February 3, 2015

February 3, 1637: End to the Tulip Mania

The Semper Augustus, the most expensive
tulip of its day.
It's difficult, I think, for us to properly appreciate the kind of tulip madness that took hold of Europe in the 17th century.

Tulips were new to Europe. They had been introduced from Turkey in 1554, and were an instant hit, being totally unlike any other flower that Europeans were familiar with. At about the same time, Holland was beginning to come into its own. The East Indies Trade was proving very lucrative, and there were fortunes to be made.

So tulips became the new luxury good. And when I say luxury, I'm not kidding. By the time Tulip Mania was at its height, a single bulb could be worth 10 times the amount of money a skilled craftsman made in a year. A Semper Augustus, like the flower shown here, was worth as much as a house.

But the real reason that tulips became so lucrative is that the Dutch weren't really buying tulips -- they were buying tulip futures. Speculation in tulip bulbs reached an all-time high in the winter of 1636-1637. A single bulb might be sold 10 times in a single day.

Alas, the bubble burst. At a routine tulip auction in Haarlem on February 3, 1637, not a single buyer showed up. Grant you, this may have been partly because of the bubonic plague that had hit Haarlem, but the panic soon spread throughout the country. Prices crashed. The tulip was now merely an ordinary flower.

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