BBC History Magazine

What was ‘tulipmania’?


Tulips were introduced to Europe from central Asia in the mid-16th century. The flowers’ arrival was greeted with enthusiasm among members of the educated elite, who frequently discussed and exchanged specimens – especially of the fashionabl­e striped varieties.

However, it was in the northern Netherland­s that the flowers found their greatest appeal. High rates of immigratio­n had brought about an injection of capital, and the surplus cash enabled enthusiast­s to cultivate gardens in which tulips became an increasing­ly desirable feature. Although the flowers remained rare overall, the choicest varieties were commanding huge prices by the 1620s.

In 1635–36, an outbreak of plague – and an increasing number of people inheriting money from deceased relatives – led to a trade in tulips springing up in towns such as Haarlem. With prices rising in the autumn of 1636, sellers began to abandon earlier deals in search of higher profits, as the tulips would not have to be delivered until June. January 1637 saw an even steeper rise, but then uncertaint­y set in, and tulips fell to less than 10 per cent of their previous value. Now it was the buyers who would not accept the goods or honour their existing contracts.

Today, textbooks use ‘tulipmania’ as an example of a foolish investment, a view stemming directly from 1630s values expressed in printed propaganda. Yet the scale of the crisis has been exaggerate­d, and my own archival research demonstrat­es that few people actually lost money. The problem was not economic, but cultural: a credit economy facing the destructio­n of trust, on which it depended.

Anne Goldgar, Garrett and Anne Van Hunnick professor of European history at the University of Southern California


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