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In Willem Elsschot's Cheese, the narrator Laarmans bemoans the fact that his job involves selling full-cream edam imported from the Netherlands:

It's strange, but to me there was something revolting and ridiculous about this commodity. I'd have preferred it if I could have traded in something else, flowers, for example, or light bulbs, which after all are also specifically Dutch.

Elsschot, Willem. Cheese. 1933. Trans. Paul Vincent. London: Granta, 2002. p. 26.

In English, of course, the juxtaposition of flowers, Dutch, and bulbs in the context of trading suggests tulip mania, and I wondered briefly whether Elsschot was using this reference to foreshadow the failure of Laarmans' business enterprise. But (a) I don't know that bulbs would be used to refer to tulips in the original Flemish/Dutch, and (b) in any case, Laarmans says light bulbs. So: What is specifically Dutch about light bulbs?

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    The original is: "’t Zou mij liever geweest zijn indien ik in iets anders had mogen handelen, bijvoorbeeld bloembollen of gloeilampen, die toch ook specifiek Hollands zijn." A more literal translation of the bolded text would be "for example, flower bulbs or light bulbs". (Cut flowers are simply "bloemen".) Also note the assonance between "bloembollen" and "gloeilampen" that makes this work better in Dutch than in English.
    – avid
    Commented May 28 at 7:55
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    Further to @Tsundoku 's comment - Philips lightbulb company was originally named ~~~= "Philips gloeilampen fabriceren.". I have visited the "original" factory. It was bombed flat by their friends in WW2 and carefully rebuilt thereafter. Commented May 29 at 10:53

1 Answer 1

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This is an allusion to the product that the Dutch company Philips was originally famous for: its light bulbs.

Gerard Philips en zijn vader Frederik richtten in 1891 het bedrijf Philips op. In eerste instantie begon het bedrijf als een gloeilampenfabriek. Philips fabriceerde met zoveel succes gloeilampen dat zij in de daaropvolgende jaren in staat was veel concurrerende gloeilampfabrikanten op te kopen. In 1908 volgde de overname van een machinefabriek, waarna Philips eigen machines kon maken om de gloeilampen te fabriceren.

(Source: Geschiedenis van Philips (IsGeschiedenis.nl; no date).)

Translation:

Gerard Philips and his father Frederik founded the Philips company in 1891. The company initially started as a light bulb factory. Philips manufactured incandescent lamps so successfully that in the following years it was able to buy up many competing incandescent lamp manufacturers. In 1908, Philips took over a machine factory, after which Philips was able to make its own machines to manufacture the light bulbs.

For people living in Flanders (like Elsschot), light bulbs were almost synonymous with "Philips", even though other brands existed (e.g. those from other members of the Phoebus cartel that existed at the time).

For other sources about this, see:

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