Would you be willing to pay the price of a house for a single tulip? Likely, you said NO! However, if you happen to be a history buff or have picked up random trivia, you may have heard of the Tulip Mania and recall the fantastical tales of people paying more for a tulip than they did for their house, or of drowning themselves in a canal over tulips.
The idea of owning a single tulip shook 17th-century Dutch residents out of their humdrum lives. Although much of modern-day trivia knowledge about Tulip Mania is exaggerated, it is fascinating regardless.
Flora’s Wagon of Fools, from franshalsmuseum.nl.
Tulips in The Netherlands
Tulips trace back all the way to the days of the Ottoman Empire. The word tulip derives from the Persian word for turban, tulipian. Tulips are said to have been discovered in the Kazakhstan Mountains, and right away those who saw them were captivated by the flower’s beauty.
They brought them to different regions, including Constantinople (currently Istanbul, Turkey), to be planted in gardens where there would be annual celebrations when the tulips bloomed.
Due to its rather newfound status and increasing popularity in the Ottoman Empire (more specifically, where modern-day Turkey is), it became a symbol of wealth.
Additionally, it became a symbol of power. Ottoman Sultans (those who were in higher power in Islamic nations) were said to have worn tulips on their turbans. Because the flowers were a symbol of power, they were often given as gifts to others who also held power. Among those who received these revered gifts was Carolus Clusius, the manager of the gardens for Austria’s Emperor.
An image of Carolus Clusius, from Britannica.com.
Clusius became the leader of a botanical garden as well as a professor in the Netherlands in 1593. He even owned a private garden, where he planted tulips to study. Clusius began to experiment with the flowers and make observations regarding the tulips.
When fascination over tulips grew, curious citizens stole bulbs from Clusius and began their own experimentations and once, crossed the seeds in a magical way. Rather than the tulip being a single color, it would be unique and often have stripes, as pictured below.
An image of the Semper Augustus tulip close up, from altasobscura.com.
It wasn’t known until a few centuries later that those unique and striped flowers called the Semper Augustus tulip were caused by a virus in the flower due to how much these flowers were bred. After the first one, excited citizens tried to breed many more of this flower and it became the rarest and valuable tulip during Tulip Mania. The exchange of tulips in the Netherlands was rather secretive, as people were eager to get them.
During this time, the region of the Netherlands had been experiencing great wealth due to strong ties with other countries in trading. With more overall money within the country, wealthy and middle-class citizens would often indulge and spend their money on expensive goods. As the flower became more popular in the Netherlands, the bulbs continued to be exchanged more. At first, the tulips were really for observation purposes (as it was for Carolus Clusius), but it soon became an outlet for profit.
Escalation and Mania
Soon in the Netherlands, there were people who professionally sold the flowers. Overall demand would result in a natural increase in prices. Others wanted to be a part of this and gain money, and the prices for the tulip bulbs would reach new heights as the most sought after type of bulbs would be exchanged. As the tulip trade continued, there began to be set contracts for the flower bulbs, which would bloom in later months.
5,200 guilders (currency in the Netherlands) seemed to be the highest recorded amount paid for a single bulb, which was more than the annual salary for a wealthy merchant. Some rumors suggest that one of the popular bulbs, Semper Augustus, had a worth 10,000 guilders at the beginning of 1637.
It is important to note that10,000 guilders would be the equivalent to a very large home with big enough property for an extravagant garden. It is a bit ridiculous once it’s really thought about, that a flower could be worth more than a house!
Not long after reaching its peak, the tulip market took a sharp blow. At an auction in late 1637, not a single tulip bulb was purchased. Those who speculated (meaning to be involved in a business exchange of sorts, where there could be a potential risk or gain) weren’t able to purchase the bulbs anymore, likely due to their high price.
Others attempted to get rid of their contracts as some found themselves in a difficult situation with the plague arriving in the area. Aside from those who sold the flowers, not as many were interested in owning them. The ‘trend’ died down and the flowers lost much of their original value.
The tulip’s overall downfall in the Netherlands caused a bit of an economic struggle for many. Arguments were taken to courts because of debts involving contracts or those who had bought a bulb but been unable to pay for it.
However, these settled when courts in the Netherlands eventually stopped allowing legal arguments over the flowers. Tulips had a rather sudden downfall in the Netherlands, but they never had a large enough impact to ruin the country financially.
Following the Downfall
An image of a Tulip field in the Netherlands, from Holland.com
Years after the downfall, tulips continued to be displayed in Dutch art. Some even poked fun at those who were involved in the exchange of the flowers, for example, the art piece “Flora’s Wagon of Fools” shown at the beginning.
While stories about people throwing themselves into canals over the tulips crash tended to be exaggerated, the ridiculously high prices were often true. The tulip seemed to be a setback for some and comedic material for others, but there is no denying the worldwide popularity of the tulip today. Once the cause of frenzy and panic, tulips became a symbol of the Netherlands.
Today, the Netherlands is the number one exporter of tulips in the world. From the time of the Mania to modern-day, tulips have always enthralled the people of the Netherlands - but thankfully, they are now reasonably affordable. Written by Diana Castadena
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