The Orphans of Wouter Winkel

Tulip mania had made Wouter Bartelmiesz. Winkel one of the richest men in the town of Alkmaar. Although a mere tavern keeper by trade (he was the landlord of an inn called the Oude Schutters-Doelen in the center of the town), he could count on the fingers of one hand the number of fellow citizens who were wealthier than he. The only problem, which he shared with every other tulip dealer, was that he could not lay his hands on his money. It lay buried in the ground in the form of bulbs.

Wouter Bartelmiesz. seems to have come originally from the village of Winkel, which lies about ten miles to the north of Alkmaar in the farthest tip of the province of Holland. His parents, while not wealthy, appear to have been reasonably well off. His brother Lauris was able to complete an apprenticeship and become a goldsmith—always one of the best-paid occupations to which a member of the artisan class could aspire—and when Wouter married Elisabet Harmans in 1621, he was able to promise his wife that they could afford a large family of their own. No fewer than seven of the children he had with Elisabet survived infancy, and because even in 1636 only one, fourteen-year-old Willem, was old enough to start earning his own living, the whole family must have been supported by the profits of the tavern and Winkel’s bulb trade.

Alkmaar was one of the smaller towns of the United Provinces, but to a villager from Winkel it must have held all the allure of a metropolis. It was the market town for much of what was called the North Quarter of Holland, where it competed with its ancient rivals Hoorn and Enkhuizen for trade, and it was a notoriously independent place, uninterested in conforming to the fashions of the rest of the republic. The women of Alkmaar, for example, almost alone among the Dutch, did not wear white linen caps but fashioned their hair into an extraordinary style—all interwoven braids—that resembled a sort of helmet.

The expanse of countryside that the town dominated had shrunk considerably since the Middle Ages, when it had effectively controlled most of North Holland and even several of the islands strung across the mouth of the Zuider Zee, but it was still surrounded by rich farmland and had benefited considerably from the recent draining of some of the small lakes to the south. The town specialized in beef and dairy produce and particularly in the huge wheel-shaped cheeses that had already made the United Provinces famous throughout Europe.

The Winkel family seems to have prospered in Alkmaar for a while, but like every other family of the period, they lived lives that were permanently on the brink of tragedy. Even during its Golden Age the Dutch Republic remained prey to many of the dangers that made life in seventeenth-century Europe so frequently miserable. It was an era of war and want, short life expectancy, recurrent plague, and high infant mortality; the few doctors were still all but helpless in the face of even common illnesses, and the potions and cures they did prescribe were frequently deadlier than the illnesses they were supposed to counter. Few families could hope to go through life without losing a child or two, a husband, or a wife.

In the Winkel family it was Elizabet Harmans who went first. She died sometime between 1631 and 1635, perhaps of disease, perhaps in childbirth, leaving her husband with three boys and four young girls to care for. There is no record of a second marriage, so the presumption is that Winkel struggled on very much alone, his older children helping to take care of their younger brothers and sisters, perhaps with the assistance of a servant or the serving girls at the Oude Schutters-Doelen.

In those days Dutch children began their schooling at the age of seven, so the whole family except the youngest, a boy of six named Claes, were already of school age. That suggests that Wouter Winkel would not necessarily have had to hire anyone to help him with the children. Even so he would undoubtedly have felt the loss of his wife financially as well as emotionally. Someone would have to be paid to do the sewing, the cleaning, and the cooking that Elizabet had done, and so the profits of the tulip trade would have been even more important to the surviving members of the family now.

Wouter Bartelmiesz. seems to have gotten involved in bulb dealing relatively early on. He was certainly buying and selling tulips in 1635, well over a year before the market really boomed, and the chances are that he started dealing in bulbs a year or two before that. This early start, combined with a little luck and a good understanding of the flower trade, enabled him to amass a tulip collection of quite spectacular quality.

