The Tulip Mania

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The Tulip Mania
by William R. Hooper

Published in Harper's New Monthly Magazine. No. CCCXL, April 1876, Vol. LII.

Anonymous 17th-century watercolor of the Semper Augustus, the most famous bulb, which sold for a record price.


MANKIND is undoubtedly the most reasoning of all the animal race: yet how often does it happen that whole peoples appear to have lost their reasoning faculties! There is something wonderful in the extent to which popular delusions are sometimes carried. Breaking out suddenly, they run through nations like an epidemic; nay, occasionally all civilized nations are infected by them. The frenzy of the Crusades was not confined to one country nor to a single age. Beginning in the tenth century, it was as late as the fifteenth that Columbus assigned as a reason for attempting the discovery of America that thereby money could be obtained for the recovery of the Holy Sepulchre. At one time all France is carried away by the tremendous extravagance of the Mississippi scheme, which raised real estate to such a price that it was valued at one hundred years' purchase, that is, its rent only paid one per cent. on its cost. A little later and England burst out wither her South Sea Bubble, creating such a hunger for special corporations that one man who advertised an unknown scheme to be revealed at the end of the month, ten dollars to be paid down for each share subscribed for, took in $10,000 the first day. The sturdy burghers of Holland took the tulip mania so badly that single bulbs that could not flower till another year would sell for more than $2000 apiece. Nor has our own country been free from these financial epidemics. Many of our readers can remember the Morus multicaulis speculation of forty years ago, and the Eastern land investments a little later. Within ten years Bavaria has been seduced into pouring all its movable wealth into the lap of a woman who had no security to offer, simply because she paid high rates of interest, and covered her banking operations with the flowered robe of priestly confidence. No people is so wise that it is not occasionally carried away by popular frenzy, none so prudent that it will not occasionally make large investments in hope that to-morrow's rise will greatly overpay to-day's risks. And nothing is better calculated to show to the world the dangers of schemes that promise too much than to give their true history; for these schemes always offer to benefit communities without making any addition to their productive powers, and they ask each capitalist to invest not on the intrinsic strength of the plan, but because every body else to is investing.

Such delusions are most fertile in an age of financial ignorance. There has been too large a development of educated common-sense, too much of a study of the principles that underlie the making of money, and, above all, the press is too enlightened and powerful to permit them to beggar whole nations as they once did. The financial crises of the present day are short-lived and confined to commercial centres, but three centuries ago they ruined whole peoples. And what singular speculations they were! Of all things in the world in which to make a corner, to excite a speculation, to be puffed by brokers, it would seem as if flowers would be the last. But that a whole nation should grow mad over bulbs, that the industry of a people should be turned aside from the pursuits of agriculture to that of horticulture, and that the mania should spread from the phlegmatic Dutchman to the phlegmatic Englishman, seems almost incredible. Yet in the beginning of the seventeenth century the desire for tulips had so spread over Europe that no wealthy man considered his garden perfect without his rare collection of tulips. From the aristocracy the rage spread to the middle and the agricultural classes, and merchants and shop-keepers began to vie with each other in the rarity of their flowers and in the prices paid for them. A trader at Haarlem was actually known to pay half his fortune for a single root, not from any expectation of profit in its propagation, but to keep it in his conservatory for the admiration of his acquaintances.

The first tulip in Europe was seen in Augsburg, in Germany, in 1559, and was imported from Constantinople, where it had long been a favorite. Ten or eleven years after this the plant was in great demand in Holland and Germany. Wealthy burghers of Amsterdam sent direct to Constantinople for their precious bulbs, and paid extravagant prices for them. The first roots planted in England were brought from Vienna in the year 1600, and were considered a great rarity. For thirty years tulips continued to grow in reputation. One would suppose there must have been some virtue in this flower that made it so valuable in the eyes of so prudent a people as the Dutch. Yet it has neither the beauty or the perfume of the violet nor the fragrance of the rose. It hardly possesses the beauty of the humble sweet-pea. Its only recommendation is its aristocratic stateliness, and this should hardly have commended it to the only democratic republic on the globe. But it is by no means the first time that fashion has turned ugliness into beauty and rarity into wealth.

In 1634 the rage for tulips among the Dutch was so great that the ordinary industry of the country was neglected, and the whole people turned to the production of tulips. As this mania increased, prices increased with it, until in 1635 merchants were known to have spent $40,000 in the purchase of forty tulips. At this time each species was sold by weight. A tulip of the kind known as the Admiral Lietkin, and weighing 400 grains, would sell for $1800; the Admiral Von der Eycke, weighing 450 grains, was worth $500; a Viceroy of 400 grains would bring $1200. Most precious of all, a Semper Augustus, weighing only 200 grains, was thought to be cheap at $2200. This last species was much sought after, and even an inferior plant would readily sell for $800. When this species was first known, in 1636, there were only two roots of it in Holland, and those not of the best. One belonged to a dealer in Amsterdam, and the other was owned in Haarlem. So anxious were the purchasers for this new variety that one person offered twelve acres of valuable building land for the Haarlem tulip. That of Amsterdam was sold for $1840, a new carriage, two gray horses, and a complete suit of harness. As a specimen of the value of these bulbs we give the actual copy of a bill of sale of certain articles given in exchange for one single root of the Viceroy species:

Two lasts of wheat $179
Two lasts of rye 223
Four fat oxen 192
Eight fat swine 96
Twelve fat sheep 48
Two hogsheads wine 28
Four tuns beer 13
Two tons butter 77
One thousand pounds cheese 48
One bed, complete 40
One suit clothes 32
One silver cup 24

Since that day tulips have declined in value, but wine, butter, and cheese have decidedly advanced.

Strangers who came for the first time into Holland were wholly unable to comprehend the great mania that speared among the people. One wealthy merchant, who prided himself not a little on his magnificent tulip bed, and on the new flowers he was expecting to grow the coming year, received a call one morning early from a sailor, who told him that a ship of his had just arrived, and that he was sent to give him the news. The glad merchant immediately went to the back of his store, selected a nice red herring, and gave it to the sailor for his breakfast. The sailor loved herring much, and onion more; and having just arrived from a foreign voyage, his appetite for vegetables was proportionately sharpened. Seeing a small pile of onions, as he supposed, lying on the merchant's counter, he slyly seized his opportunity, took the top onion, and deposited it in his pocket as a companion to his herring. He then left the store and proceeded to his ship and his breakfast. Hardly had he left when the merchant missed his valuable Semper Augustus bulb, worth $1400. The establishment was soon in an uproar, for the valuable root had just been brought in that morning, and had been noticed by many. After every clerk had been examined, and had declared his innocence, one of them remembered to have seen the sailor drawing his hand away from the pile of roots and putting it in his pocket. The merchant instantly started for the door, and hurried down to his vessel. The first thing he saw was the sailor sitting on a coil of rope eating his breakfast. No sooner had the merchant sprung on board and advanced toward him than the sailor put the last bite of onion into his mouth, and leaned forward to hear what the owner had to say. He sternly denied stealing any tulip, but admitted he did take one onion, "but it didn't have much of the taste of an onion either." The merchant, as he turned away, told the astonished sailor that "it would have been cheaper for him to have breakfasted the Prince of Orange and all his court."

Another story of an English traveler is not less ludicrous. This gentleman was an amateur botanist, traveling to perfect himself in the study of his favorite science. Happening to see a large tulip root on a stand in the conservatory of a wealthy Dutchman, he quietly took out his penknife and began to peel off its coats; for he too took it for an onion, and wanted to discover of what species it was. After he had peeled off half its coverings, he cut it in two to inspect the heart. Just at this moment the old gentleman who owned the conservatory and the bulb turned round to see his precious root cut in two. Seizing the Englishman by the collar, he shouted out, "Do you know what you are about?" "Certainly; I am peeling an onion—a most extraordinary onion too." "Extraordinary!" said the Dutchman. "I should think it was. Why, Sir, it is an Admiral Von der Eycke." "Is it?" replied the Englishman, taking out his pocket-book to note down the name. "And are there many onions of this kind in your country?" The Dutchman could stand it no longer. He instantly forced the Englishman out of his grounds, and led him to the syndic, followed by a great crowd. Here the Englishman was arraigned and tried for stealing and cutting up one tulip worth $1600. The magistrate found the evidence sufficient (especially as the Englishman admitted that he did take and cut up something), fined him $1600, and imprisoned him till the fine was paid.

