Tulipomania: Madness in 17th Century Holland
Tulips came into Western European gardens in the latter half of the 16th
century. Since that time they have not only furnished beauty, but exciting
moments in commerce and politics too. Augerius Busbequius, a Viennese
ambassador to Turkey, was the first European on record to introduce them
to Europe. He admired them in Turkish gardens where they had been
cultivated for many years, originally having been brought there from
Persia. The name tulip probably comes from the word dulban or tuliban,
meaning turban, since the shape of the blooms suggest an inverted turban.
Flowers grown from seed sent back by Busbequius caused such a stir in
Vienna that seed and bulbs were soon sent to all parts of Europe.
The botanist Carolus Clusius of Leyden was one of the earliest growers.
He developed a large collection that, around 1591, he proudly displayed to
his fellow townsmen. He also offered bulbs for sale at very high prices.
Whether he sold any or not is unknown. According to some accounts nobody
was prepared to pay the excessive price Clusius asked and the bulbs were
stolen from his garden instead.
In any case countrymen of Clusius somehow acquired stock and commenced the
tulip growing which is such an important industry in Holland today. A book
published in 1614 featured many tulips, including feathered and flamed
"broken" varieties, and in 1629 John Parkinson in his Paradisus enumerates
140 varieties, showing that tulips had taken an important place in English
Rich men in Flanders, Germany and France were apparently as anxious as
the Dutch to buy bulbs and very high prices are recorded. Two bulbs of
'Semper Augustus' a beautiful broken tulip, flamed and feathered red on
white ground - were reported to have been sold in 1632 for 3000
florins. Ladies of the French court created a fashion of wearing tulips
on their dresses, valuing apparently the unusual kinds, so that there
was competition among their suitors to buy flowers of the rarest and
newest varieties. All this laid the foundation for the famous
Tulipomania of Holland between 1634 and 1637, one of the most
extraordinary speculative manias in history and to be compared only
with the South Sea Bubble of 1717, the Florida Land Boom, and the Stock
Market speculations in the late 1920s.
Beginning in 1634 the increased sales of tulips was no doubt legitimate
business, but very soon it turned into pure speculation. Speculators
were weavers, tailors, artisans and all kinds of merchants. Among them
were also the bulb growers, who were only too ready to take advantage
of the situation. The inns became places where bulbs were bought and
sold. Crowds gathered every day and we are told that they also
liberally worshipped at the shrine of Bacchus. The actual tulip bulbs,
however, were absent; they only figured on paper. Without being
delivered, bulbs changed from hand to hand several times a day, just as
shares do on the Stock Exchange today. The mania increased from week to
week. Bulbs were no longer priced singly, but by very fine weight, the
measure being an ace, weighing 1/20 part of a decigram. We can get some
idea of what all this meant when we realize that a good tulip bulb
today weighs about 7,000 aces.
On February 5, 1637, a sale of tulip bulbs was held in the hall of a large
public meeting place in the town of Alkmaar, where 48,000 aces of tulip
bulbs were put up for sale. This weight corresponds to that of about 6 or
7 good tulip bulbs you would buy today. These 48,000 aces realized a price
of 68,533 florins, which meant that the average price for each bulb was
about 9,790 florins.
At another sale, the frenzy for bidding got even more out of hand. For
example, an 'Admiral Liefkens' of 400 aces fetched 4,400 florins. A
'Vice Roy' of 410 aces fetched 3,000 florins; a 'Gouda' of 1,000 aces
3,600; an 'Admiral van Enckhuyzen' of 215 aces 5,400 florins; and so
on. Another single bulb was traded for 12 acres of good farmland. Then,
as the gamble grew wilder, houses and estates were mortgaged. The craze
culminated in such fantastic deals as of one 'Semper Augustus' weighing
193 aces - a very small bulb, not of flowering size - for the sum of
4,600 florins plus a coach, with two dapple-gray horses, the money to
be paid immediately, although the bulb was to be delivered months
This mania continued for three years and then broke with a terrific
crash. The number of speculators had grown steadily. Prices became more
and more fantastic and it was all too apparent that many were heading
for disaster. Suddenly the values dropped faster than they ever have on
a modern stock market. Like all speculative bubbles this one collapsed,
bringing not riches, but ruin to thousands of hapless investors.
Some reports state that in 1637 the States of Holland officially put an
end to the speculation but others claim that it only stepped in after
the event. Apparently there was endless litigation and the Government
had to appoint a commission to bring about agreements and to help
settle the confusion.
It may surprise modern gardeners to learn that the tulips for which people
paid fortunes were not the solid-colored tulips that we grow today. The
tulips most sought after in the 17th century were the so-called "broken"
kinds known as Bizarres and Bybloemens. These were feathered and flamed
rose, scarlet, purple and brown on a white or yellow ground.
New varieties grown from seed always start out as solid-colored varieties.
These were at that time not considered desirable but merely used as
breeders from which "broken" tulips could be procured. After growing these
solid-colored kinds for a number of years they would suddenly "break" into
varieties with feathers and flames. Henceforth this bulb and each of its
progeny would produce broken flowers in freakish, ever-changing patterns.
What the grower did not and could not know is that this breaking was
caused by a virus disease that weakens the bulb and eventually kills it.
The more infected the plant was the more beautiful the flowers became and
the higher the price.
Today, whenever a tulip shows signs of breaking, the grower immediately
removes the plant and the underground bulb from his field to prevent
infection of healthy neighboring plants. So careful do growers inspect
their crops, that finding a broken tulip in your garden today is a very
rare occurrence indeed.
Modern Dutch hybridizers have managed to breed tulips which resemble these
much sought after broken tulips of the 17th century. The difference is, of
course, that these tulips are not virus infected and do not show constant
changes in their color patterns.
As we have seen, one of the most prized tulips of the 17th century was one
named 'Semper Augustus': a flamed and feathered red on a white ground. So
admired was this tulip that its beauty has been preserved on several 17th
century paintings. Some of today's hybrids resemble this old favorite. One
of these is Banja Luka, a Colorblends
favorite that can give your garden a little 17th-century flavor.
As for the price? 4,600 florins plus a coach, with two dapple-gray horses,
the money to be paid immediately, although the bulbs won't be delivered
until the fall....