By the spring of 1636 the tavern keeper owned more than seventy fine or superbly fine tulips, representing about forty different varieties, together with a substantial quantity of pound goods totaling about thirty thousand aces of lower-value bulbs. His tulips included some of the most valuable flowers to be found anywhere in the United Provinces: a very rare Violetten called Admirael van Enkhuizen, together with two Viceroys and five Brabansons of various types; three bulbs of the celebrated Rosen Admirael van der Eijck, an Admirael Liefkens, a Bruyn Purper (“Brown and Purple”), a Paragon Schilder, and no fewer than seven examples of the increasingly sought-after Gouda. At the height of the mania bulbs of every one of these varieties could easily change hands for a thousand guilders and often substantially more. Assembling such a quantity of the most sought-after tulips in the United Provinces was an astonishing feat of dealing on Winkel’s part. If his tulips were not the most fabulous collection of flowers in the republic, they must have come close, for no other record has yet been found of a bulb trader whose tulips even approached the quality and variety of those owned by Wouter Bartelmiesz.

The most impressive thing about Winkel’s collection, though, was neither the variety nor the magnificence of the tulips in it, but the fact that he actually owned every flower in his inventory. Wouter might have been a tulip trader, but he was neither a connoisseur nor a florist; he was a grower. That meant his assets were more substantial than those of the majority of dealers, who owned nothing but promissory notes inscribed with a price and a notional delivery date and had no guarantee that their tulips were of good quality or even that they actually existed. Winkel’s assets were bulbs, planted in a garden close to his inn.

Unfortunately for Wouter Winkel and his seven children, he did not live long enough to reap the enormous profits that his canny trading would have earned him. He saw his tulips flower in the spring of 1636, but he died sometime in the early summer, probably aged only in his late thirties or early forties. We do not know what accident or illness killed him, only that shortly afterward a party of grim-faced representatives of the local orphans’ court arrived at the Oude Schutters-Doelen and took the tavern keeper’s children off to Alkmaar’s orphanage.

In some respects the children’s plight was not quite as catastrophic as it appeared. The death of both parents was a relatively common occurrence in the seventeenth century, and the United Provinces probably made better provision for caring for its orphans than any other country at that time. Most places of any size had their own orphanage, funded by the town and governed by a board of regents, who assumed responsibility for the children’s interests, supervised the full-time staff, and made sure sufficient funds were raised to keep the institution running smoothly. The same cities typically also ran homes for the elderly—one for men and another for women—which were open to any aged citizens who met certain residency requirements. These early social services, as we would call them today, were unique to the Dutch and were the envy of the foreigners who saw them.

Nevertheless, the orphans of Wouter Winkel faced an uncertain future if they stayed in the Alkmaar orphanage. Their guardians, their uncles Lauris Bartelmiesz. and Philip de Klerck, would no doubt do what they could to help them, and the town would feed and clothe and school them for a year or two. But they were assured of board and lodging at the orphanage only until they were old enough to work for their living. Then it was very much expected that they would be packed off to some factory, mill, or workshop to learn a useful trade that would ensure they did not remain a burden on their hometown. The children would have very little choice as to where they were sent, and though they might then be no worse off than the children of other artisans, they had only one chance of assuring themselves a more comfortable life: They had to sell their father’s flowers.

Their first step was to ensure that the tulips were safe. This was a very necessary precaution. As prices spiraled ever upward, every grower feared the loss of his bulbs, and some were already taking elaborate precautions to guard them. Some slept with their tulips, and one man, from the village of Blokker, installed trip wires around his bulbs and connected them to a bell that hung close to his bed. Confined to their orphanage and with their father dead, the Winkel children’s bulbs would have been especially at risk, and they must have greeted lifting time with some relief. Within a day or two all the tulips had been safely gathered and locked in a secure room in the orphanage while the trustees of the orphans’ court considered how best to proceed.

That was in July 1636. It was not until December, however, with the bulbs carefully graded and weighed and back in the ground once more under the watchful eye of a gardener named Pieter Willemsz., that the trustees finally authorized a sale.

It is not clear whether this long delay was caused by the labyrinthine bureaucracy of the orphans’ court or whether one of the regents of the orphanage had watched the rise in tulip prices and waited for the right moment to sell the Winkel bulbs. But whether it was by accident or design, it can hardly be doubted that the auction that finally took place at the Nieuwe Schutters-Doelen, Alkmaar, on February 5, 1637, was held at the perfect moment. In the months since Wouter Winkel’s death, tulip prices had doubled, then doubled and doubled again. With so many new buyers in the market, his rarest and finest bulbs were now far more sought after than ever before. And as chance would have it, the auction took place at precisely the moment that prices peaked.