The demand for tulips of rare species continued to grow till 1636, when it reached its height. Regular marts for their sale were opened on the Stock Exchange of Amsterdam, and at Haarlem, Leyden, and other places. Symptoms of gambling and of time sales soon became prevalent every where. Stock-jobbers, ever alert for new subjects of speculation, dealt largely in tulips. As in all speculative movements, at first every thing rose and every body gained. Tulip jobbers gambled on the rise and fall of bulbs, making large profits by buying when prices were low and selling when they rose. Many individuals grew suddenly rich. It was believed that this mania for flowers was to spread to other lands, and that the wealthy of all nations would send to Holland for tulips, paying whatever prices horticulturists might ask. Holland was expected to be the tulip market of the world, and the riches of Europe were to be concentrated on the shores of the Zuyder-Zee. Nobles, citizens, farmers, mechanics, footmen, and even chimney-sweeps dabbled in tulips. Houses and lands were offered at ruinously low rates that their proceeds might be invested in bulbs that were expected to return a golden crop. To a certain extent the mania did spread beyond the borders of Holland, and money began to flow in from all directions. The prices of the necessaries of life rose, and houses and lands, horses and carriages, and luxuries of every sort rose with the rise of tulips: all commerce rested on a flower bed. So extensive were the operations in roots that it became necessary to draw up a code of laws for the guidance of dealers. Notaries and clerks were appointed, who devoted themselves exclusively to the interests of the tulip trade. In the smaller towns, where there was no exchange, the principal tavern was usually selected as the show place, where high and low traded in tulips, and confirmed their bargains over a good dinner. These dinners were sometimes attended by two or three hundred persons, and large vases of tulips in full bloom were placed at regular intervals along the tables and sideboards.

At last prudent people saw that this could not last forever. Even the wealthy could no longer afford to keep up with the rise of commodities. It was evident that prices must soon fall; and this expectation hastened the crisis. The suspicion became a panic, and every body began to sell, and prices to fall. The difficulty was not only in the actual sales and purchases, but in the purchases on time, which, like all such purchases, were speculative gambling. A suit of law the following year developed the fact that one A had agreed to purchase ten Semper Augustuses from B at $1600 each, flowers to be delivered and prices paid in six weeks. The bargain was made just as prices were trembling in the balance. Before the six weeks had expired every thing was flat, tulips were unsalable, and Semper Augustuses were plenty at $120 each. A refused to take the flowers or pay the difference of $14,800. Defaulters became common through all Holland. Every body had bulbs and nobody had money. The most prudent had sold out in time and invested their profits in English funds. Many substantial merchants were, however, reduced to beggary.

When the financial panic had somewhat subsided, the tulip-holders in the several towns and cities held public meetings to restore public credit. Deputies were sent from all parts of Holland to Amsterdam to concert with the ministry; for a whole nation was affected. Government refused to interfere, and advised the tulip-sellers to settle among themselves. But complaints rose high, and the meetings became of a stormy character. At last it was agreed, after much bickering and ill-will, by all the deputies assembled at Amsterdam that contracts made in the height of the mania, or prior to November, 1636, should be declared null and void, and that all after that date should be released on payment of ten percent. But this decision only gave satisfaction to those whom it relieved. Those who had tulips on hand which they had sold at high prices, but had not delivered, became greatly discontented. Tulips worth at one time $2400 now sold at $200, so that one-tenth was more than they were worth. Again the whole matter was referred to government, and again government refused to interfere. Those who were unlucky enough to have a large stock of tulips on hand at the time of the fall were left to bear their own loss. But the commerce of the country received a shock from which it took years to recover.

The example of the Dutch was, to some extent, imitated in England. In 1636 tulips were publicly sold on the London Exchange, while in Paris jobbers strove in vain to create a tulip mania. They only succeeded in bringing these flowers into great favor, a favor they still retain, after a lapse of two centuries. But the Dutch are to-day prouder of their tulips and their tulip beds than any other nation. In England they are still highly valued, and a tulip will produce more money than an oak. In 1800 rare bulbs sold for $75; and from that time the mania began to spread, so that in 1835 a tulip of the Miss Fanny Kemble species sold at public auction for $370. The principal horticulturist in England has on his catalogue tulips labeled at $1000 each; but this is an exception. The prices in England today for the best kinds are from $25 to $75, according to the rarity of the species.

This work was published before January 1, 1926, and is in the public domain worldwide because the author died at least 100 years ago.