Tulipmania, the Bizarre Dutch Tulip Craze of the 17th Century

By Stephanie Weber

You’ve heard of housing booms, tech booms, and even Beanie Baby booms – but what about tulips? Yes, all of those economic crashes owe it all to their humble predecessor: the tulip. This uniquely shaped spring flower was once considered so valuable that it was bought and traded as though it were as valuable as gold.

Tulips even began to be used as a form of money in their own right around 1633 when actual properties were sold for handfuls of bulbs.

The boom

The tulip was first introduced to Europe by Ogier de Busbecq, the ambassador of Ferdinand I, Holy Roman Emperor to the Sultan of Turkey, who sent the first tulip bulbs and seeds to Vienna in 1554.

Those fateful bulbs were distributed throughout Augsburg, Antwerp and Amsterdam and found their way into popular paintings at the time, catching the eye of the public.

Interestingly, a botanist at the time named Carolus Clusius began study the bulbs at his garden at The University of Leiden in the 1590s.

Giving someone flowers during Tulipmania probably meant a little more than “I love you”.

He became fascinated with understanding how and why a particular bulb could suddenly ‘break’ which meant that it would go from producing a single color of blooms to suddenly boasting gorgeous flame-like patterns of multiple hues. What he and other botanists didn’t realize at the time was that this was the result of a virus in the bulb.

In the 17th century, of course, no one understood that yet and the mystery around the diseased tulips led to a higher attraction to them across the Dutch Republic. Diseased bulbs with beautiful patterned petals became a sought-after prize throughout Europe.

Not only that, but the tulip itself was so unique at the time with its brilliant petals being a different color and shape than other indigenous flowers at the time. The result? Tulips were worth the big bucks.

Tulipmania with monkeys for some reason.

Tulips become a really big deal

During the Dutch Golden Age the economy was booming and the newly introduced tulip bulbs were added to the market mix. The demand grew and the prices rose throughout the 1630s. By November 1636, the tulip became the fourth leading export of the Netherlands.

Tulips joined gin, herrings, and cheese as a quintessentially Dutch export. As talk of the tulips spread throughout European markets, the price of the bulbs soared steadily.

What interests modern economists is that the 17th Century tulip market did not necessarily involve the direct trade of the flowers themselves but of the bulbs. The rarer, the better. The result was the first “futures” market where prices rose and fall almost entirely on speculation from people who never even saw the bulbs.

Tulips even began to be used as a form of money in their own right around 1633 when actual properties were sold for handfuls of bulbs.

I gots to have me some tulips.

The rise and fall of Tulipmania

Tulip mania reached an all-time high throughout the winter of 1636-37. The bulbs were reportedly traded and sold up to ten times in one day, but in February the market unexpectedly crashed.

The collapse is believed to have begun in Haarlem when buyers didn’t show up to a bulb auction, likely due to a bubonic plague outbreak in Haarlem. This outbreak and the shortage of buyers brought on a domino effect of sudden disinterest in the bulbs. Prices dropped throughout Europe almost as dramatically as they rose. Entire fortunes were suddenly in shambles and debt disputes over the precious petaled flowers raged for years after.

Of course, the collapse of the tulip economy didn’t disrupt the Dutch love of tulips. Tulips lingered on in artwork and continued to grow in the Netherlands which is why we still associate them with the Dutch to this day. If you visit the Netherlands, you can enjoy many tulip gardens…but don’t expect to trade them for property any time soon.

About the Author

Stephanie Weber
Stephanie Weber is a comedian and writer whose work has been published on Atlas Obscura, Slate, The AV Club, Reductress, The Whiskey Journal and more. She performs stand up comedy at The Lincoln Lodge in Chicago.

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