The trustees of the orphans’ court had taken care to publicize the sale, and the innkeepers of Alkmaar must have done good business as dozens of wealthy florists and growers crowded into the town in the first few days of February. Potential bidders were invited to inspect a special tulip book commissioned by the court that contained 124 watercolors of Winkel’s tulips and forty-four of the lilies, anemones, and carnations that made up the balance of his collection. The book acted as a sort of sale catalog and a reminder to potential buyers of the glories that could be theirs in only a month or two if they bid successfully.

The auction at Alkmaar was the supreme moment of the tulip mania. The crowd attracted to the sale seems to have been a cut or two above the general hoi polloi of the taverns, and almost certainly the bidders would not have been permitted to get away with college practices such as offering part payment in kind. This was an auction for connoisseurs and affluent dealers. Real bulbs were being sold on a large scale for cash.

Even before the proceedings began, one determined buyer had contrived to negotiate privately with the regents of the orphanage for the jewel of Winkel’s collection, the Violetten Admirael van Enkhuizen. When this tulip had been lifted the previous summer, the mother bulb was found to have grown a small offset, which promised to become a viable bulb itself in the new year. The presence of this offset substantially increased the value of the already rare bulb, and the regents sold it for an astonishing 5,200 guilders, close to the price that had been quoted for a Semper Augustus in 1636. The same wealthy buyer also purchased two of the increasingly popular lilac-flamed Brabansons for 3,200 guilders the pair, and a miscellaneous lot that appears to have consisted of some more rare tulips and Winkel’s collection of lilies, carnations, and anemones. For these flowers the buyer paid an additional 12,467 guilders—a staggering total, for this one sale alone, of more than 21,000 guilders, enough to buy not one but two large houses on the Kaisersgracht in Amsterdam.

The lucrative private sale of these few bulbs set the tone for the auction that now began. The buyers appear to have been convinced, either by the tulip book or by Winkel’s reputation, that the flowers were of the highest quality and that this was a rare opportunity to acquire some of the most sought-after tulips in the United Provinces. They bid fiercely, and the prices achieved at Alkmaar were, with few exceptions, the highest ever recorded for the various tulips on sale.

Most of the best lots were concentrated at the beginning of the auction. The first, a 563-ace bulb of a middle-ranking variety called Boterman, sold for 263 guilders, about half a guilder per ace, but the next, a tiny Scipio of only 82 aces, was knocked down for 400 guilders—five guilders an ace. A Paragon van Delft sold for 605 guilders, then Winkel’s prized Bruyn Purper, a subtle flower that mixed a hint of brown into its lilac flares, went for 2,025, which was six guilders seven stuivers per ace.

So it went on, bulb after bulb attaining record prices. Only two of the seventy main lots that went under the hammer in the first part of the auction sold for less than a hundred guilders, and nineteen tulips were valued at more than a thousand guilders each. The most expensive bulbs were two good-sized Viceroys of 658 and 410 aces, which sold for 4,203 and 3,000 guilders respectively, but in terms of value per ace the most coveted flower was a Rosen of the variety Admirael Liefkens. This bulb, when planted, weighed a mere 59 aces, which made it the lightest tulip (bar one) to be sold that day. It can have been little more than an offset, but it cost its buyer 1,015 guilders, which is seventeen guilders four stuivers per ace.

Even the cheaper piece goods that were sold at the end of the day—after all the superbly fine tulips had found buyers—attained good prices. Five hundred aces of Violetten Rotgans were sold for 805 guilders and for 725 to another, and a thousand aces’ worth of bulbs produced by Jan Casteleijn, a Haarlem grower who had a garden on the south side of the Campeslaen, was knocked down for a thousand guilders.

Even before the auction had finally drawn to an end, it must have been obvious to those watching the bidding that Wouter Winkel’s bulbs were going for sums that were staggering even by the standards of the tulip mania. In addition to the 21,467 guilders raised in the earlier private sale, the seventy individual tulips auctioned at the Nieuwe Schutters-Doelen were sold for a combined total of 52,923 guilders and bulbs of the twenty-two varieties sold by the thousand aces went for a further 15,610. The total for the whole auction and the private sale combined came to a round 90,000 guilders.

