Tulipomania: When Tulips Sold For The Price of a House

March 5, 2014 by

Gracefull Tulip Bahman Farzad
Photo by Bahman Farzad

When modern gardeners think of Holland we invariably think of tulips. The vast majority of tulip bulbs sold today come from Holland and it is hard for a gardener to think of the Dutch without images of Keukenhof coming to mind. But the tulip is not native to Holland. It is, in fact native to Central Asia and was introduced to Holland by the Dutch botanist Carolus Clusius , who in 1593, brought a selection of tulip bulbs from Constantinople to his home and planted them in his garden.

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Unfortunately Clusius had some dishonest neighbors who stole some of the bulbs right out from under his nose and sold them. This was the rather inauspicious start of the now heralded Dutch bulb trade.

Over the next few decades tulips began to grow in popularity and became something of a fad amongst the wealthy. The bulbs began to increase in price until a single bulb could be sold for a sum equal to the cost of a modest home. Thus began Tulipomania, the world’s first futures market.

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What, you might ask, would bring someone to pay such an exorbitant price for a plant? Some economists have pondered that very thought. Brown University economist Peter Garber reasons that the outbreak of the bubonic plague during that period may have made people increasingly willing to take risks having learned first hand that life was capricious.

Since tulips were bought on the promise that a flower would sprout from a bulb in the ground, Earl Thompson, the late UCLA professor of economics, has theorized that Tulipomania was a reaction to an anticipated government conversion of futures contracts into options contracts, thus lowering the risk of buying something that didn’t yet exist.

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Records from the time indicate people coveted owning a flower that had such unusually bright coloring the likes of which had not been seen in Holland at the time, one which the Dutch found to be an unusually exquisite. According to Mike Dash, author of Tulipomania: The Story of the World’s Most Coveted Flower, ”It is impossible to comprehend the tulip mania without understanding just how different tulips were from every other flower known to horticulturists in the 17th century. The colors they exhibited were more intense and more concentrated than those of ordinary plants.”

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As a tulip lover myself, I like Dash’s explanation. I like to think the reason for Tulipomania was the beauty of the flower. In the early 1600’s, Holland was in its Golden Age. Money that had previously been used to fight for the country’s independence from Spain was now going into commerce. Holland was becoming a wealthier nation with Amsterdam merchants at the heart of the lucrative West Indies trade. A popular way to assert one’s success was to a build large estate with an even larger garden. It is difficult for us in this modern era to understand, but having a large flower garden in the 1600’s was considered in many parts of Europe to be one of the best ways to not only show one’s wealth, but also to exhibit to others that one was cultured. And for the Dutch at the time, there was no better flower to have in their gardens than a rare tulip.

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According to an article in The Big Picture by James Narron and David Skeie, “By late January 1637, isolated florists sold their holdings and failed to reinvest. Other florists took notice. By the first week of February 1637, the boom ended with a crash that began at an auction in Haarlem.” Alas, the unsustainable and unstable tulip bubble burst.

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Economists differ in opinion about the extent of Tulipomania on the Dutch economy. Some say that it had great impact, others stating that it did little to effect the Dutch economy as the trade only existed amongst a select few. Either way, I find it wonderful to think that a plant could have that much effect on an entire nation. There is also much debate about how many people were involved in the buying and selling of tulip bulbs for such enormous sums of money, but I would be lying if I were to say I didn’t like the idea of the tulip, a thing of ephemeral beauty, bringing an entire nation to its knees.

Welcome our newest Urban Gardens contributor, Nicole Brait. Born and raised in the Philadelphia suburbs to a father who had the biggest vegetable garden in the neighborhood, Nicole is the owner and principle designer at Sustain Landscape Design, a landscape design firm dedicated to designing sustainable gardens with unique personality.

Unless otherwise noted, all images via Colorblends.

 

  • The Lazy Gardener

    Informative history, thanks. Many ancient Turkish ceramics have tulips in their motif.

  • Evelyn M

    Really enjoyed the article. I will be looking for it on your Facebook page to share the link

  • paul hughes

    I really enjoyed reading this! I also love the bright colors and beauty of tulips – and, as an economist, I like reading about what may have been the first speculative bubble. History doesn’t repeat itself exactly, but it DOES rhyme.

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