Fly up front with KLM Royal Dutch Airlines, and you're gifted something with lasting appeal.
Advertisement

If you fly first class, perhaps you're looking forward to more than just a comfortable bed in the sky. A long-haul experience in a premium cabin can include all sorts of add-ons, from a gourmet meal to your own set of pajamas. Low on this list of perks is the amenity kit: a smattering of scented lotions, assorted travel-sized gels, socks, and eyeshades that many passengers don't even take off the plane.

Fly up front with KLM, however, and you're gifted something with lasting appeal. In fact, fans of the Dutch airline have been collecting its signature keepsake for decades. Behold, one of the most celebrated in-flight amenities in the history of commercial aviation: the Delft Blue House.

The Delft Blue Houses of KLM with Bols Genever served in flight
Credit: Courtesy of KLM

Identifiable by its blue-and-white glaze, Delftware is a style of pottery that's been associated with the eponymous Dutch city since the mid-17th century. While touring the Netherlands you'll see it everywhere — molded into dishware, tulip-lined vases, tiling, even beer mugs. Since 1952, KLM has commissioned the porcelain into another sort of novelty altogether: a series of miniature houses, each one modeled after a life-size historic building found somewhere across the country.

"The houses are presented to customers on all business intercontinental flights and have become a collector's item across the globe," a representative for the airline told Travel + Leisure. The term 'presented' actually undersells the experience, which plays out more like a pre-landing ritual.

The Delft Blue Houses of KLM with Bols Genever
Credit: Courtesy of KLM

Flight attendants pass through the cabin with a tray of dutifully arranged ceramics. Experienced passengers, in turn, pull up a dedicated app on their smartphones. They then cross-reference the numbers on the backs of each house, ensuring they're adding a fresh model to the collection.

"Production was random until 1994," the KLM rep added. "[Back then] a number of houses were produced one after another, then none for several years. An extra 15 houses were produced in 1994 in honor of KLM's 75th anniversary. This brought the number to exactly 75 and the number of houses in the series has kept pace with KLM's age ever since."

This made for an especially auspicious unveiling on the evening of October 7, 2019, when the airline (the world's oldest) commemorated its centennial with the release of house number 100. It was a faithful replica of the Huis ten Bosch, King Willem-Alexander's royal palace in The Hague. The Dutch monarch — who is actually a KLM pilot, himself — gave final approval for the model.

Although KLM doesn't sell these souvenirs, you can find some on the secondary market where older iterations fetch upward of $10,000 at auction. Pricey porcelain, indeed. But at least it comes loaded with a locally sourced liquor: 35 milliliters of genever, to be precise. This juniper-infused style of spirit is native to Holland; a historic antecedent of gin.

"The first houses were filled with Bols Genever [starting] in the 1980s," said the KLM spokesperson, referring to the 450-year-old Amsterdam distillery. "Prior to that they contained a liqueur or gin from the long-established Dutch distilleries Rynbende and Henkes. Given the alcohol policies in a number of destinations in the Middle East, KLM handed out house-shaped ashtrays for a little while."

The Delft Blue Houses of KLM in Amsterdam
Credit: Courtesy of KLM

Around 79,000 liquid-less houses are still loaded onto KLM aircraft each year, compared to 800,000 genever-filled variations. Safeguarding the adult beverage within the ceramic is a cork stopper along the roof, which is sealed under wax. It was actually the liquor inside that served as the loophole allowing Delft Blue Houses to become one of the very first airline amenities.

"[Back in 1952] air companies were not allowed to give presents to their customers because of unfair competition," said the airline's rep. "So, we had the houses made and filled them with genever. [Our] competitors complained that we were giving presents to our customers. But we asked if we may decide how we serve our drinks. Is there a law which tells me drinks have to be served in a glass?" There wasn't. And that's how it all started.

Seventy years later, it has grown into a global phenomenon. Every day, business-class passengers scuttle in and out of KLM lounges in Schiphol where a dedicated exchange exists behind the customer service counter. A book has been released chronicling the history behind each house in the collection. Since 2004, the annual winner of the KLM Open golf tournament receives their own enlarged Delft Blue mockup of Amsterdam's Royal Palace. Each year, the airline gets thousands of requests for the next landmark to be rendered in porcelain.

What's next? Only the CEO of KLM knows what exactly will land at the company's 103rd birthday party this October. In the meantime, you can be certain that aviation geeks will remain hot on the trail of the ones already in circulation. After all, this isn't some heartless handout. By combining such recognizable components of Dutch life into a handheld collectible, KLM has birthed something that's more cultural touchstone than mere amenity. Good luck getting your first-class pajamas to top that.