The story of the rise and fall of the tulip in the Netherlands is fascinating to historians, horticulturists, and economists. Mike Dash’s book Tulipomania covers the topic well.
It is difficult to believe the value that was once placed on tulip bulbs. Entire properties changed hands for bulbs.
Tulips that had interesting patterns on the petals due to breaking were the most valuable. At the time the reason for breaking (streaks of color) was not understood. We now know that it is caused by a mosaic virus.
Bulbs were bought and sold many times. The market soon became one of speculation, and it careened out of control. Valuable bulbs left a long and confusing paper trail, with many of the owners never even seeing the plant they purchased before selling it again.
To make things even better, most trading was done at pubs . . . after a few drinks.
Eventually it caught up with them. A fellow named Hondius was inspired to drop a few rhymes based upon the debacle:All these fools want is tulip bulbs Heads and hearts have but one wish Let’s try and eat them; it will make us laugh To taste how bitter is that dish
When the market crashed many people lost everything they had. Surprisingly, the fallout did not hurt the economy of the Netherlands. It took years to settle the many lawsuits and claims. Almost everyone who had bought or sold bulbs was impacted, for buyers would purchse bulbs without having the funds to pay for them. They were counting on the future sale to cover their expenses. At the time of the crash many sellers had unloaded all their bulbs and amassed a fortune, yet they would never see any of the money.
The tulip pictured on the left would cost at most a couple of dollars today. I photographed it beside a parking lot, in a poorly maintained flower bed this spring. In Holland during the 1630s it would have made me rich. Of course, given the option of being incredibly rich in 1636 Holland or living in middle class 2008 America I’d choose to stay were I am. Life was tough in the 17th century.