In the space of an hour or two, the Winkel children had gone from poor orphans to exceptionally rich young men and women. We know nothing about how the money raised at the auction was collected and what commissions, deductions, and tax may have been payable on this fantastic windfall. But if each of Winkel’s seven offspring simply took one-seventh of the gross sum, they would have received almost thirteen thousand guilders each, more than forty times the annual income of a typical artisan family. An ambitious boy could take that money and buy his way into almost any profession he cared to enter. A cautious one, living modestly, needed never do a day’s work in his life. And any girl with such a dowry could rely on making a very advantageous match.

There does not seem to have been any doubt in the mind of Dutch tulip traders that the auction at Alkmaar was an extraordinary event that deserved to be commemorated. Within a few days of the sale, a one-page pamphlet with the modest title List of Some Tulips Sold to the Highest Bidder on February 5th 1637 had gone on sale. It gave a few brief details of the circumstances of the auction and listed the prices paid for each of the ninety-nine lots. Some writers have suggested that this pamphlet was meant as a warning against extravagance, but its principal purpose would appear to have been to boost confidence in the tulip trade by making as many people as possible aware of the phenomenal prices that bulbs were now commanding.

In this it was at least partially successful. The pamphlet attained a sufficiently wide circulation for the prices it listed to be regarded as in some way official, even typical. A number of contemporary tulip books that actually indicate the cost of various varieties give the prices attained at Alkmaar, even though they were far in excess of anything that had been realized earlier in the mania. (The idea, presumably, was to persuade potential purchasers that they should pay high prices.) Thus Admirael Liefkens, the most expensive tulip purchased at the auction in terms of guilders paid per ace, had been worth only six guilders twelve stuivers per ace in June 1636, and Winkel’s three Admirael van der Eijcks—bulbs of a variety that had sold at two guilders ten stuivers per ace the previous July—went for as much as seven guilders fourteen stuivers per ace at Alkmaar.

Tulip mania reached its peak throughout the United Provinces in the last week of January and the first week of February 1637. During this extraordinary fortnight huge amounts of money were pledged in mere moments. Hendrick Pietersz., a baker from Haarlem, paid a hundred guilders for a Gouda weighing just seven aces—a price of more than fourteen guilders per ace, one of the highest ever recorded for a tulip. And extracts from the trading ledger of a Haarlem merchant named Bartholomeus van Gennep, preserved in the legal archives of his city, show that late in January he agreed to pay a single dealer, Abraham Versluys, more than 3,200 guilders for a collection of second-rate bulbs that included none of the highly coveted varieties most commonly associated with the mania:

Two pounds of Yellow and Red Crowns    

385 guilders

A pound of Switsers

280 guilders

3,000 aces of Centen

380 guilders

Half a pound of Oudenaers

1,430 guilders

1,000 aces of Le Grands

480 guilders

1,000 aces of Gevleugelde Coornharts

220 guilders

70 aces of Kistemaecker

12 guilders

410 aces of Gevlamde Nieulant

54 guilders


3,241 guilders

Moreover, though the passion for bulb dealing was still concentrated in its oldest strongholds, Haarlem and Amsterdam, it had now reached beyond the borders of Holland and West Friesland, certainly to Utrecht and Groningen and most probably to other provinces as well. Indeed, the horticulturalist Abraham Munting (who was a boy during the mania) noted, without giving details, that speculation in tulips was raging, for a second time, in northern France as well.

The number of people involved in buying and selling tulips across the United Provinces must by now have been fairly considerable. One of the few detailed documents that has survived suggests that in the city of Utrecht, which was far from being one of the largest centers of the bulb trade, there were only about forty serious growers in February 1637. This almost certainly means that a couple of hundred florists and hangers-on also traded in the town. Since bulb growing and flower dealing flourished in at least a dozen cities and districts in Holland alone, from Medemblik in the north to Gouda in the south, it is probably safe to estimate that a minimum of three thousand people found themselves caught up in the tulip mania in this one province. If so, there could scarcely have been fewer than five thousand growers and florists in the Dutch Republic as a whole by the time the mania reached its peak, and this figure could well be a very conservative estimate.

