success seems to be reflected through their height. I also love checking out tall, blond men so I can’t wait to set my eyes on some Dutchies 😉

  9. I knew that the US was falling behind in health ( and am working to change that and that we are also alarmingly inequitable (Pickety’s latest book is in my luggage for some heavy reading), but was not aware of this outward sign (height) of the discrepancies and the historical implications. A very informative and we’ll written piece with a healthy dose of humor. Thank you!

  10. Hi Melissa,
    Thanks to your blog, I got a subtle sense and illustration of this city. This blog is really different from any of the guidebook. I think I will definitely want to read more of your articles. With your point of view, I am getting to know the place deeper with curiosity. 🙂 I am looking forward to feeling the cute city already! thanks!

  11. Gosh, how interesting. This is the great thing about this blog – I started reading this article because I’ve always been interested in seeing miniature villages, so the photo drew me in & then I end up learning some fascinating new facts – what about people’s funny window collections – I’ll be looking out for these now. And what about the use of the diminutive je – I’m just fascinated by it. Here’s the funny thing though – the only Dutch man I know is somewhat diminutive in stature !!

    • OK, Vicki, you can call my cat Liefje (“little sweet” in Dutch) instead of just plain Lief! Regarding height: at 5’4″, you’re a giant in Thailand, but a midget in Holland. Context is everything.

  12. It reminds me of Gulliver’s Travels. I don’t know if there is any conncetion but hopefully I’ll find out soon.
    I’ve heard that the Netherladns is the fruit and vegetable market of the whole Europe, so I guess these kinds of foods are cheaper and the majority of people can afford it. Unfortunately in a lot of countries like US, small countries in Africa, or even my country, Iran (Persia), although the quality of soil is fine and the facilities are prepared, due to the lack of responsibility of officials and their mismanagement, not a large proportion of people can afford having a healthy and rich diet.

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