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Tulipmania

Waermondt (True Mouth): You offer me a lot and I do not know whether I dare accept. I fear once I start, I will want to go on with it, again and again. And as one wave drives on another, so one deal would bring forth the other, and so, methinks, it is better I stay with my poor business and my own profession. I make no great profit and suffer no great loss.

Gaergoedt (Greedy Goods): That's well said. But could you not venture a little? You give no money till it's summer and then you have sold all your stuff; or if you have any on hand you plant it and it brings still more profit.

Waermondt: It is well for those who have enough money, but for me I do not find it good advice. For if I have a penny, I must put it into my business.

Gaergoedt: You can barely earn ten per cent on the money that is in your business, and even then only by giving a caution, but with Flora it is cent for cent. Yes, ten for one, a hundred for one, and sometimes a thousand.

Waermondt: Vainly have I done such hard labor, and have many parents slaved and toiled. What need is there for merchants to have any style, or to risk their goods overseas, for the children to learn a trade, for the peasants to sow and to work so hard on the soil, for the skipper to sail on the terrible and dangerous seas, for the soldier to risk his life for so little gain, if one can make profits of this sort?

Dialogue between Waermondt and Gaergoedt on the Rise and Decline of Flora (1637)

Traditionally, the buying and selling of tulip bulbs occurred during the summer months, after the flower had bloomed in May or June (depending on the type) and the bulb was lifted from the soil, to be wrapped in paper and kept dry indoors. By then, the flower would have been viewed and the bulbs, themselves, inspected and exchanged before being replanted in September. A seller promised to deliver the bulb when lifted and the purchaser to pay upon delivery. In trade such as this, honor obviously was important, especially since a blossom in late spring need not necessarily look the same the following year. Indeed, the changeability of tulips was one of their charms. But such variations also could lead to deception or at least the suspicion that bulbs might not be the same as contracted.

In the planting season of 1635, as prices began to rise, there was a fundamental change in how bulbs were traded in the Netherlands. Increasingly, they were sold by weight while still in the ground, with only a promissory note to indicate details of the bulb, including its weight at planting and when it would be lifted. The bulbs, themselves, the delivery of which was months away, were not sold, only these paper promises. Weight was measured in aasen (azen or aces), an exceedingly small unit equal to one-twentieth of a gram, or less than .0018 of an ounce. Although paying by weight was a more fair way to assess price, an immature bulb costing less than a more mature one, it also increased the price of the heavier bulb. And, because a bulb planted in September or October likely would weight substantially more when lifted (after blooming) the following June or July, it encouraged speculation. Even if the price per aas did not change, the price of the bulb, itself, could increase three to five hundred percent over these nine months, depending upon weight. Heavier bulbs, too, tended to flower earlier and have more offsets, which are the smaller bulblets attached to the mother bulb.

Tulips grown from seed could take five to ten years to produce a flower, those from offsets from three to five years to become flowering bulbs themselves. Because a tulip bulb may produce only one or two offsets a year and then only for several years before the mother bulb, itself, dies, one with offsets when lifted obviously increased in value. But a grower could not afford to sell a particularly valuable bulb too soon. To do so would limit the ability to produce any more of that variety—which is why particularly desirable varieties always were in short supply.

Variegated tulips, those with contrasting markings, such as red (Rosen) or purple (Violetten) against a white ground (or bizarden, against a yellow ground), were most favored, especially those whose color was displayed as thin feathers or flames that symmetrically ran along the center of each pedal and around the edges. This vivid coloring, which so bewitched the Dutch, was caused by a virus that infected the tulip but also weakened it and reduced the number of offsets. A complete mystery at the time, the mosaic virus was conveyed by aphids, which flourished in the fruit trees that were a feature of seventeenth-century gardens. An infected flower was said to be "broken" and there was no way to determine if, or when, a flower would break. It was an unpredictable process that only added to the allure of the tulip for the Dutch.

The cultivation of new varieties in 1634 depressed prices, and tulips became accessible to a popular market. No longer the province of professional growers and connoisseurs, they now were purchased by small buyers, such as the weaver or spinner and other crafts and tradespeople. For a modest investment, often paid for in kind, one could speculate in the more common tulips that were the stock of mass trade. Late that year, prices then swung in the opposite direction and began to rise. To meet demand, offsets were sold, which only could be separated when the bulb was lifted. Buying in the winter for delivery in the summer became acceptable and, by 1636, a futures market had developed for the bulbs, themselves. Buyers promised to pay a specified price for bulbs in the ground at a fixed time in the future, speculating that, at lifting time, they would be worth more than the promissory note, which then could be sold to a new buyer in hope of realizing a profit. As spring approached and expectation increased, this trade in tulip futures became more frenzied, and, by November and December of that year, speculation was at its height. Prices for so-called "piece" goods (the more desirable varieties) doubled or trebled, and even the most plain and common tulips, which previously had been disdained, were bought. Indeed, these "pound" goods, which were sold in bulk, rose as much as twenty-fold. Smaller lots were offered, as well, and bulbs could be purchased by the basket, the pound, or the ace. Goods in kind were delivered at once, and cows and cloth, looms and land, shops and houses paid to secure the purchase.

At the height of this tulip mania, most transactions did not even involve the exchange of goods but became purely speculative. "Everything was worth money and so current that one could get in exchange almost anything one desired," says Gaergoedt. "And all this with promises and vouchers, when the bulbs were in the earth." Even though buyers did not have the cash amount or sellers actually possess the bulb, there still was the expectation that a succeeding sale could be at an ever higher price. But buyers must have begun to wonder if the escalating prices of the previous two months could be sustained (and been suspicion, too, that more tulips would be grown, increasing the supply). In the first week of February 1637, when investors were not willing to go higher, the market collapsed, the bulbs contracted the previous autumn still in the ground.