The total value of the flowers bought and sold by such a large number of people must have been staggering. Some authorities suggest that at the height of the mania bulbs were changing hands as often as ten times in a single day—the price rising, presumably, with every deal. The rarest bulbs, on the evidence of the Alkmaar auction, could realize four or five thousand guilders apiece, and even if we accept that the prices realized at the Nieuwe Schutters-Doelen were exceptional, it certainly does not appear to have been unusual for superbly fine tulips to have changed hands for a couple of thousand guilders apiece; lesser varieties for somewhere between the 350 guilders per thousand aces recorded for the red and white Centen and the 750 paid for the popular Bizarden Gheel en Root van Leyde; and mere pound goods for somewhere between 250 and 1,500 guilders a pound. Thus even if we make the conservative estimate that in one of the largest centers of the tulip trade—a Haarlem or an Amsterdam—a total of, say, four hundred florists met in colleges to deal in bulbs just four times a week, the amount of money that changed hands in that one city during the three or four months that the mania was at its peak could have run well into seven figures. If, for example, the typical florist traded just one pound of tulips a day at an average price of 250 guilders per pound, the volume of trade in a single large town would have approached seven million guilders between the beginning of October 1636 and the end of January 1637 alone.

Some dealers appear to have been at least this active. While the mania was at its peak in December and January, a single tulip trader, Pieter van Rosven of Haarlem, bought bulbs worth 2,913 guilders in the space of only six weeks. He began with the purchase of 306 aces of Petters, a Rosen variety owned by Wouter Tulckens of Alkmaar, and continued with the acquisition of a Violetten Jan Gerritsz. of 288 aces, a Tourlons of 275 aces, and half a pound of Oudenaers from the same dealer. Van Rosven also paid ninety guilders for a Legrant of 122 aces. (Tulckens appears to have acted as a sort of broker for several growers. One of the bulbs he sold to van Rosven was planted in the garden of a Cornelis Verwer, another in a plot kept by the Calvinist minister Henricus Swalmius on the Bollslaen [“Bulb lane”] that lay to the south of Haarlem, and a third in the garden of the painter Frans Grebber.) And these are merely the purchases that found their way into the legal archives of Alkmaar as a result of an action van Rosven brought against Tulckens for the nondelivery of his bulbs; he may well have bought and sold many other tulips in the same brief period.

Van Rosven’s example was certainly not unique. In the Samenspraecken, Gaergoedt relates that in the colleges he attended, so many bulbs were bought and sold at high prices that drietjens—the maximum three-guilder sums paid as wine money when a deal exceeded 120 guilders—“fell like drops of water from thatched roofs when it has rained.” “I have often been to inns and eaten baked and fried fish and meat,” the florist adds. “Yes, chickens and rabbits, and even fine pastry, and drunk wine and beer from morning to three or four o’clock at night, and then arrived home with more money than when I left.” When the chronicler Lieuwe van Aitzema guessed that ten million guilders’ worth of tulips changed hands in a single Dutch town in the course of the mania as a whole, then, he may actually have been underestimating the true extent of the trading frenzy.

What, then, did the mania amount to? It is hard to resist the conclusion that in crude financial terms it really was an event of unparalleled magnitude, at least by the standards of the United Provinces. If we accept that van Aitzema was right and that perhaps twenty million guilders’ worth of bulbs were bought and sold in Haarlem and Amsterdam together between 1633 and 1637, then even supposing that the trade in each of the other ten known centers of the mania amounted to no more than a tenth of that in those two great centers, the nominal turnover of the Dutch bulb trade as a whole in those four years can hardly have been less than forty million guilders. And if the florists of Holland really did trade as compulsively and as irresponsibly as the critics of the bulb trade maintained, and if the number of people involved was not thousands but tens of thousands, then the total could conceivably have been twice that figure or even more. By way of comparison, the total sum deposited by rich merchants with accounts at the Bank of Amsterdam in the years 1636–37 was probably only about 3.5 million guilders, and the all-powerful Dutch East India Company—which was the greatest trading organization in the whole of Europe at the time—was capitalized at 6.5 million guilders.

