Tulips have held significant role in shaping the Dutch history and culture ever since the mid-1500s when they were introduced to the Netherlands by the Ottoman Empire. At that time, the passion the Dutch had for tulips was so strong that in the Dutch Golden Age of the mid-1600s, the ever increasing prices for tulip bulbs created the first ever recorded financial crisis, as the prices for tulip bulbs soared to astronomical prices before crashing and sending the Dutch economy into a tail spin.
In the Golden Century, between 1600 and 1700, the city of Amsterdam was one of the richest cities of all of Western Europe. This flourishing time for Amsterdam was a result of the substantial role the city played in international trade. Dutch trade with foreign countries led to an influx of exotic goods never before seen by Europeans. Among them were tulips. These beautiful flowers were first introduced to Europe when an Ottoman sultan sent seeds and bulbs to the city of Vienna. Just after 1554, these seeds made their way to Amsterdam where they became extremely fashionable. When it was discovered that tulips could tolerate the severe climate of northern Europe, the desire to own tulips only elevated. Because of the vivid color that each tulip had, growing them in home gardens soon became a significant status symbol.
A tulip plant comes from a bulb which does not produce a flower until seven to twelve weeks later. Tulip flowers bloom for only about a week sometime between April and May, and the bulbs only appear between June and September which confined sales of tulip bulbs to that season. Eventually, traders formed tulip contracts for future bulb purchases which evolved the tulip trade into a year round industry.
As the Dutch market for tulips developed, the flowers were classified and priced according to their rarity. Couleren was the designation for solid colored tulips; often red, white, or yellow. Rosen was attributed to multi-colored tulips which were usually red, pink, or white and violet. The most sought after tulips were the Bizarden. These in-demand flowers had a yellow background with red, brown, or purple coloration. Customarily, solid-colored tulips were worth less than their multi-colored counterparts. Certain tulips were infected with the benign mosaic virus which resulted in flame like effects of different colors on the petals. These select tulips sold at exceptional prices due to their scarcity and unique colorings.
As tulip prices soared, merchants purchased bulbs in hopes to turn around and sell them at profit. From 1634 to 1637, the price of Dutch tulips skyrocketed from one guilder per bulb to sixty guilders per bulb. Many traders would sell all of their possessions to purchase a few tulip bulbs to then sell them for more of a profit than could ever be made in their lifetime as a trader. At the peak of this economic turmoil, in 1637, a single tulip bulb could sell for ten times the average annual income of a middle class worker. Around this same time, the tulip infatuation spread to Paris and England, and tulips were even being traded on the London Stock Exchange.
Steep tulip prices brought about some bewildering stories such as a sailor who accidentally ate an exceptionally rare tulip bulb, thinking it was an onion. The sailor was put in jail for several months due to his mistake because the “onion” in question held so much value that it could have fed the crew of his ship for an entire year. Another similar story tells of an innocent English botanist who was ignorant of the Dutch craze for tulips at the time. The English traveler peeled and dismembered an Admiral Von der Eyk tulip, misjudging it for a rare species of onion. The perplexed botanist was chased by a mob of people before he was brought to a judge who sentenced him to jail time until he could pay for the damage from his misinterpretation.
In the winter of 1636-1637, the Dutch tulip trend suddenly came to a halt. A default on a tulip contract was the key element that caused the tulip market to implode. In a period of just a few days, the worth of tulip bulbs dropped to only a hundredth of their previous prices. At one point, the Dutch government extended to honor contracts at 10% of their original face value, which resulted in the market taking an even deeper dive. The abrupt end to this extravagant craze ended the Dutch Golden Age and flung the country into an economic depression for several years.