As Gaergoedt, who had mortgaged his house, laments: "it has been a madness."


After the crash, there was increasing concern over the contracts that had been negotiated the previous summer. Prices had risen dramatically over the winter and bulbs still in the ground continued to be bought and sold, if only on paper. Now, there was enormous uncertainty regarding these obligations and what would happen when the bulbs were lifted for delivery. It was obvious that buyers would attempt to default on their promise to pay for what were much devalued bulbs. Later in February, traders sought to enforce deals made before the end of November 1636, when prices sharply increased, although later transactions could be nullified if the buyer paid a fine of ten percent of the purchase price. But no agreement could be reached nor could such a plan even have been enforced. In March, it was suggested that any trade in flowers since planting time the previous September be nullified altogether.

The next month, the high court took up the question. It was determined that all transactions remain in force and that parties resolve matters amicably between themselves. Any resort to the courts should only be as a last measure. This prompted the burgemeesters of Haarlem, who themselves were involved in the tulip trade, to prohibit any action against those who might owe money. Finally, a year after the crash, they established a commission to deal with the problem, which declared that contracts that came before it would be settled with a fee of three-and-a-half percent, the fine that typically was charged to compensate the seller and excuse the buyer when a transaction was canceled. Intended to maintain the honor of those involved, such compensation was unsatisfactory to both sides. The seller was obliged to keep bulbs now worth much less, and the buyer would be better off paying nothing at all. Any payments that were made usually were at a fraction of the original price, typically less than five percent..

It should be remembered that tulipmania was an urban phenomenon and that speculation involved only a small segment of the population, typically merchants and skilled craftsmen such as weavers, bakers, and brewers. Too, family and religion influenced sales, even where one lived. And, although extraordinary prices were quoted at the auction in Alkmaar on February 5, 1637, none actually were paid at the time. Nor was delivery taken or the bulbs even available for inspection, as they had been in the ground since the previous September and would not be lifted until May or June, when they were to be delivered and payment made. Unless sellers who still held bulbs had been imprudent enough to have bought other goods on credit in expectation of later profits, the losses of the crash were notional only, with very few actually bankrupted by the speculation. The painter Jan van Goyen, who had invested in tulips within days of the market's crash (but also had speculated in land and property) died twenty years later in penury.

The mania did affect the social contract of the community, however, and the reputations of men, their credit and honor. When the market was most frenzied, it was the seller who was expected to deliver the promised goods but who often failed to do so in hope of finding a better offer. After the crash, it was the buyer who defaulted, refusing to repay the debt or even to attend the lifting, which was the only way to verify that the bulb was the one specified by contract.


The nursery catalog of the Haarlem florist P. Cos (1637) is unique among tulip books in that it mentions the name, weight, and price of the bulbs that were sold. The most expensive was the Viseroij (Viceroy), a Violetten illustrated in the gouache above, a bulb which sold for 3,000 guilders and another heavier one for 4,200. Even the lower price was twenty times the annual salary of a skilled craftsman. A contemporary pamphleteer provides a vivid sense of what 3,000 guilders would have purchased at the time: eight pigs, four oxen, twelve sheep, twenty-four tons of wheat, forty-eight tons of rye, two hogsheads of wine, four barrels of beer, two tons of butter, a thousand pounds of cheese, a silver drinking cup (as well as clothes, bed and mattress, and a ship!)—all this for a bulb that weighed 410 aasen or a bit more than half an ounce.

Even higher prices were offered for Semper Augustus, a variegated break that was the most celebrated of all tulips.

The Judith Leyster tulip book in the Frans Hals Museum (Haarlem) is named after the only woman to have earned her living as an artist at the time. A probable student of Frans Hals, she painted two Rosen tulips for the book, one of which is illustrated here.

 


The dialogue above was translated by Posthumus, a Dutch economist, and quoted in his article. It is the first of three anonymous pamphlets published separately in 1637 satirizing the folly of trading in tulips. Although moralizing, the Samenspraecken tusschen Waermondt ende Gaergoedt is the longest pamphlet on the tulip craze and is an important primary source for the period.

Tulip mania occurred at the same time that bubonic plague was ravaging the Netherlands, a seventh of the population dying in Amsterdam alone. The Thirty Years War (1618-1648) between Catholic Spain and the Protestant North also was being waged, and a major defeat of the Swedes in September 1634 allowed more military resources to be directed against the Dutch. A Swedish victory in October 1636 also may have reduced demand for tulips by the Germans.

Disease, death, and despair all may have encouraged speculation.


References: Tulipomania (1999) by Mike Dash; "The Tulip Mania in Holland in the Years 1636 and 1637" (1929) by N. W. Posthumus, Journal of Economic and Business History, 1, 434-466 (the stock market crashed late in October that year); "Tulipmania" (1989) by Peter M. Garber, The Journal of Political Economy, 97(3), 535-560 (this article derives from an earlier monograph by Garber, "The Tulipmania Legend" [1986] published by the Center for the Study of Futures Markets, Columbia University, Working Paper Series, CSFM-139); Tulipomania (1950) by Wilfrid Blunt; The Embarrassment of Riches (1987) by Simon Schama; The Tulip (1999) by Anna Pavord; Tulipmania: Money, Honor, and Knowledge in the Dutch Golden Age (2007) by Anne Goldgar; The Tulipmania: Fact or Artifact (2002) by Earl A. Thompson and Jonathan Treussard.

The illustration above is from Verzameling van een meenigte tulipaanen (1637) by P. Cos, Haarlem (Krelage Collection, Wageningen University Library, Netherlands).

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