In the 17th century, the tulip, one of the Netherland’s national symbols, was subject to a veritable mania that led directly to it being traded on the stock market.

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Costly flowers

Flower pyramid of Delft earthenware. Delft, c. 1700

Floral still life. Hans Bollongier, 1639

Tulips, which came from Turkey, were introduced into the Netherlands in the 16th century. These exotic flowers were greatly admired and numerous species were meticulously recorded, along with their Latin names, in tulip albums. Tulips also often played a prominent role in painted floral still lifes.

In the course of the 17th century, special vases were even designed for tulips. They were usually round with small spouted openings on the top; sometimes the vases had more extravagant shapes. Each opening could hold only a single flower. The full bunches of tulips found nowadays were unimaginable in earlier times. Tulips were extremely expensive and sold individually.

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Mania

Twee tulpen, blad in het Tulpenboek van Jacob Marrel, 1637-1645

Twee tulpen, een schelp, een vlinder en een libel, blad in het Tulpenboek van Jacob Marrel, 1637-1645

Twee tulpen, een schelp en een sprinkhaan, blad in het Tulpenboek van Jacob Marrel, 1637-1645

Tulp, twee takken mirte en twee schelpen. Maria Sibylla Merian, ca. 1660-1700

The tulip’s popularity reached unprecedented, even excessive, heights, in the 1630s. This gave rise to a veritable tulipmania, which held many Dutchmen in its grip in 1636 and 1637. If the flower had initially roused largely scientific interest, from around 1630 on tulips became attractive financially. Tulips and tulip bulbs were bought and sold actively, frantically in fact, and this trade deteriorated into speculation in 1637. Countless people jumped on the bandwagon buying options they could pay later, some even putting up their homes as collateral. The market crashed suddenly in February 1637; prices plummeted and many investors were left penniless.

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Ridicule

Flora's Mallewagen. Spotprent op de tulpenhandel van 1637. Toegeschreven aan Crispijn van de Passe II, 1637

Floraes Gecks-kap. Spotprent op de tulpenhandel van 1637. Pieter Nolpe, 1637

The people who speculated in tulips and tulip bulbs were the object of ridicule in countless pamphlets and prints. After all, vast sums were involved. Yet this way of doing business existed already in the 16th century, for instance in the grain trade. This was called grain futures, which is a polite word for speculation. Futures trading is still current; our present-day options exchange continues to work with a form of futures.

While interest in tulips remained undiminished after the crash in 1637, the market was no longer rife with excess and prices dropped to a more reasonable level. Tulips never lost their popularity, and growers in the west of Holland have continued to develop new varieties to this very day.