It was left to a contemporary pamphleteer, writing around December 1636, to give perhaps the most vivid impression of what the prices paid for tulip bulbs actually meant to the Dutchmen of the time. A flower worth three thousand guilders, the writer pointed out, could have been exchanged for a gigantic quantity of goods:

Eight fat pigs

240 guilders

Four fat oxen

480 guilders

Twelve fat sheep

120 guilders

Twenty-four tons of wheat

448 guilders

Forty-eight tons of rye

558 guilders

Two hogsheads of wine

70 guilders

Four barrels of eight-guilder beer

32 guilders

Two tons of butter

192 guilders

A thousand pounds of cheese

120 guilders

A silver drinking cup

60 guilders

A pack of clothes

80 guilders

A bed with mattress and bedding      

100 guilders

A ship

500 guilders


3,000 guilders

From this perspective, it is evident that the tulip trade really was not merely healthy but positively booming in Holland in the autumn and winter of 1636–37. Yet even as the mania reached its peak, there were disturbing indications that all was not well in the tavern colleges.

One warning sign was the florists’ restless search for novelty. Although most seem to have agreed that one or two varieties, such as Viceroy, stood apart from their many rivals, there was very little consensus as to which tulips deserved to stand in the second rank—a problem that was exacerbated by the considerable similarities that existed between many of the more popular flowers. One college or town favored one variety, others another; furthermore, fashions and opinions changed, and new tulips continued to come onto the market to challenge the established favorites. Because of this the trade in bulbs was not just unstable but inherently illogical. No market can flourish for long if it does not possess elements of stability and predictability. The Dutch tulip trade had neither.

A notorious example of the florists’ restless desire to find something new and different was the quest for the black tulip, a flower of such fabled rarity that it would certainly have been worth considerably more than even Semper Augustus if only an exemplar could have been found. The French novelist Alexander Dumas even wrote a novel titled The Black Tulip, in which a young physician named Cornelius van Baerle seeks to win the huge prize offered to the first man to grow such a flower. Dumas was most likely inspired by an old Dutch account of an incident that allegedly took place at the height of the mania. According to one version of this story, a syndicate of Haarlem florists heard that a cobbler living at The Hague had succeeded in breeding a black tulip and determined to purchase the solitary flower that he possessed. They visited him in his shop, and after a certain amount of bargaining, the cobbler agreed to accept fifteen hundred guilders for his tulip and handed over the bulb. To his complete astonishment the Haarlem florists immediately hurled the black tulip to the ground and trampled on it, exclaiming: “Idiot! We have a black tulip too, and chance will never favor you again. We would have given you 10,000 guilders if you had asked it.” Assured that their own bulb was once again unique and therefore priceless, the Haarlemmers returned to their city, leaving the unfortunate cobbler so distraught at the thought of the wealth that might have been his that he hanged himself the same night.

The story of the black tulip is, of course, a myth. Indeed the botany of the genus is such that it is actually impossible to breed a flower with pure black petals; even today the handful of “black” tulips that exist are merely an exceptionally dark shade of purple. Nevertheless, the fact that the black tulip legend achieved a certain currency during the years of the tulip mania might perhaps have alerted the more astute florists to the fact that a dangerous gap was beginning to develop between ever-increasing demand in the bulb market and what growers could actually supply, given the time it took to introduce a new variety and the limited stock of botanical tulips available.

Still more worrisome was the boom in the market for pound goods that occurred in the autumn of 1636. The astonishing prices being asked for these previously worthless bulbs by the beginning of 1637 should have given any florist pause. However high the prices of superbly fine tulips rose, there was always some justification for them. Throughout the mania years there remained a small but genuine demand for such bulbs from the old tulip connoisseurs—the only people who actually wanted to plant and grow the bulbs rather than simply trade them. No such demand existed in the case of pound goods. Connoisseurs would not touch them, and most college florists were not remotely interested in actually cultivating them. They were traded solely because they were available, and by early February even devoted tulip maniacs began to be uneasily aware that their market was running out of control.

The success of the auction at Alkmaar did provide some reassurance that high prices were still being paid for bulbs, but even so, a few of the more cautious dealers must have begun to wonder just how much longer tulip prices could continue to rise. Here and there an isolated florist sold his holdings and declined to reinvest his profits in yet more bulbs. In the tavern colleges dotted across Holland, rival traders looked on and wondered if the seller knew something they did not. Perhaps, they thought, they might dispose of a bulb or two themselves.

It was the first week of February, 1637. The boom time was over.

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