Deep inside the long, low-lying cordon of islands that separated the northern provinces of the Dutch Republic from the North Sea stood the West Friesland town of Hoorn. It was a port of moderate size, built upon a sheltered bay that faced south onto the Zuider Zee, the huge inland sea that cut the United Provinces almost in two. Until the 1550s Hoorn had been one of the most important places in the Netherlands, thriving on the Baltic trade. Now, nearly one hundred years later, the ships that had once unloaded cargoes of hemp and timber at its docks sailed on to Amsterdam. Hoorn was dying; the port had slipped into a long, slow decline from which it was never to recover.
Somewhere in the center of this ruined town, in the first half of the seventeenth century, stood a house with three stone tulips carved into its facade. There was nothing else special about the building, apart from the fact that it was eventually converted into a Catholic church. But this was where the tulip mania began.
The stone flowers were placed there to commemorate the sale of the house, in the summer of 1633, for three rare tulips. It was in this year, according to the chronicle of a local historian named Theodorus Velius, that the price of bulbs reached unprecedented heights in West Friesland. When news of the sale of the tulip house got out, a Frisian farmhouse and its adjoining land also changed hands for a parcel of bulbs.
These remarkable transactions, which took place in a part of the United Provinces that had been badly battered by a recession, were the first sign that something approaching a mania had begun to flourish. For three decades flower lovers had used money to buy tulips. Now—for the first time—tulips were being used as money. And just as strikingly, they were being valued at huge sums.
It is difficult to be certain how significant the sale of the tulip house was without knowing what sort of flowers were involved in the sale. But even though the price of homes in West Friesland might not have been high compared with those in Amsterdam, a decent-sized house within the walls of Hoorn would hardly have changed hands for less than five hundred guilders or so, and good-quality farmland would probably have been more expensive than that; the value of each bulb would therefore have been high by the standards of the time. It is true that bulb prices had been rising for some years before 1633, and some equally startling transactions of which no record has survived may have taken place in earlier years; it is also likely that if a farm really did change hands for some bulbs, the man who sold it was a connoisseur landowner who possessed many other properties and passed this one on to an equally wealthy acquaintance complete with a sitting tenant, rather than a farmer disposing of his only means of earning a living. Yet even so these transactions were on a much larger scale than anything that had taken place in the 1620s.
The flower trade was changing too. The bulbs that were bought and sold in the 1630s were not out-and-out rarities such as Semper Augustus, which could not be obtained for any sum, but other superbly fine varieties and, later, tulips of a lesser quality, most of which— while available only in limited numbers—could be bought from professional growers who would sell them to anyone who could pay their prices. And as the number of people attracted to the bulb trade increased, the price of the most favored varieties began to rise: slowly at first, but more rapidly from the end of 1634. This acceleration continued through 1635 until, by the winter of 1636, the value of some bulbs could double in little more than a week.
The tulip mania climaxed in just two mad months: December 1636 and January 1637. In those few weeks people and money poured into the tulip trade as Dutchmen across the United Provinces rushed to invest whatever they possessed in bulbs. Naturally this sharp increase in demand pushed prices higher still. For a while at least, everyone made money. And that attracted yet more novice florists to the trade.
A contemporary chronicler gave some idea of the way prices rose. An Admirael de Man that had been bought for 15 guilders was resold for 175; one of the Bizarden, Gheel en Root van Leyde, increased in value twelvefold, from 45 guilders to a princely 550, and a Generalissimo tenfold, from 95 guilders to 900. The price of another superbly fine tulip, Generael der Generaelen van Gouda—the highly coveted “General of Generals,” a large flower with flaming scarlet stripes on a white ground whose unwieldy title was soon abbreviated, simply, to “Gouda”—rose by two-thirds between December 1634 and December 1635, then by a further 50 percent in the six months between December and May 1636. After that it tripled in value once again between June 1636 and January 1637, so that a bulb that was already expensive, priced at 100 guilders at the beginning of the boom, was worth no less than 750 just two years later.
Naturally the prices quoted for a single bulb of the most celebrated of all tulips, Semper Augustus, rose sharply too—from 5,500 guilders a bulb in 1633 to an astonishing 10,000 guilders in the first month of 1637. The last sum mentioned could have been afforded only by a few dozen people in the whole of the Dutch Republic. It was enough to feed, clothe, and house a whole Dutch family for half a lifetime, or sufficient to purchase one of the grandest homes on the most fashionable canal in Amsterdam for cash, complete with a coach house and an eighty-foot garden—and this at a time when homes in that city were as expensive as property anywhere in the world.
