Tulips from Amsterdam - the Tulip Mania of 1632

3 February 1637, the “Tulip Mania” in the Netherlands ended with the first stock market crash in history.

“When it's Spring again I'll bring again / Tulips from Amsterdam“  
(Max Bygraves)

“A Satire of Tulip Mania by Brueghel the Younger (ca. 1640) depicts speculators as brainless monkeys in contemporary upper-class dress. In a commentary on the economic folly, one monkey urinates on the previously valuable plants, others appear in debtor's court and one is carried to the grave.“ (Wikipedia)

In days of yore, when education counted for something, back then during the Northern Renaissance, it was customary for the cultured classes to run a Kunstkabinett or Wunderkammer, a cabinet of curiosity, microcosms of the theatre of the world. The collections exhibited were usually divided into “naturalia”, curious objects like ostrich eggs, rare picturesque minerals or narwhal tusks and “artificialia”, works of art. Experts were a bit at a loss, though, about how to classify man-bred flowers that began to rampantly grow in numbers as exhibits in cabinets of curiosity. Clearly, they belonged to the “naturalia”, but weren’t they artificially enhanced by breeders to become things of wondrous beauty? The scholarly dispute lasted for years, while one flower, during the mid 1500s still a genuine insider tip for collectors, began to conquer the gardens especially in the Netherlands and added to the “Dutch Miracle” of the dawning Golden Age of the 17th century. It was the tulip and it caused a downright tulip mania.

Hendrik Gerritsz Pot (1580 - 1657): "Flora's wagon of Fools" (1637)

The Dutch East India Company, the first multinational corporation the world had ever seen, financed by shares traded at the Amsterdam Stock Exchange, also the first of its kind, paved the way for considerable wealth available to a growing middle class along as well as familiarisation with the idea of short selling. Betting on the return of an East Indiaman laden with the exotic goods from India, Cathay and Yatpun, Japan, became as natural as waiting for the dormant phase of tulips between June and September, when its back then rather vulnerable bulbs could be safely moved about. A risky business, especially because no tulip grower knew exactly how his breeds came about, the ”Generael der Generaels van Gouda“, the “Gold Fabric”, "Schoone Helena“, Beautiful Helen and the “Semper Augustus”, growing from a bulb worth a town house on the grachten-gordel, the canal-belt of Amsterdam. Nevertheless, future contracts were signed, bulbs and flowers were traded as status symbols by everyone who could like there was no tomorrow. And maybe there wasn’t, who knew, with the brutal Thirty Years War’ raging right around the corner, the Dutch Seventeen Provinces’ own Eighty Years’ War against Spain under way and plagues and what not threatening. It might explain the amounts of money risked and spent to own a thing or even a garden full of beauty.

Probably the most expensive growth the world has ever seen:
A Semper Augustus tulip (contemporary illustration)

There were attempts made over controlling the worst investment excesses of the tulip market during the 1630s when the tulip mania reached its peak, but they were, as usually, ignored until one day, after prices climaxed on February 3rd 1637 on the market in Haarlem, the last day of the speculative bubble was recorded on February 5th – four days later, none of the bulbs on the market in Alkmaar fetched the estimated prices, nobody could sell them with a profit anymore and the bubble burst. The effects on Dutch Golden Age economy were probably limited though. Even if all walks of life tried to participate and benefit from the mania, it was the florists, in a rare occurrence in economic history, who bore the brunt of the catastrophe. And while Flora, goddess of flowers, was condemned as a whore in contemporary polemics and pictures of tulips were published with the headline “Een dwaes en zijn gelt zijn haest ghescheijden”, a fool and his money are soon parted, along with various depictions of investors wearing dunce caps, the Dutch Seventeen Provinces continued to dominate trade and culture of Northern Europe during the 17th century and the tulip mania remains a milestone in the collection of “Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds“ as Charles Mackay put it in 1841.

And more about the Tulip Mania on: