art history · european history · history

A Mania for Tulips! The Economic Craze that Rocked the Dutch Republic

Take a moment to imagine that by selling a single tulip bulb that you would be able to pay off your entire house. You could even use that profit to buy a better and grander house. You could get that nice car you always dreamed about just by selling a single bulb! Not even the flower itself! This may sound crazy or just wishful thinking, but during the 1630s in the Dutch Republic a Tulip Mania occurred!

I don’t have the proper conversion between 17th century guilders to today’s American currency, but from my research I have found comparisons. Mike Dash, author of Tulipomania, describes that in 1633 one bulb of Semper Augustus was worth 5,000 guilders which quickly rose to 10,000 guilders by 1637. He states “It was enough to feed, clothe and house a whole Dutch family for half a lifetime, or sufficient to purchase one of the grandest homes on the most fashionable canal in Amsterdam for cash, complete with a coach house and an 80ft garden…” To me this is just incredible, but you have to remember that tulips were much rarer during this period and many of the most expensive bulbs were unique strains of the flower.

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Semper Augustus. The most valuable Tulip of the Mania.

Tulips really did not appear in Europe until about 1559 and these were typically in private gardens and were still virtually unknown. It is documented that there were some growing in the garden of Johann Heinrich Herwart who was a councilor in the Holy Roman Empire. Scientists such as Conrad Gesner began to study the new flower and its popularity began to spread. For years the tulip had already been very popular in the Ottoman Empire and actually originated in Asia. By 1050 the tulip was beloved in Persia and was viewed as an important symbol (perfection, eternity and beauty). This idea spread to the Ottoman Empire as the rulers began to create beautiful gardens. They enjoyed the tulips for their beauty. For the Turks, the tulip became a holy symbol. Since the tulip bows its head when it is fully bloomed it was seen to be bowing before God and became a symbol of modesty as well. To sum up, the Turks highly respected the tulip plant and it was very valuable to them.

Under Suleiman the Magnificent (16th century) the tulip was becoming more common and growers began to experiment with breeding new varieties. There were gardeners who devoted their lives to this. Eventually, the tulip made its way to Europe for the first time in the 16th century.

This brings us to Carolus Clusius who was a famous botanist during this time and spent years studying this new flower. He wrote about his studies and was in constant correspondence with his friends all over Europe telling them of the flowers he had encountered on his travel. He is important to this story because he really got the word out to Europe about the tulip along by distributing specimens. He discovered the great diversity among different tulips and how this flower had the most varieties of any other that he studied. He cataloged many of these different tulips. He created the base for other florists to expand on.

Once techniques to cross breed tulips and create hybrids were perfected, the more valuable the flower became worth. “The most favored tulips were those that exhibited the most perfect petals and the most eye-catching markings” Dash explains in his book. Rosen, Violetten and Bizarden were the most popular varieties in the Dutch Republic. Clusius was fascinated how from one year the bulb could produce a single color flower, but the next year a multi color pattern (apparently later it was learned this was due to a disease, but ironically these became the most valuable).

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In the beginning the tulip was something rich Europeans with an excess amount of cash could spend their money on. Though there were many flower enthusiasts like Clusius who appreciated and collected the flower to study. The fashion for tulips started in France and then the French ideas spread to the Netherlands. In Europe the tulip became a “symbol of wealth and good taste.” The Netherlands were experiencing their Golden Age and was becoming one of the wealthiest countries during the 16th century. Wealthy Dutchmen began collecting these tulips and the rarest ones were the most desired. The tulip trade began with an interest in the flower itself and the beauty of it. The Semper Augustus was the most desired variety of the tulip due to its rarity and color pattern. Not far behind was the Viceroy and the Bizarden in value. The tulips that were worth the least where the single colored varieties as they were the most common (and turns out not diseased!).