Such profits were startling, even in a country where the economy had recovered from the recession of the 1620s and it was possible once again for money to be made in every profession from spice dealing to soap boiling. Those who tried the bulb trade and profited from it could not resist telling their friends and family about the source of their good fortune; the novelty and the implausibility of making money from flowers ensured that their stories were told and retold—losing, it is certain, nothing in the process. By the end of 1634 or the beginning of 1635, lurid tales of the money to be made in tulips were the talk of Holland.
One such anecdote mentioned a piece of farmland on Schermer polder that changed hands for half a dozen flowers; another told of a man who was so addicted to the tulip trade that the woman he had planned to marry left him for another. A third story concerned a rich merchant from Amsterdam who was said to have purchased a fabulously rare Rosen bulb, which he put down for a moment on a counter in his warehouse. When he looked again, he discovered it had vanished, and his servants turned the place upside down in their search for the flower without success. Finally the merchant realized it must have been taken by a sailor—just returned from a three-year voyage to the East Indies and completely ignorant of the tulip craze—who had been in the warehouse at the time. He scoured Amsterdam for the man and eventually found him sitting on a coil of rope down at the docks and chewing on the last portions of the precious bulb, which he had mistaken for an onion. When the merchant realized what had happened, he had the sailor seized and thrown into prison. A fourth tale was told of an English traveler, similarly ignorant of tulips, who used his pocketknife to dissect a bulb he found lying in the conservatory of his wealthy Dutch host. Unfortunately for him, it proved to be an Admirael van der Eijck (a Rosen variety adorned with exceptionally strong, straight bloodred stripes) worth no less than four thousand guilders. The inquisitive Englishman, too, soon found himself hauled before the magistrates and made to pay for his transgression. Or so the story went.
In truth, these and the welter of other anecdotes that circulated about the tulip trade were implausible at best, impossible at worst. Many were nothing more than common gossip, and the rest appear to have begun life as simple morality tales, spun perhaps in pulpits, which warned of the dangers of dealing in flowers. But if they were intended to deter people from dabbling in tulips, such tales of excess were anything but effective. They made bulbs seem desirable, profit certain. Excited talk about the money that could be made in the tulip trade drove more and more people to try it for themselves.
What made so many people, from so many different professions, so keen to try their luck in a trade of which almost all of them were completely ignorant? The lure of profit, certainly, and the prospect of making far more money than they had ever had before. It helped, too, that the United Provinces was just emerging from a lengthy recession—that lasted for most of the 1620s and was the worst of the entire seventeenth century—caused in part by the renewal of the war with Spain and the effects of a Spanish blockade. This depression was followed by an increasingly feverish boom in the Dutch economy as a whole, which began in 1631 or 1632 and gathered pace toward the end of the decade and meant that in many cases there was more money around than ever before. Much more local factors, however, also had an impact. Many of the weavers who were drawn to the bulb trade came from the town of Haarlem, a dozen miles to the west of Amsterdam, where even the general boom could not prevent the linen business from falling into sharp decline as Leiden came to dominate the Dutch cloth industry.
Another influence was a severe outbreak of bubonic plague that exactly coincided with the tulip mania, striking many Dutch cities between 1633 and 1637. The chronicler Theodorus Schrevelius, who lived in Haarlem throughout this period, recorded that the disease killed eight thousand of his fellow citizens between its first appearance in October 1635 and its eventual disappearance in July 1637. Of these more than 5,700 died of plague while the bulb trade was close to its height between August and November 1636—one in eight of the total population of the city, so many that there were not graves enough to hold the dead. The appalling impact of the plague had two significant consequences. One was that it created a shortage of labor and thus resulted in a rise in wages as employers competed for manpower; this would have helped to create surplus income that could be plowed into the bulb trade. The other—or so it has been suggested—was to create a mood of fatalism and desperation among the traders themselves, which may have contributed to the abandon with which they dealt their bulbs.
Whether they were optimistic or fatalistic, the novice florists who did decide to try their luck in the tulip trade could hardly have hoped to possess a flower as valuable as a Gouda or an Admirael van der Eijck; they would have begun by buying and selling the cheapest available bulbs. The historian Simon Schama has suggested that newcomers were able to gain a foothold in what was already an expensive market because the professional growers happened to introduce an unusually large number of new varieties in 1634, which had the effect of depressing prices. There does not appear to be any direct evidence that this was the case, and anyway it was the newest—and thus scarcest—varieties that were generally also the most expensive. What seems more likely is that some of the older and more established tulips had multiplied by this date to the point where they became generally available and modestly priced. It was by buying and selling these flowers that the newcomers must have entered the market.
