Holland: The Glorious Days of ‘Tulip Mania’

Earlier this year, on a warm April morning, I boarded a bus heading out of Amsterdam to the small town of Lisse, south east of the city. Like thousands of tourists and locals alike, I had been drawn in by the promise of a true spectaclem – the annual flowering of the Tulip bulbs in the Keukenhof. This ornamental garden boasts 32 hectares of tulip displays, with a whopping seven million individual plants, having been opened in 1949 by the Mayor of Lisse, in order to both celebrate the beautiful bloom and assist the Dutch flower market. It was not hard to understand how the tulip has become almost synonymous with the country, and held a special place in its economy for hundreds of years. Holland is currently the world’s largest exporter of flowers and, indeed, flower markets can be seen dotted alongside the canals in every major Dutch city.

However, the idyllic image of these Dutch flower markets hides a fascinating history. The tulip, despite its associations with the Dutch capital, is not in fact native to the country or to Western Europe at all. It was first introduced to the region in the late sixteenth century. Flemish botanist Carolus Clusius is credited with the first flowerings in the Netherlands in the city of Leiden in 1594. The flowers were greeted with such enthusiasm that prices soared, in an event that became known as ‘Tulip Mania’. Nineteenth century British journalist Charles Mackay, in the seminal book on the event, Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds claimed that at one point, twelve hectares of land, or the value of a year’s wages for a Dutch merchant, were offered for a single bulb.

In Golden Age Holland, newly independent from the rule of Spain in 1581 and buoyed by success in East Indies trade, the tulips became a symbol of status and identity; ornamental gardens became a display of the affluence for Dutch merchants. Demand existed in particular for rare tulips that showed streaked and multi-coloured petals, the result of a mosaic virus affecting the plant.  The tulip plant tends to take around a decade to flower from seed, and those affected by virus can take even longer. When the bubble crashed, almost overnight, in February 1637, most bulbs had not reached maturity, and traders lost fortunes never having laid eyes on the beautiful petals.

Thanks to Mackay’s account, ‘Tulip Mania’ has entered the lexicon to refer to any speculative boom based on market irrationality. However, modern economic historians have called Mackay’s account into question. In a 2007 study, Anne Goldgar examined contracts that had been drawn up in the tulip trade and suggested that the bubble had not in fact affected the entire Dutch economy, but was limited to a small number of already wealthy individuals, for whom the dip in prices did not result in complete ruination. The Dutch government was also about to introduce a law that stated that those who had bought the rights to buy investments, such as tulip bulbs, were not legally required to follow through with this purchase if the market did not remain favourable, meaning tulip investments were actually low risk.     

Regardless of the reality of the event, or the debate that continues amongst historians, the story of ‘Tulip Mania’ survives. Even today, walking through the flower beds at the Keukenhof, catching a glimpse of the tulips in their sudden yet brief season, you can still feel the pull of these beautiful flowers, and feel yourself catching a little ‘Tulip Mania’.

Image: Luke Price