They came from all over Holland, dressed like crows in black from head to foot and journeying along frozen tracks rendered treacherous by the scars of a thousand hooves and narrow wheels. They had cloaked and blanketed themselves against the biting winter wind—the wealthiest rattling along in unsprung carriages that jerked from rut to pothole like an untried sailor lurching through a hurricane, the rest on horseback with their heads bowed against the cold. Traveling singly or in twos and threes, they clattered through the flat and sterile landscape north of Amsterdam, riding on until they came to the little town of Alkmaar near the coast.
They were middle-aged and stoutly built: shrewd and successful men who had made their money in trade, who knew how to turn a profit and what it meant to live well. Most were clean-shaven and ruddy-faced; their clothes, though drab, were cut from the finest cloth, and the purses that they carried were snugly full of money. Passing through the gates of the town at dusk, the visitors made their way through Alkmaar’s cramped and narrow streets and found rooms in taverns near the busy marketplace. There they ate and drank and puffed their long clay pipes into the night, calling for great pitchers of wine and plates of roasted meats, sprawling back in their hard wooden chairs and talking shop till past midnight by the smoky, jaundice-yellow light of the peat fires in the grates.
The business of these rich Dutch merchants was not grain or spices, timber or fish. They dealt, rather, in tulip bulbs—drab and anonymous brown packages of no intrinsic worth, which resembled nothing so much as onions. Yet as unpromising as they might at first appear, flowers at this time were far more precious than the richest commodities that could be found piled up on the wharves of Amsterdam. Some tulips were so scarce and so greatly coveted that they were worth more than a hundred times their weight in gold, and successful bulb dealers could make huge profits. At this time the richest man in the whole of the United Provinces was worth 400,000 guilders—a sum amassed over several generations. But some tulip traders were buying and selling single flowers for hundreds, even thousands of guilders and building paper fortunes of as much as forty or sixty thousand guilders in a matter of a year or two.
The bulb dealers had come to Alkmaar to attend an unprecedented auction. The guardians of the little orphanage in the town had come into the possession of one of the most valuable collections of tulips in the whole of the Netherlands. Caring more for the flowers’ value than for their beauty, they were selling off the bulbs for the benefit of some of the children in their care. So shortly after dawn broke, gray and chill, the traders began to make their way to the saleroom in the Nieuwe Schutters-Doelen—the headquarters of Alkmaar’s civic guard, an ornate and gabled building in the center of the town.
It was a large room, but they filled it. The bidding started briskly and soon became frantic. Single bulbs were knocked down for 200 guilders, then 400, 600, 1,000, and more. Four of the hundred or so lots were sold for in excess of 2,000 guilders apiece. And when at last the final tulip had been sold and all the money tallied, the auction proved to have raised a total of 90,000 guilders, which was, quite literally, a fortune in those days.
The date was February 5, 1637, the day flower fever reached such a pitch of frenzy in the United Provinces that once-worthless bulbs truly theatened to supplant precious metals as objects of desire. That day the tulip completed a journey that had begun hundreds of years before and thousands of miles away.