Entering the tulip trade was simple. Investing in a few bulbs required having a little money and access to a nearby nursery but little else. In the first half of 1635, then, the market for bulbs began to flourish as never before throughout the United Provinces, springing up wherever tulips were readily available. Groups of florists emerged in every town where connoisseurs or growers were already well established: in Haarlem and Amsterdam; in Gouda and Rotterdam; in Utrecht and Delft, Leiden and Alkmaar; and in Enkhuizen, Medemblik, and Hoorn.
The growers and the connoisseurs did more than simply provide the newcomers with stock. The trade they had created was already ordered and established. There were no arcane laws to master, no complications to be overcome. The rules for buying and selling flowers were based on simple common sense, and they were well known and well accepted long before the first florists began dealing in tulips.
The earliest sales were probably by the bulb, but this changed as the number of available flowers increased, and it would appear that by 1610 some less valuable tulips were already being sold “by the bed,” a unit of exchange that does not seem to have been precisely defined. The legal archives of Haarlem contain the record of the sale, in 1611, of four beds of tulips planted by an apothecary called Joos to one Jan Brants, who paid the already considerable sum of two hundred guilders. The next year Brants bought two more beds of tulips that belonged jointly to a certain Dammis Pietersz. and a Haarlem brewer named Augustijn Steyn. They cost him another 450 guilders.
Sometime after that (when is not clear) it became possible to buy and sell offsets as well as mother bulbs. This was an obvious next step, because logic dictated that offsets, which after all would soon become bulbs themselves, must be worth something in their own right. Nevertheless, this extension to the trade was fraught with difficulty because it was impossible to guarantee that offsets would mature satisfactorily or, as we have seen, that the tulips they produced would be identical to those of the mother bulb. Because of these problems, trading in offsets was something of a risk, and the idea took some time to win favor. When, in the spring of 1611, a Haarlem connoisseur named Andries Mahieu was asked if he would sell a linen merchant of his acquaintance some offshoots, he replied by asking his friend if he really wanted to buy “a cat in a bag.” This statement so imprinted itself in the mind of one bystander, the gardener Marten de Fort, that it survived to be recorded in the legal archives too.
Trading offsets was significant for another reason. Clusius and the other early growers already knew that bulbous plants prosper best if they are lifted from the soil soon after the flowers of one season have fallen, then are dried off and preserved aboveground until autumn. The buying and selling of bulbs therefore occurred only during the summer months when the tulips were out of the ground and could be physically exchanged. Offsets, on the other hand, mature only over a period of several years, so it was tempting to sell them when they first appeared.
Dealing in offsets was the first step to liberating the tulip trade from its traditional dependence on the calendar. Some of the buying and selling that had previously been crammed into no more than four months could now be spread throughout the year. By itself the sale of the odd offset a few months before it was actually ready to be separated from its mother bulb posed no threat to the stability of the tulip trade. But it set a dangerous precedent, and as more and more florists came flooding into the market, the pressure to make tulip dealing a year-round affair only grew.
A trading season that ran only from June until September made perfect sense to the connoisseurs, who preferred to see a plant in flower before they considered buying it and wanted to complete all their purchases for the year in time for the bulbs to be returned to the flower bed. But it was highly limiting for the new breed of tulip dealers. Because they generally had no interest in cultivating their bulbs, the old distinctions between the growing season and the lifting season meant little to the florists, who took less pleasure than their predecessors in the physical beauty of the tulip and more in its potential to earn them money. The newcomers wanted to wring as much profit from their flowers as they could, and while a handful may have appreciated the benefits of planting the bulbs and making money from their offsets, most were far more interested in buying tulips simply to resell them.
From the autumn of 1635, then, the bulb trade changed fundamentally and forever. Ignoring the customs of the connoisseurs, increasing numbers of florists progressed from trading only tulips that they had in their possession to buying and selling flowers that were still in the ground. Bulbs then ceased to be the unit of exchange; now the only thing that changed hands was a promissory note—a scrap of paper giving details of the flower being sold and noting the date on which the bulb would be lifted and available for collection.
There were advantages to the new system. It certainly permitted trading to take place throughout the months of autumn, winter, and spring; and because the bulbs stayed where they were until lifting time no matter who their new owner was, it was very appealing to florists who had neither the skill nor the desire to cultivate bulbs themselves. But it was potentially very dangerous too. Buyers had no opportunity to inspect the bulbs they were buying or to see them in flower. There was no guarantee of quality. And a florist could not be sure that the bulbs he was purchasing really belonged to the seller, or even if they actually existed.
The Dutch called this phase of the tulip craze the windhandel, which can be translated as “trading in the wind.” It was a phrase rich in meaning. To a seaman it meant the difficulties of navigating a ship steering close to the breeze. To a stockbroker it was a reminder that both the tulip traders’ stock and their profits were so much paper in the wind. To the florists, however, the windhandel meant trading pure and simple, unregulated and unconfined.
It was this innovation that made the greatest excesses of the mania possible. The introduction of promissory notes did much more than make the tulip trade a business that could flourish all the year round; it turned dealing into an exercise in speculation, and—because delivery was usually months away—it encouraged the sale and resale not so much of bulbs but of the notes themselves.
Flowers that had once been valued for their beauty now became nothing but abstractions for dealers who cared only for their profits, and the repeated transfer of a dubious claim to ownership from one dealer to another became the chief characteristic of the bulb trade. Before long, to the scandal of straight-laced contemporaries, it became perfectly normal for florists to sell tulips they could not deliver to buyers who did not have the cash to pay for them and who had no desire ever to plant them.
By agreeing to purchase bulbs that would not be ready for delivery for several months, the tulip traders had created what would today be called a futures market—simply defined, a form of speculation in which a dealer gambles on the future price of some commodity, whether it be flower bulbs or oil, by promising to pay a specified price for the goods on a fixed date sometime in the future. This was an event of some historical significance. In the 1630s the whole concept of futures was still a novelty. The very earliest futures markets had been organized in Amsterdam less than thirty years earlier, the invention of merchants who traded in timber, hemp, or spices on the Dutch stock exchange. Tulips were the first commodity to be bought and sold outside the markets of Amsterdam, and the first to be traded by anyone other than high-ranking merchants and stock exchange specialists.
This, of course, was a large part of their appeal. By 1635 the regents and the great merchants of the United Provinces could choose to invest their money in a variety of ways. They could earn guaranteed interest by buying government bonds or depositing their cash with one of the many new banks that were springing up. If they felt a little more adventurous, they could buy shares at the stock exchange or purchase a stake in a local drainage project or in a ship off to trade in the Americas. Each of these investments, though, required a substantial amount of capital, and so far as the artisans, the tradesmen, and the tenant farmers of the republic were concerned, it was all but impossible to find a profitable way of investing the little money that they had. There were no mutual funds in the seventeenth century, no certificates of deposit, no personal equity plans, no tax breaks, and no tax shelters. For a Haarlem weaver investment meant buying more flax or making a down payment on a new loom. Now suddenly there was a new way of making money—one that seemed alluringly simple and straightforward, appeared to guarantee profit, and above all required little in the way of capital.
Futures trading is a highly speculative way of doing business, but it has significant advantages. It satisfies a seller, who might, for example, be awaiting a cargo due to arrive from overseas, and who is at any rate himself probably not yet in possession of whatever he is selling. He in effect sells the risk that the price of his goods will fall before he can get them to market; he can demand a deposit (say, 10 percent) of the agreed price; and being guaranteed a definite sum of money on a fixed date, he can arrange his finances accordingly. It can also be a highly profitable arrangement for a buyer, so long as he guesses correctly whether prices will rise or fall. For example, a florist who offered a hundred guilders for a promissory note guaranteeing him ownership of a Gouda when it was lifted in four months’ time wagered that he would be able to sell the note for more than that amount before he became liable to pay for the bulb. If he could actually get no more than, say, eighty guilders for his piece of paper, he would of course lose twenty guilders come lifting time, but in the constantly rising market for tulips, gambling on future prices must have seemed absurdly simple, and the chances of actually making a loss would have struck most of those who now flocked to buy bulbs as remote.
In truth, though, futures trading was anything but simple, and it was very much riskier than it at first appeared. Indeed, it was exceptionally dangerous. A florist with capital of only fifty guilders who was certain that prices would continue to rise might, for instance, throw caution to the wind and agree to purchase five of the hundred-guilder Goudas. His money would be enough to pay a deposit of 10 percent on each bulb, and if by lifting time the price of the tulips had doubled, his fifty guilders would have made him the owner of a thousand guilders’ worth of bulbs. After selling the flowers at the new, higher price, he could pay the balance of his obligation and walk away with a clear profit of five hundred guilders. Thus, if the trade remained buoyant, poor artisans could indeed hope to make huge fortunes from flower bulbs. But should the price of tulips fall, catastrophe was certain and bankruptcy all but inevitable. If Goudas halved in value, for example, the florist who had invested his entire savings of fifty guilders in bulbs would be facing a loss of two hundred guilders—a sum he could not possibly hope to pay.
The Dutch government had long been acutely aware of the risks of “selling short,” as it is known. Indeed, it had consistently ruled that trading commodities that were not in the possession of either the buyer or the seller was not merely dangerous but fundamentally immoral. Less than two years after the practice was introduced in 1608, it was banned, and laws repeating the prohibition on futures trading were passed in 1621, 1623, 1624, 1630, and 1636. The trade in tulip futures that developed in the 1630s was thus technically illegal, but the fact that the parliament of the United Provinces made six separate attempts to stamp the practice out amply demonstrates how little chance any such ban had of being properly enforced.
