In 1551, Flemish herbalist and diplomat Ogier de Besbeque was the Viennese ambassador to the Ottoman Empire. He found an unusual flower there, having a long stem leading to a cup-shaped blossom with silken petals.
de Besbeque wrote of his find to a botanist friend in Flanders, Carolus Clusius. Seeds soon followed the letter, and subsequently a crate of bulbs.
Inspired by Marco Polo and others, Europeans had been intrigued by exotic imports from the East for more than 2 centuries. The tulip was a flower of rare beauty.
In their natural state, unaffected by disease, tulips are a solid color in every hue except true blue: from pure white to an almost-black deep purple.
Attacked by the mosaic virus, tulip flowers display what is known as breaking: the natural color interrupted by irregular streaks. Once infected, a tulip bulb will produce flowers of the same pattern year after year.
The mosaic virus does no harm to a bulb or its longevity. It affects only the regularity of a flower’s coloring.
A desirable broken pattern can be replicated by planting a solid-color flower bulb in the same soil. The virus creates a known pattern in what may be a distinctive color. Hence, variety can be controlled: rendering the tulip a flower both unique and selectively variable. Clusius sussed this and laid the foundations for Dutch tulip breeding. (That tulip breaking was caused by a virus was not discovered until the late 19th century.)
Starting as a fad of prized beauty, tulips soon grew in demand. With such a long supply chain in the 16th century, demand quickly created scarcity; whence the first speculative economic bubble bloomed.
By the start of the 17th century, single bulbs of new tulip varieties were considered acceptable dowry payments for brides in many parts of Europe. One French businessman traded his flourishing brewery for a particular tulip bulb.
What was generally true in Europe struck strongly in the Netherlands. In a small, homogeneous society, word travels fast. Greedy impulse feeds the social fear of being left behind. The impetus for mass hysteria was in place.
Geology favored the Dutch. Tulips flourish best in sandy, well-drained soil. For eons, the mountains of Europe eroded into sand that flowed out to the Low Countries. Large tracts of the Netherlands were tulip fields in waiting.
Maritime trade had made the Dutch people relatively prosperous, especially after the Netherlands had won its independence from Spain in the wake of the 80 Years’ War.
Bitter religious wars would punctuate the decades ahead. But at the start of the 17th century, Amsterdam – long one of northern Europe’s principal trading centers, and free of sectarian strife – was ready to head the Netherlands to continental ascendance.
Had they been merely pretty flowers, tulips might have simply taken their place in Dutch gardens. Instead, their beauty came an increasingly steep price; hence, tulips became badges of prosperity: a way of announcing social standing.
Many individuals grew suddenly rich. A golden bait hung temptingly out before the people, and, one after the other, they rushed to the tulip marts, like flies around a honeypot. Everyone imagined that the passion for tulips would last forever, and that the wealthy from every part of the world would send to Holland, and pay whatever prices were asked for them. The riches of Europe would be concentrated on the shores of the Zuyder Zee, and poverty banished from the favoured clime of Holland. Nobles, citizens, farmers, mechanics, seamen, footmen, maidservants, even chimney sweeps and old clotheswomen, dabbled in tulips. ~ Scottish journalist Charles Mackay in Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds (1841)
The bubble peaked when contract prices for bulbs of a recently introduced tulip briefly went for more than 10 times the annual income of a skilled craftsman; then the market abruptly collapsed.
Haarlem was a major trading center for tulips and other flowers. Market disintegration began in Haarlem, when, for the first time, there were no buyers at a routine auction. The no-show auction coincided with the height of an outbreak of bubonic plague.
Tulip mania was only the first of innumerable speculative bubbles, all flowing from the same mass psychology that fuels capitalism at its greediest: the prospect of profit for little effort.