Would you pay 5,000 florins, or €2,000 for one tulip bulb? That is exactly what people did in 17th century Amsterdam. The latest fashion dictated that flowers were brought inside to cheer up the rooms. The wives of wealthy merchant were besotted with tulips, because they were so colourful. As with all new trends, friends showed off and wanted to outdo each other.
The most sought after were the rare frilly-leaved tulips. Seventeenth century painters included them in their paintings to attract attention much like glossy magazines of today exploit Gucci bags and Rolex watches. It was not until the 20th century that scientists figured out why these tulips were so difficult to grow. The frilly leaves and colourful streaks were symptoms of a virus.
Though tulips are often synonymous with Holland, they are native to central Asia and were originally cultivated by the Turks. In the 16th century, the Hapsburg ambassador in Constantinople (now Istanbul) took bulbs home to Vienna. Imperial botanist, Carolus Clusius propagated them. Later, he was appointed director of Botanical Garden in Leiden in the Netherlands, and discovered the tulip thrived in the Dutch climate. The soil was exactly right for bulb growing.
Initially, only wealthy merchants bought tulips, but rising prices attracted speculators. Bulbs were traded on local market exchanges, forerunners of today’s stock exchanges. By 1634, the tulip fever had spread to the middle class. It did not take long before dealing in tulips had become widespread. Speculators were not necessarily buying the actual bulb but bought contracts for future deliveries. They also margined their purchases, leveraging the amount invested into larger profits.
Speculators outbid each other. People paid over-the-top for the finest bulbs, which changed hands long before they bloomed. At the height of the frenzy the Semper Augustus variety fetched the equivalent of ten years’ wages for an average person. A skilled craftsman earned about 300 florins a year. The price of the Viceroy bulb held the same value as a canal house. Everyone joined the tulip mania. The painter Jan van Goyen was reputed to have paid 1,900 florins and two paintings for ten bulbs. A coach and team of horses changed hands for one hundred bulbs.
The tulip bubble reached its height in the years 1636 – 1637. Tulip traders made fortunes. As with all things overpriced, investors began to sell and take their profits. Then one day, a buyer failed to show up and pay for his bulb purchase. Tulips might be losing favour. The word circulated. Fear mounted. Panic spread and within days tulip bulbs were worth only a fraction of the former price. The tulip bubble had burst.
Merchants went bankrupt. Speculators were stuck with unsold bulbs that had been reserved but not yet paid for. The government considered the tulip rage a form of gambling and did not step in. Profits evaporated into thin air. Fortunately, the Dutch never gave up their love for the tulip. Even today, they continue to supply most of the bulbs in Europe and North America.
Visit Amsterdam Tulip Museum if you would like to know more about tulip cultivation in the Netherlands. Want to create your own Dutch garden at home? The museum shop stocks top quality Holland bulbs, choose your favourites or have them sent home. No garden? Take your pick from the large collection of antique, tulip-patterned tiles. Cards, posters, bags, pillows, all with tulip decorations make the perfect gift and are a tangible souvenir of your stay in Amsterdam. Or buy that special book which tells the history of the tulip.
HOW TO GET THERE:
15 mins on foot from Centraal station
Tram: 13,17 to Westerkerk
Bus: 21, 170,171,172 to Westerkerk
photo credit: semper augustus and viceroy wikipedia
tulips and daffodils – personal collection