Selling short, then, was dangerous, even when the goods concerned were as simple and straightforward as a cargo of Baltic timber. But tulips were an unusually volatile commodity, even by the elastic standards of the futures trade. A merchant who dealt in timber knew precisely what he was buying. A florist purchasing a tulip for delivery at lifting time had no idea. He was gambling on a living thing. To be successful, he needed not just a shrewd understanding of the price his bulb might command in several months’ time, but some idea of what was happening to it while it was still in the ground.
The best way of making money on a flower was to buy one that was about to develop offsets that could be removed and sold separately. Bulbs that were likely to grow rapidly were thus more valuable than either immature flowers or those that were already fully developed and unlikely to produce more than a few more offsets before they died. But even the most experienced growers found it difficult to predict accurately what a single bulb of one particular variety would do, and so far as novice florists were concerned, bulb dealing was an exercise in pure speculation.
In order to give tulip traders the basic information they needed to guess how a bulb might develop after planting, it became customary to indicate the weight of each bulb when it had been returned to the ground. Weights were given in azen (“aces”), an extremely tiny unit of measurement borrowed from the goldsmiths. One ace was equal to rather less than two-thousandths of an ounce—one-twentieth of a gram—and mature tulip bulbs might weigh anything from fifty aces to more than a thousand, depending on the variety. As well as indicating the date on which a flower would be ready for lifting, then, the promissory notes that were exchanged by florists also noted the bulb’s weight when planted, and the ledgers each dealer used to record his purchases always included a column in which the dealer listed the size of his bulbs in aces.
From this it was only a short step to selling tulips not by the bulb but by the ace. In one respect this had the desired effect of making trading fairer. Under the old system of paying by the bulb, a florist would have been charged the same for an immature tulip weighing, say, a hundred aces, which might not produce offsets for another year or more, as he would for a mature specimen of four hundred aces. Paying by the ace, he was charged a price that more accurately reflected the development of the bulb. But the new system also meant that prices increased much more rapidly than before. Most tulips increased substantially in size while they were in the ground, so even if the price charged per ace for a given variety did remain completely unchanged from the moment a flower was planted in September or October until it was lifted the following June, the value of the bulb was still almost certain to increase significantly.
The records of the tulip trade offer examples of just how dramatically the money invested in a single bulb could multiply. A Viceroy grown by an Alkmaar wine merchant named Gerrit Bosch in his garden just outside the city walls weighed 81 aces when it was planted in the autumn of 1636. It had grown to 416 aces when it was lifted in July 1637—a fivefold increase. An Admirael Liefkens in the same garden grew from 48 aces to 224 and a Paragon Liefkens from 131 aces to 434. Had the prices paid per ace for these three varieties remained unchanged, Bosch’s customers would have enjoyed returns varying from 330 percent to as much as 514 percent in a scant nine months. There was probably not another investment in the whole of the United Provinces that offered such spectacular results this quickly, and certainly none that all but guaranteed it. Some of the voyages undertaken by the Dutch East India Company, which enjoyed a monopoly on the lucrative spice trade, did deliver profits of 400 percent or more. Yet a single round-trip to the Indies took two years or so to complete, and while they were away, the company’s ships were exposed to the dangers of disease, shipwreck, piracy, and Spanish attack. Even the rich trades, then, exposed the privileged few who were permitted to invest in them to risks unknown to Holland’s florists.
The earliest record of selling by the ace dates to the beginning of December 1634, when the Haarlem grower David de Mildt went with a linen worker named Jan Ocksz. to the garden owned by Jan van Damme on the Kleine Houtweg. On de Mildt’s advice, Ocksz. purchased two Goudas weighing thirty aces for thirty stuivers—one and a half guilders—per ace. He also bought two Admirael van der Eijcks, paying not by the ace but 132 guilders for each tulip, which suggests that the old system of dealing by the bulb was still in use in 1634. By 1635, however, all surviving records refer to bulbs sold by the ace.