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Yet, the trade began to change when others besides floral connoisseurs noticed how much money could be made from simple plants. Many citizens began to see that the bulb trade was something worth investing in to make a profit. Despite the Netherlands being in their Golden Age, the majority of the Dutch citizens struggled to live day by day. A typical worker would labor sixteen hours a day and six days a week in order to care for their families. If they could find an opportunity like this to make an additional wage then it was worth it. Dash describes how many different people decided to take up the tulip trade and become amateur florists; they included weavers, bricklayers, carpenters, bookbinder. Even some lawyers and clergy got in on the action! Soon all varieties of tulips were rising in price as the demand increased! By the winter of 1636, tulip prices were doubling in just over a week.

Remember how earlier I talked about Semper Augustus rising to 10,000 guilders so quickly? That amount of money would have been able to keep a Dutch family fed and sheltered for decades!

In 1635 the way the structure of the trade began to change. Those who were not interested in the tulip itself, but the profit it made came up with a new plan of action. They began to make offsets of the “mother bulb” which the sellers “guaranteed” would become the desired flower they were selling for. This was riskier for the buyer because now the trade was not backed by actual mother bulbs and plants, but the promise of an offset bulb. These offset bulbs had not been grown yet, so, in reality, it was not known exactly what they would have grown to be. Promissory notes were exchanged which guaranteed the proper breed of tulip while still sold it for the ever growing price for that breed. The sellers could make the extraordinary profits without even having to grow the plant! The sales allowed the trading of tulips to be done all year round and not just the spring/summer when the tulips would grow. Since the majority of traders were now just in it for the profit these promissory notes would be bought and sold without even knowing what the flower was behind it! Who knew if this living product was being properly cared for! Abraham de Goyer (a prominent tulip trader) had bought two of the Paragon Schilder variety for a high price expecting a rare and colorful variety, but when they actually flowered they were just the basic unicolored tulip that was worth nothing. He trusted the system and lost when the bulbs that were promised did not pan out.

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The flowers did not matter any more just what they represented. The Dutch were gambling on future prices and sometimes the same promissory note for bulbs was exchanged multiple times a day. These amateur traders would use all their savings to invest in this tulip trade and become involved with the profits that could be made. It was as if they just expected the prices to keep going up and up indefinitely.

Most (but not all) of the Tulip Mania took place in tavern auctions where, for a few hours, chaos ensued as everyone who was anyone was clamoring trying to get their hands on a valuable flower or make a profit. This happened in taverns all over the Dutch Republic and this was all run by mostly the amateurs who just wanted a profit rather than the actually collectors and growers. People watched in amazement as the Winkel orphans (having sold their deceased fathers collection of tulips) became rich overnight. They took home profits that were “forty times the annual income of a typical artisan family.”

Yet, one day this mania just stopped. The taverns in February 1637 saw no bidders and it was like the interest just vanished. People began to panic thinking of the bulbs they had bought (that were going for nothing now) and the savings that they lost! Everyone went crazy to sell everything they had to the almost non existent buyers. The lack of confidence in the market was probably not sudden. As the prices kept going up and up traders must have been nervous about when they were finally going to inevitably fall down. Many faced ruin as they had to come to terms with the debt they took on to get into the trade. Though the market may have fallen the traders were still locked in to fulfilling the promissory notes they had agreed to. People began to accuse others of not fulfilling their end in an attempt to get their money back as well causing a great influx of court cases in the months after the crash.

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Jan Brueghal the Younger, Satire on Tulip Mania, c 1640

This spelled the end of the quick profit that could be made off a single bulb. Again, all that was left was the wealthiest collectors who still took an interest in the flower, but others no longer cared. The more religious of the Dutch citizens, who had always been critics of the mania, used this opportunity to scold the traders for their greed and excess. They should have shown more moderation.

Unfortunately, today you cannot take the tulips growing out of your backyard and sell them for a price of a house. Tulips have become too common in our modern age to be anything of value and many of the rare varieties of that time are extinct. Yet, we can still appreciate their beauty.

I found this story so interesting when I first learned that a tulip had been worth so much and I was glad I could spend some time sharing it with others. I apologize that I have been on a bit of a hiatus with the blog, but I hope to get back on track soon!

Further Reading:

TulipoMania by Mike Dash

I first heard of the tulip mania in the BBC History Magazine (I believe the February edition)

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