The later part of the 20th century saw its share of odd financial bubbles. There was the real-estate bubble, the stock market bubbles, and the dot com bubble, just to name a few. In each instance of price inflation people paid exorbitant amounts for things that shouldn't have been worth anything like the going price. And each time people stood around afterwards and said “What were we thinking?”

One has to believe that the same thought occurred to the Dutch in the 17th century when they settled down after their bout with tulipomania, wherein the humble tulip bulb began to sell for prices to make New York Realtors blanch.

As much as the tulip is associated with Holland, it is not native there. Rather it was introduced in 1593 by a botanist named Carolus Clusius, who brought it from Constantinople. He planted a small garden, intending to research the plant for medicinal purposes. Had Clusius's neighbors been morally upright, the tulip might still be a rare exotic in the gardening world. Instead they broke into his garden and stole some of his bulbs in order to make some quick money, and in the process started the Dutch bulb trade.

Over the next several decades tulips became a fad among the rich of Holland, and prices began to mount. Soon even ordinary bulbs were selling for extraordinary prices, and the actually rare bulbs were astronomical. A single Viceroy tulip bulb would sell for 2500 florins a value roughly equivalent to $1,250 in current American dollars, while a rarer Semper Augustus bulb could easily go for twice that. One particularly amusing exchange showed the goods traded for one bulb – the lengthy list includes among other things: a bed, a complete suit of clothes, and a thousand pounds of cheese. At the height of the mania, in what seems a complete loss of sanity, the bulbs were deemed too valuable to risk planting by their (formerly) wealthy purchasers, and it became popular to display the plain ungrown bulbs. In at least one instance the plan for safety backfired when a visiting sailor mistook a tulip bulb for an onion, and proceeded to eat it for breakfast.

The height of the bubble was reached in the winter of 1636-37. Tulip traders were making (and losing) fortunes regularly. A good trader could earn up to 60,000 florins in a month-- approximately $61,710 adjusted to current U.S. dollars. With profits like those to be had, nothing local governments could do stopped the frenzy of trading. Then one day in Haarlem a buyer failed to show up and pay for his bulb purchase. The ensuing panic spread across Holland, and within days tulip bulbs were worth only a hundredth of their former prices. The tulip bubble had burst.

Looking back through time it’s easy to laugh at the foolish Dutch, paying such prices for simple tulip bulbs, but an economic bubble was nothing new even then. We’re still doing the same sorts of things today. Human beings have always been prone to want things that are difficult to get, especially if everyone else seems to be doing it. Nutty behavior becomes commonplace when enough people are following along. It’s only afterwards that we stand back and shake our heads and wonder what came over us.

Written by Cynthia Wood, posted on 16 March 2006. Cynthia is a contributing editor for DamnInteresting.com.
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