As the tulip trade grew in confidence and complexity, florists occasionally elaborated on this basic system. It was, for example, possible to purchase bulbs on condition that they had reached a minimum weight by the time they were lifted. In another case that involved David de Mildt, a Haarlem clog maker named Henrick Lucasz. bought two tulips—a Rosen variety, Saeyblom van Coningh, and a Violetten named Latour—at an auction organized by one Joost van Haverbeeck at the end of October 1635. With de Mildt as a witness, Lucasz. agreed to pay thirty guilders for the Saeyblom and twenty-seven guilders for the Latour, but with the guarantee that the bulbs would weigh at least seven and a half aces and sixteen aces respectively when lifted. But at lifting time they were found to weigh no more than two aces and about thirteen aces, so Lucasz. asked van Haverbeeck to return the money he had paid in advance. Van Haverbeeck, a Haarlem dealer possessed of a notoriously short temper, indignantly refused to make a refund, and the matter ended up in the hands of a lawyer. (If anything, Lucasz. escaped relatively lightly. The records of the time show that van Haverbeeck and his equally abrasive father repeatedly issued violent threats against some of their customers and were the principal suspects when the valuable tulips growing in de Mildt’s garden were vandalized in the winter of 1635.)
Other variations were also possible. A few poorer florists bought shares in expensive bulbs. On one occasion, an Amsterdam grower, Jan Admirael, sold a half share in three bulbs to a customer named Simon van Poelenburch. On another, Admirael entered into a complicated deal with a dealer named Marten Creitser, agreeing to swap several tulips and 180 guilders in cash for eleven paintings and an engraving owned by Creitser.
Nevertheless, the introduction of pricing by the ace did not mean that tulips of a given variety now cost the same everywhere within the Dutch Republic. Since even the most important messages could travel no faster than a man on horseback, there was no way to communicate changes in price quickly and accurately from place to place and thus no single market for tulips. Instead, each town involved in the bulb trade valued flowers slightly differently; some places were generally expensive, others cheap.
Other factors added to the general chaos in pricing. Not only did individual florists have preferences of their own, they were also influenced by which tulips had just been bought and which sold, by which were in fashion and which were becoming more easily available. Large bulbs were generally cheaper per ace than small ones—and when all of these factors were taken into account, even tulips bought in a single place on a single day could vary significantly in price. Seven Goudas, sold in Alkmaar within the space of an hour or two, fetched prices varying from six guilders three stuivers per ace to ten guilders two stuivers, which meant the buyers paid from 765 guilders to 1,500 guilders a bulb. Three tulips of a variety called Paragon van Delft were purchased within minutes for one guilder fourteen stuivers an ace, two guilders four stuivers, and four guilders two stuivers respectively, and bulbs of Admirael van der Eijck weighing 92, 214, and 446 aces sold for 710, 1,045, and 1,620 guilders apiece.
The rapid increase in bulb prices in 1635 and the first half of 1636 had important consequences. Wealthy growers and dealers who had hitherto traded bulbs only to connoisseurs or among themselves recognized that there were new opportunities to make money. They began to offer their flowers to the florists who were streaming into the market. Then as a next step, some banded together so as to maximize their capital or improve the variety of stock they had to offer. A number of companies were formed to trade in bulbs. In September 1635, for example, the Haarlem merchant Cornelius Bol the Younger went into partnership with a grower named Jan Coopall; Bol contributed no less than 8,746 guilders 2 stuivers to the capital of the company. And in December 1636 the Haarlemmers Henrick Jacobsz. and Roeland Verroustraeten went into business with Philips Jansz. and Matthijs Bloem of Amsterdam. The articles of their company explained in some detail how the business would operate. The thirty-five-year-old Verroustraeten, who was probably already an experienced trader, was the only one authorized to deal in bulbs, and he would buy and sell tulips with money put up by the other three directors. All four directors agreed to trade only on behalf of the company and never on their own account.
By the autumn of 1636 both the tulip companies and the professional growers must have been thinking carefully about what stock to plant for the next season. The most valuable flowers—the Admiraels, Generaels, Generalissimos, and their kin—were already too expensive for many florists to afford, and the poorer traders at the bottom of the market had begun to ask for less favored tulips that were available in greater quantity and were significantly cheaper. Like the superbly fine varieties that had been the basis of the bulb trade in the early 1630s, these flowers were termed “piece goods”—that is, tulips that were bought and sold as single bulbs—but because their prices were low, they were quoted not by the ace but in multiples of a thousand aces. Varieties sold in this way included several that became famous in their own right later on, such as the vermilion-streaked Rotgans and Oudenaers and the unusual white-on-purple Lack van Rhijn.
The number of people involved in dealing bulbs was also swiftly increasing, as florists from the artisan class flocked to join the connoisseurs and merchants who had long been involved in the tulip trade. Some ambitious artisans began to buy and sell the flowers in 1634 or 1635, but it was not until the autumn of the following year that the poorer florists entered the market in large numbers, with the greatest influx of newcomers coming in December 1636 and January 1637.
