Industrialisation came late: on the one hand, because the Netherlands had only small deposits of the key raw materials coal and iron ore, and on the other, because the "Golden Age" was followed by a long period of economic stagnation: In the 18th century, important economic sectors such as shipbuilding, fishing and brewing, which had previously led Europe, declined. Textile production, established around Leiden, Delft and Haarlem, also fell behind the British competition; only the highly specialised silk weaving industry was able to hold its own.

The pillars of the economy were the highly productive agriculture sector, which produced meat and dairy products for export, and traditional trade - not least through the exploitation of the Dutch colonies in the Caribbean, South America and Southeast Asia. Dutch traded African slaves for the plantations in America, but profited even more from the goods produced by slaves, because in the 18th century the demand for coffee, tobacco and especially sugar exploded in Europe. Amsterdam became the hub of the worldwide colonial trade and merchants, bankers and shipbuilders, operators of sugar refineries and tobacco factories profited from it. In Rotterdam, the colonial goods shop Van Nelle, forerunner of the well-known tobacco company, was founded in 1782.

At the turn of the 19th century, The Netherlands came under French rule, in 1830 Belgium seceded and finally the country was on the brink of bankruptcy. During this crisis, the colony in what is now Indonesia contributed significantly to the economic recovery of the "mother country".  With the "cultivation system" introduced in Java in 1830, the colonial rulers forced the cultivation of the "cash crops" sugar cane, coffee and indigo, which were easy to market. The indigenous population, on the other hand, suffered from hunger because this left less land for rice fields.  Around the middle of the 19th century, the systematic exploitation of raw materials began on Java and Sumatra: private investments flowed into tin mines, oil fields and rubber plantations. After the controversial "cultivation system" was abolished in 1870, sugar cane plantations also boomed on the islands. Java and Sumatra were among the most profitable colonies under European rule until the 20th century.

What role these revenues played as the technologies of the industrial age gradually took hold in the Netherlands is still unclear.  In any case, they contributed to the construction of the railway network, which began in 1839 with the Amsterdam-Haarlem line, but was very slow due to the numerous, obstructive waterways and the preference of Dutch investors to invest their capital abroad. 

Symbolic, but if little consequence, was King Willems I's decision to protect the coastline from encroachment by the Haarlem Sea by using steam drainage pumps rather than the tried and tested windmills.  From 1849, three gigantic steam engines pumped out the water. The largest of its time, manufactured by an iron foundry in Cornwall, worked in the pumping station "De Cruquius", today a museum. After three years, Holland's largest inland lake had become an expanse of land, but other infrastructure projects were more beneficial.

Because the port of Amsterdam was becoming increasingly difficult to reach due to the increasing silting up of the Ijsselmeer, the construction of the North Sea Canal, a direct connection to the sea, began in 1865. Now new companies such as the Heineken and Amstel breweries settled in the city, shipbuilding and mechanical engineering expanded, and textile factories sprang up. The population doubled as more and more people moved from the agricultural regions to the industrial cities, which gradually began to flourish. When the prestigious Amsterdam Centraal main railway station was opened in 1889, the railway network had also expanded throughout the country.

Rotterdam also benefitted from the expansion of the transport routes. Since heavy industry boomed in the Ruhr area, transit trade across the Rhine had increased massively. To enable new, ever larger steamships serving the lucrative transatlantic route to use the port, a "New Waterway" to the North Sea was excavated from 1866. Massive expansion was the result. Thanks to a new bridge over the Meuse, trains could access the southern provinces and more port facilities were built on the south bank of the river. Finally, from 1906, the Waal harbour was excavated, the largest artificial harbour in the world.

Around the turn of the century, the boom reached its peak. The Netherlands profited from the typical industries of the "second industrialisation" and a number of world-famous companies emerged: as a light bulb factory, the "Philips" company was founded in Eindhoven in 1891. The "Dutch artificial silk factory Enka" and the pharmaceutical company "Organon", which later merged with the paint manufacturer "Sikkens" to form the "Akzo-Nobel" group, form part of a significant chemical sector. Two family businesses from the butter trade founded a margarine factory in 1871, which merged with a British soap manufacturer in 1929/30 to form the "Unilever" company. The continued growing importance of colonial trade is evidenced by the history of "Royal Dutch": founded in 1890 as one of the many companies drilling for crude oil in what is now Indonesia, it merged in 1907 with an up-and-coming British competitor, the former shell merchant Samuel Marcus, to form "Royal Dutch Shell".

In 1896, thanks to a new railway connection, large-scale mining of the country's only significant coal deposits began in Limburg, the southernmost province. Over the next thirty years, 12 mines erected their winding towers there and a densely populated industrial region developed around the cities of Kerkrade and Heerlen. Even the crises of the interwar period could not stop the momentum of the upswing: in 1919 the airline KLM was founded. On the initiative of some industrialists who wanted to reduce their dependence on steel imports, a large steel and rolling mill was built at the mouth of the North Sea Canal in 1920. But most of the labour force was already employed in the service sector at the beginning of the 20th century. This meant that the Netherlands was better equipped for the next structural change than it had been in previous periods of economic and industrial change.