Raised in Delft, in the Dutch Republic, van Leeuwenhoek worked as a draper in his youth and founded his own shop in 1654. He became well recognized in municipal politics and developed an interest in lensmaking. In the 1670s, he started to explore microbial life with his microscope. This was one of the notable achievements of the Golden Age of Dutch exploration and discovery (c. 1590s–1720s).
Using single-lensed microscopes of his own design, van Leeuwenhoek was the first to experiment with microbes, which he originally referred to as animalcules (from Latin animalculum = "tiny animal"). Through his experiments, he was the first to relatively determine their size. Most of the "animalcules" are now referred to as unicellular organisms, although he observed multicellular organisms in pond water. He was also the first to document microscopic observations of muscle fibers, bacteria, spermatozoa, red blood cells, crystals in gouty tophi, and blood flow in capillaries. Van Leeuwenhoek did not write any books; his discoveries came to light through correspondence with the Royal Society, which published his letters.
Antonie van Leeuwenhoek was born in Delft, Dutch Republic, on 24 October 1632. On 4 November, he was baptized as Thonis. His father, Philips Antonisz van Leeuwenhoek, was a basket maker who died when Antonie was only five years old. His mother, Margaretha (Bel van den Berch), came from a well-to-do brewer's family. She remarried Jacob Jansz Molijn, a painter. Antonie had four older sisters, Margriet, Geertruyt, Neeltje, and Catharina. When he was around ten years old his step-father died. He attended school in Warmond for a short time before being sent to live in Benthuizen with his uncle, an attorney. At the age of 16 he became a bookkeeper's apprentice at a linen-draper's shop in Amsterdam, which was owned by the Scot William Davidson. Van Leeuwenhoek left there after six years.
Van Leeuwenhoek married Barbara de Mey in July 1654, with whom he fathered one surviving daughter, Maria (four other children died in infancy). That same year he returned to Delft, where he would live and study for the rest of his life. He opened a draper's shop, which he ran throughout the 1650s. His wife died in 1666, and in 1671, Van Leeuwenhoek remarried to Cornelia Swalmius with whom he had no children. His status in Delft had grown throughout the years. In 1660 he received a lucrative job as chamberlain for the assembly chamber of the Delft sheriffs in the city hall, a position which he would hold for almost 40 years. In 1669 he was appointed as a land surveyor by the court of Holland; at some time he combined it with another municipal job, being the official "wine-gauger" of Delft and in charge of the city wine imports and taxation.
Van Leeuwenhoek was a contemporary of another famous Delft citizen, the painter Johannes Vermeer, who was baptized just four days earlier. It has been suggested that he is the man portrayed in two Vermeer paintings of the late 1660s, The Astronomer and The Geographer, but others argue that there appears to be little physical similarity. Because they were both relatively important men in a city with only 24,000 inhabitants, it is likely that they were at least acquaintances; Van Leeuwenhoek acted as the executor of Vermeer's will after the painter died in 1675.