It was the 1600s and mop top haircuts and Ed Sullivan weren’t yet around. But a rockstar Flemish botanist named Carolus Clusius was, and he first introduced the tulip to the Middle Ages-weary Dutch in 1593. The vibrant flower, indigenous to countries of the Ottoman Empire, bloomed with rich hues not yet seen before in Western Europe. A fascination was soon born. The en vogue bulb quickly rose to an important status symbol. While financial records are limited from the 1600s, research indicates that some precious bulbs went for as much as ten times the annual salary of a skilled craftsman and quite a bit more than the value of many homes.
At the time, of course, a purchase of this flower seemed like a sound investment. The Dutch were living their Golden Age when Tulip Mania reached its fever pitch in 1637. It was the time of the Thirty Years War, and the Dutch intervention from 1625-1629, and its people were eager for something cheery and bright. Amsterdam merchants were making profits of up to 400% in the East Indies and wanted to show off their wealth with grand estates and magnificent gardens. The rarer and more unique, the pricier the flower. Exalted names were bestowed upon the various breeds, giving fancy prefixes like ‘General’ or ‘Admiral,’ or even ‘Admiral of Admirals’ to some of the best-sellers. But it wasn’t just the wealthy who were besotted by the flower’s charms. Those less financially well-off were also enticed by promises of quick returns on investments. Some even remortgaged their homes for a chance to ride the tulip craze at a time when bulbs were reportedly changing hands as much as ten times a day.
Until the bubble burst. A wave of bankruptcy and financial woes quickly swept the country. Fortunes were made and lost overnight and some were left having traded valuable goods and commodities for a few now-virtually worthless bulbs. Fast-forward a few hundred years and even today, the term ‘Tulip Mania’ is still used as a cautionary phrase for any large economic bubble that may not last.