Tulip mania remains the most florid example of collective hysteria

Posted in Historical articles, History, Nature, Oddities, Plants on Saturday, 7 September 2013

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This edited article about tulip mania originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 400 published on 13 September 1969.

Dutch tulip garden, picture, image, illustration

A Dutch garden in the Seventeenth century showing the owner's prize tulip beds

The dictionaries will tell you that the tulip is a genus of bulbous herb, inhabiting the warmer parts of Europe and Asia Minor, and that it is now extensively cultivated in Holland, where millions of tulips are grown and exported every year. What most dictionaries do not tell you is the strange story of the “tulip mania” which seized Holland when the tulip was first introduced into Europe.

Exactly when the first wild tulip was brought to Western Europe is uncertain. What we do know is that the tulip gets its name from the Turkish word, tulbant, a word the Turks applied to one of their wild flowers which looked rather like a turban upside down, and that this flower was the ancestor of all our modern tulips. We know, too, that it was first brought into repute by a man named Conrad Gesner, when he found it growing in a garden in Augsberg.

The man who owned the garden was very famous in his day for his collection of rare, exotic flowers, and the bulbs had been sent to him by an acquaintance who lived in Constantinople, where the flower had long been a favourite. By 1591, a famous French botanist named Clusius had learned how to propagate the new flower and had greatly increased its size.

In Holland, particularly, the tulip annually increased in reputation until it was thought a proof of bad taste for any man of fortune to be without a collection of tulips. The rage for possessing these plants soon affected even the middle classes. A trader in Haarlem was known to have paid one half of his fortune for a single root.

By 1634, the rage among the Dutch to possess them was so great that the ordinary industry of the country was neglected, and the population, even at the lowest social levels, embarked in the tulip trade. As the mania increased, so prices continued to rise. At the peak of this strange frenzy a single bulb was sold for more than two thousand pounds. A bulb known as Semper Augustus was particularly prized. In 1636 there were only two roots of this particular specimen in the whole of Holland. So anxious were the speculators that one person offered twelve acres of building land in exchange for one of them.

People who had been absent a long time from Holland and who returned when this insane buying was at its fever pitch, often found themselves in serious trouble through no fault of their own. One of these was a sailor from foreign parts who visited a merchant to deliver him a message. Duly appreciative of the trouble the sailor had taken, the merchant gave him a fine red herring for his breakfast. The sailor, who liked onions, saw a bulb (which, after all, looks very much like an onion) lying on the counter, and idly slipped it in his pocket to eat with his herring.

It was not until some time after he had left that the merchant saw that one of his precious tulip bulbs had disappeared. The whole establishment was immediately in an uproar, and the warehouse was searched from top to bottom. When the precious bulb could not be found, someone suddenly thought of the sailor. Breathing dire threats, the merchant ran to the quay, followed by the rest of his household. They found the sailor quite easily enough. He was sitting on a pile of ropes, on the quay, happily finishing off his “onion.” As a result, the unfortunate sailor spent several months in prison on a charge of felony.

Another unfortunate stranger was an English traveller who happened to be wandering round the conservatory of a wealthy Dutchman. Seeing a tulip bulb lying around, and being ignorant of its value, he took out his penknife and peeled off several layers in order to examine it more closely. Discovering him, the infuriated owner bundled him out of the conservatory and dragged him through the streets to the magistrate, who ordered the Englishman to be kept in prison until he could find securities to cover the cost of the bulb Рvalued at more than £600.

Everyone imagined that the passion for tulips would last for ever, and that the wealthy from every part of the world would send to Holland for these precious bulbs and pay whatever prices were asked for them. For a while, certainly, foreigners were caught up in the frenzy, and money poured into Holland from all directions.

At last, it began to dawn on some that this folly which had spread through Holland like a contagious disease, could not last for ever. The rich no longer bought the bulbs to grow in their gardens, but instead began to sell them. Prices began to fall, and they never rose again. Hundreds of people who had once believed that they would never see poverty, suddenly found themselves the possessors of bulbs which no one would buy, even though they were offered at a quarter the price that had been paid for them. Many who had emerged from humble walks of life and had become rich, were cast back into their original obscurity.

People who had entered into contracts to purchase bulbs from the dealers now refused to honour their agreements, and the tulip holders were forced to appeal to the government. After much ill-will, it was agreed at Amsterdam by the assembled deputies that all contracts made at the height of the mania, or prior to the month of November 1636, should be declared null and void, and that those who had entered a contract after that date could be freed of their commitment by paying the vendor ten per cent of the agreed purchase price. It was therefore left to those who were unlucky enough to have a store of tulips on hand to bear their ruin as philosophically as they could.

In the same year tulips were being sold publicly in the Exchange of London, where the dealers did their best to raise the bulbs to the same value they had acquired in Amsterdam. In Paris, the dealers also tried to create a tulip mania. In both cities they succeeded only partially. By the end of the century the highest price for tulips in Scotland was ten guineas. By 1769 the two most valuable species of tulip bulbs were being sold in London at two guineas each.

For a short while, however, in the nineteenth century, the price rose again. At a public auction one bulb was sold for seventy-five guineas. In the same year, a gardener was advertising a tulip bulb in his catalogue for two hundred guineas.

Since tulip mania died out, the Dutch have created hundreds of standard varieties which can be bought for a few coppers. Two of the best known are the “Darwin” and the May-flowering tulips. The Darwins are tall, large flowered tulips with incurving petals. The May-flowering plants blossom earlier and bear shorter tulips with erect petals. In these and other groups we find every colour of the rainbow, every kind of shading and marking. Even black tulips are known.

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