They came from all walks of life. According to one contemporary pamphleteer, their numbers included bricklayers and carpenters, woodcutters and plumbers, glass blowers, farmers, and tradesmen, peddlers and charcuterers, confectioners, smiths, cobblers, coffee grinders, guards, and vintners—not to mention dry shavers, furriers and tanners, coppersmiths and clergymen, printers and lawyers, schoolmasters, millers, and even demolition men. Thus while the legal records of the tulip trade suggest that as late as the summer of 1636 the majority of tulips were still being sold by their growers direct to customers who planned to plant them in their gardens, by the autumn the market had been all but taken over by florists who bought and sold simply to make a profit.
Few details of the frenzied trading that took place as the tulip boom peaked in the last two or three months of 1636 have survived, but a short series of pamphlets containing a fictionalized account of the tavern trade—published in Haarlem at the beginning of 1637—are agreed to be both reliable and representative of what actually occurred. These are the three Samenspraeck tusschen Waermondt ende Gaergoedt (“Conversations between Truemouth and Greedygoods”), written by an unknown author and published by Adriaen Roman, the principal printer then living in Haarlem.
The Gaergoedt of the pamphlets is a weaver who has abandoned his craft to become a florist. He has mortgaged all the tools of his trade to provide himself with working capital, and he now travels from town to town dealing in bulbs. On a rare visit home he meets his old colleague Waermondt, who has yet to become involved in the burgeoning craze, and offers him wine and beer. Then Gaergoedt attempts to persuade his friend to enrich himself by buying and selling tulips. At present, he points out, Waermondt struggles to make a profit of 10 percent on his business. With tulips he will make 100 percent or more: “Yes, ten for one, a hundred for one, and sometimes a thousand.”
The Samenspraecken take a predictably moralistic view of the tulip trade. Gaergoedt is hubristic and sublimely, stupidly confident that the price of bulbs will go on rising forever. He boasts that he has already earned a fortune from his flowers and that he pays his way through life with bulbs. His friends—gardeners and other weavers—are also rich and drive from town to town and from college to college in richly decorated coaches.
Waermondt, whom the anonymous pamphleteer casts in the role of bemused but honest beginner, finds it hard to believe that a mere weaver can make such sums, and under his questioning Gaergoedt is forced to admit that he has yet to receive most of the money due to him as a result of his successful trading—his profits cannot be realized until the tulips are lifted again the next summer. Still, he says, “this trade goes steady,” and another two or three years in the bulb market will more than set him up for the rest of his life. Then, he says, he will use his profits to buy a brewery, a bailiwick, even a lordship.
Waermondt is incredulous; the whole thing, he thinks, is just too good to be true. He wonders how the common people caught up in the tulip craze dare risk all the money they are borrowing against the profits of the trade. And though he is certainly tempted by the talk of money, he tells his friend he prefers not to take the risk of plunging into the flower business.
In the autumn of 1636 many Dutchmen must have thought, like Waermondt, that the profits being made on tulips were simply too good to be true. But thousands did not, and they took their savings and mortgaged their goods in order to take part in the hurly-burly of the bulb trade.
Most had little access to ready money, but the traders and florists who were already in the market saw an opportunity to sell their flowers to novices who had little understanding of which tulips were valuable and which were not, and it quickly became customary to accept deposits not in cash but in kind. For florists whose wealth—what there was of it—was tied up in their possessions, this meant paying for bulbs with whatever came to hand. The fictional Gaergoedt offered deposits ranging from cloth enough to make a coat and suit to a quarter of prunes. Real florists paid in tools, clothes, and household goods if they were artisans, farm animals or crops if they were farmers, paintings and other luxuries if they were rich. The balance of the purchase price was payable only on delivery, which took place at lifting time. On occasion payment terms could be even more flexible; one agreement, in which the Haarlem shopkeeper Aert Ducens sold his entire garden to a local gentleman named Severijn van de Heuvel for sixteen thousand guilders, specifies that payment would fall due only on New Year’s Day 1638, a full year after the contract was agreed.
The Samenspraecken give further examples of the sort of agreements struck by these inexperienced tulip traders once the idea of paying deposits in kind became generally accepted. As Gaergoedt talks his friend Waermondt through the deals he has made and noted in his ledger, he points out one in which he sold a packet of a variety called Witte Croon—“White Crown”—for 525 guilders in cash, with a deposit of four cows to be paid immediately, and another in which he purchased a quantity of Genten by handing over a deposit of “my best shot coat, one old rose-noble, and one coin with a silver chain to hang around a child’s neck” and agreeing to pay eighteen thousand guilders cash when the bulbs were ready for delivery. Some agreements appear to have been even more complicated than that. For example, the Samenspraecken suggest that florists sometimes offered bulbs of one variety in part exchange for tulips of another. One of Gaergoedt’s most extravagant arrangements called for him to receive a large quantity of Witte Croonen, together with a coach and horses, two silver bowls, and 150 guilders cash. On his part, the weaver agreed to hand over a silver dish worth sixty guilders, an equal amount of Gheele Croonen (“Yellow Crowns”), and two hundred guilders in cash.
