Like beanie babies and DrKoop, tulips used to be all the rage.
The U.S. Netherlands Flower Bulb Information Center provides the starting point to this week's story. It goes to great lengths to detail the thievery and skullduggery that accompanied the introduction of the tulip to Holland. In 1593, botanist Carolus Clusius brought tulips from Constantinople to the University of Leiden in Holland, planting the bulbs in a small garden for purposes of medicinal research. He was a right stingy gardener and refused to give or sell any to the locals. Some of his neighbors, looking to make a buck (or florin, or guilder, or whatever) on the exotic new flower from Turkey and disappointed with Clusius's lack of capitalistic fervor, broke into his garden, stole some bulbs, and started the Dutch tulip trade.
Soon enough, a few of the more well-to-do Dutch had tulip bulbs in their gardens with which to impress the ladies. Fads being what they are, the wealthy in Holland subsequently developed a rather inexplicable taste for them and for the next seventy years or so, tulips increased dramatically in popularity and price. As Charles MacKay notes in his Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds (written in 1841), "Many persons grow insensibly attached to that which gives them a great deal of trouble... upon the same principle we must account for the unmerited economia lavished upon these fragile blossoms." Before long, the normally judicious Dutch found themselves going into hock to populate their boudoirs and studies with little clumps of vegetable matter (the bulbs were quickly regarded as being far too valuable to actually plant). Vast amounts of property changed hands to procure tulip bulbs to display in one's home, much to the befuddlement of outsiders. A speculative bubble ensued, and tulip bulbs, while fairly ordinary in the eyes of flower mongers today, were wildly overvalued. Indeed, MacKay tells us
One would suppose that there must have been some great virtue in this flower to have made it so valuable in the eyes of so prudent a people as the Dutch; but it has neither the beauty nor the perfume of the rose....
For some fiscal perspective, another contemporary writer, Munting, outlines a transaction between two merchants for one (1) Viceroy tulip:
Two lasts of wheat
Other than this list, MacKay offers an explanation of the price of tulips in Dutch florins, a rather dry notation which we here at History House will endeavor to replace. Noting that in 1636 one thousand lbs. of cheese cost 120 florins, we will use a price notation consisting of cheese tonnage. That makes the above Viceroy tulip worth about ten tons of cheese (2500 florins). MacKay notes "even an inferior bulb might command a price of 2000 florins," and that "a Semper Augustus was thought to be very cheap at 5500 florins [23 tons]." That's a lot of cheese. Today, the Netherlands exports 1.2 billion tulip bulbs annually (12 billion tons of cheese!). For the sake of completeness, we'll also note that the U.S. Netherlands Flower Bulb Information Center purports that a Semper Augustus cost the equivalent of $2,250 contemporary U.S. dollars in 1636. That means, with their figures, you ought to be able to purchase all of the items on the above list for $1,250 (twelve fat sheep!). Perhaps they ought to use the cheese method.
Fortunately, for our amusement, MacKay also notes that, "People who had been absent from Holland, and whose chance it was to return when this folly was at its maximum, were sometimes led to awkward dilemmas by their ignorance." He goes on to tell a story of a merchant who received good news of a shipment from a sailor, and, delighted, offered him breakfast in the form of a red herring.
The sailor had, it appears, a great partiality for onions, and seeing a bulb very like an onion lying upon the counter of this liberal trader, and thinking it, no doubt, very much out of place among silks and velvets, he slily seized an opportunity and slipped it into his pocket, as a relish for his herring. He got clear off with his prize, and proceeded to the quay to eat his breakfast. Hardly was his back turned when the merchant missed his valuable Semper Augustus, worth 3000 florins [12.5 tons!] ... the sailor, simple soul! Had not thought of concealment. He was found quietly sitting on a coil of ropes, masticating the last morsel of his "onion".
He went to jail for months, of course. Fortunately, MacKay also puts this whole scene in perspective for us:
Anthony caused pearls to be dissolved in wine to drink the health of Cleopatra; Sir Richard Whittington was as foolishly magnificent in an entertainment to King Henry V; and Sir Thomas Gresham drank a diamond dissolved in wine to the health of Queen Elizabeth... but the breakfast of this roguish Dutchman was as splendid as either. He had an advantage, too, over his wasteful predecessors: their gems did not improve the taste or the wholesomeness of their wine, but his tulip was quite delicious with his red herring.
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