The old Delft, the birthplace of Johannes Vermeer, was undoubtedly one of the most characteristic little towns of seventeenth-century Holland. We say "little town" when thinking of towns such as Amsterdam, Rotterdam and The Hague, which far surpassed her in size and the number of inhabitants, but it would be mistaken to consider her as a more or less out-of-the-way and isolated community, like one of the "quiet towns" of today. Delft, however secluded her situation might appear, was in reality a town full of life and business. When a chronicler such as Dirck van Bleyswijck in 1667 undertook to write the history of the place where he lived, that is proof that the town had become sufficiently important, that is to say, had a lively past and present, both worth recording. The author, Vermeer's contemporary, deals chiefly in the second part of his book with the Delft of his day and gives us a picture of its appearance and the many various events in the town during the artist's lifetime.
Delft, like that of all other Dutch places, was dominated by its towers: the Oude and the Nieuwe Kerk, together with many smaller spires of the earlier monasteries and chapels, gave the town her prickly silhouette. Girdled by the high, solid and frowning walls, interrupted by massive gates, bastions and watch-towers, the city lay safe, but with a rather forbidding appearance, in the middle of the verdant Dutch meadows.
The town itself was bisected by the Old Delft (Delft = stream, river), to which the city owes its name, and which in those times carried all the traffic of the neighborhood, by means of ships and boats. Within the solid ring of defense-works the life of an industrious and characteristic citizenry went on. Delft was of old a town of beer-brewing. In the beginning of the century one could count more than a hundred breweries, and about 1670 there were still some fifteen working. Various reasons had contributed to the decline. But the owners did not lose courage. They established a new business in their factories, which since 1600 constantly increased in prosperity until about 1670 it had grown into an industry, which today is tile world-famous: the manufacture of china, the so-called "Delft-Blue." Already in the beginning of the century we read of "faience potters or tile painters" or, as van Bleyswijck says, "makers of Delft Porcelain," the number of which he estimated at about twenty- eight, to prove that the article was in general demand, "because Dutch Porcelain is nowhere wrought more subtly or delicately than in this town, in which they seem to copy the Chinese to perfection."