As the autumn of 1636 shaded into winter, all seemed well in the flower business. The number of florists and the number of bulbs in circulation both continued to increase. Prices rose steadily. Profits were enormous. Yet in reality the tulip trade that the florists had built rested on the shakiest of foundations.
It was not simply a matter of whether the market could possibly sustain the rapid rise in bulb prices. All sorts of problems occurred when a florist was unable to inspect the flowers he was purchasing. To begin with there was no guarantee that the tulips were being handled with proper care. The Haarlem archives contain the details of a case concerning a local baker named Jeuriaen Jansz., who in the spring of 1636 found a beautiful specimen of Admirael Liefkens flowering in the Amsterdam garden of Marten Creitser. Jansz. struck a deal to buy the offsets. A few months later the baker was sitting in a tavern college when another florist told him the bulb had been lifted prematurely and thus might have been damaged. Jansz. had to threaten legal action to force Creitser to release him from his obligation to purchase the offsets. Even rich connoisseurs ran the risk of buying damaged goods. Cornelis Guldewagen, who had been one of the aldermen of Haarlem, acquired no fewer than thirteen hundred tulips from Anthony van Flory of The Hague and retained Barent Cardoes to plant them in his garden outside the Cruyspoort by the city moat. When the bulbs were unpacked, Cardoes and his assistant found they had been lifted very clumsily and about half had been badly damaged.
The poorly understood mysteries of breaking also caused considerable problems. Anyone who purchased an offset risked buying a breeder bulb rather than the broken tulip he desired. In May 1633 Abraham de Goyer, one of the most prominent tulip dealers of Amsterdam, bought two Paragon Schilders at an auction organized by the man who had created the variety, Abraham de Schilder himself. Paragon Schilder was a new variety and highly coveted; judging by the date that de Schilder chose to hold his auction, de Goyer had probably seen the tulip in flower a few days earlier and been entranced by it. At any rate he paid what was by the standards of the time a substantial price for his two bulbs—fifty guilders for one and forty-one guilders for the other—planted them in his garden just outside the city walls, and settled back to wait nine long months for them to bloom again. Finally, in the spring of 1634, the longed-for tulips flowered—but when they did, the two Paragons proved to be nothing like the glorious Rosens that de Goyer had anticipated. The pure whites and vivid scarlets that the grower had fallen in love with in de Schilder’s garden were nowhere to be seen. De Goyer’s ninety guilders had bought nothing but the muddy colors of inferior breeders. The unfortunate grower was still demanding his money back eighteen months later, even though it was generally accepted that reputable bulb dealers would consider a purchase null and void when an offset failed to match the quality of the mother bulb.
Most serious of all were a handful of cases of outright fraud, which were perhaps inevitable in a market as rich and as poorly regulated as the bulb trade. When tulips of the same variety could often differ quite substantially in appearance, and a poor Viceroy could look much the same as a less valuable Violetten—say, an Admirael van Engeland—it was often difficult to distinguish between real deceit and genuine mistakes, and certainly the legal archives of the Dutch Republic appear to contain few cases that were proven. But Waermondt, in the Samenspraecken, said he had spoken to his cousin, who had experience of the tulip trade, and been told of people who paid for Witte Croonen and received instead worthless unicolored tulips. Of course, because all bulbs looked much the same, frauds such as this were discovered only when the tulips flowered in the spring.
But though problems such as these concerned more conservative and cautious Dutchmen, the florists who flocked to trade in tulips in the autumn of 1636 focused almost solely on the money they were making. Because demand for bulbs was growing day by day, prices were rising more and more quickly; by this time, as the contemporary chronicler Lieuwe van Aitzema recorded, everything that could be called a tulip—even bulbs that had been considered so useless that they had been thrown away on dunghills only months before—was now worth money.
In most respects all that was required for the boom in tulip prices to turn into a full-fledged mania was now in place. Many different varieties had been created, some much coveted but scarce, others less desirable but easier to obtain. A small group of professional gardeners existed to breed new flowers and supply at least some of the demand for the existing ones. A larger group of competent and enthusiastic amateurs, certainly several hundred strong, were also growing tulips in their own gardens, so the flowers could already be found in almost every town. The rules of trading had been established, and there were criteria for measuring a flower’s worth and allotting it a place on a scale that ran from superbly fine to rude. The traders and growers who dominated the trade had been joined by thousands of florists willing to sell everything they owned for bulbs. Finally, prices were higher than they had ever been before. All that was needed now was a way of bringing aspiring tulip dealers together: a place in which to trade.