by Barbara Schulman
Sometime in the year 1637, a Dutch farmer was in the market for a tulip. Upon finding a bloemist who carried the specific variety of flower that he desired, the farmer entered into negotiations with the flower-seller. When an agreement had been reached, the farmer acquired his flower-bulb. The purchase price that the farmer apparently deemed reasonable for a single tulip-bulb of the Viceroy variety included two [loads] of wheat and four of rye, four fat oxen, eight pigs, a dozen sheep, two oxheads of wine, four tons of butter, a thousand pounds of cheese, a bed, some clothing and a silver beaker.1 Such a high price, estimated at approximately 2,500 guilders, for a single tulip was not unusual. During the height of the Dutch tulip mania in the seventeenth century, a Semper Augustus, considered to be even more precious than the Viceroy tulip, could bring in close to 6,000 guilders. In fact, tulip prices and the practice of tulip speculation became so excessive and frenzied that in 1637 the States of Holland passed a statute curbing such extremes.
Widely available at modest prices today, tulips are still closely associated with the Netherlands. However, the tulip is not a native Dutch flower. Like many other products in western Europe, such as the potato and tobacco, tulips came to the Netherlands from another part of the world. Not introduced to the Netherlands until 1593, the tulip was first seen by Europeans in Turkey. It was there in 1556 that Busbeq (A.G. Busbequius), the ambassador sent by the Austrian Emperor Ferdinand I to the Sultan of the Ottoman Empire, witnessed the flowers growing in the gardens of Adrianople and Constantinople. Scholars now believe that the Turks had been cultivating tulips as early as AD 1000. Most of these tulips probably originated in areas around the Black Sea, in the Crimea, and in the steppes to the north of the Caucasus.
Soon after Ambassador Busbeq noticed the flowers in the Ottoman Empire, tulips became one of the most sought after luxury items in Europe. At first, in the 1560s, trade and diplomatic interaction with the Ottoman Levant allowed for a small number of tulips to be imported into Hapsburg Europe. In this early stage, tulip ownership was primarily limited to wealthy nobles and scholars. Antwerp, Brussels, Augsburg, Paris, and Prague are among some of the cities where such tulips first began to circulate.
A key figure in the history of European tulip interest is the famous botanist Carolus Clusius. Clusius, who had achieved great recognition for his work with medicinal herbs in Prague and Vienna, accepted a position as head botanist of the Dutch university in Leiden in the year 1593. Previously, he had met with former Ambassador Busbeq in Vienna and accepted several tulip bulbs and seeds. At Leidens innovative hortus botanicus, or botanical garden, Clusius cultivated the bulbs and seeds and thus introduced the flower to Holland.
Through botanical experimentation, Clusius and other horticulturists produced new color variations in tulips. This breeding of tulips with new color combinations had two important effects on the European primarily Dutch tulip market. The most elegantly and vividly colored of the new tulips, such as the Semper Augustus, which was white with red flames, became exorbitantly priced. Only the wealthiest aristocrats and merchants could afford these striped hybrid varieties. By the early 1630s, however, flower growers had begun to raise vast crops of more simply-colored tulips. These flowers, such as the Yellow Crown tulips, could be purchased cheaply by even the poorer segments of society. With an ever-growing number of varieties and an ever-widening price range, tulips became one of the few luxury goods that could be purchased by members of all classes.
The popularity of the tulip in the Dutch Republic reached its pinnacle in the years 1636-37 during the craze known as tulip mania. At this time, the practice of tulip speculation only relevant to prized varieties of the flower emerged. Because the flower-growers had to cultivate the bulbs and could not sell them until they were ready, these bloemisten began selling promissory notes guaranteeing the future delivery of the tulip bulb. The buyers of these pieces of paper resold the notes at marked-up prices. In this way, the promissory notes changed hands from buyer to buyer until the tulip became ready for delivery. The key was to be able to resell the note before the tulip could be delivered; the unlucky gambler was the person who could no longer resell the note because he now owned the actual tulip. This Dutch trade in the future promise of tulips became known as the tulpenwindhandel, literally tulip wind trade, because transactions involved nothing more than air. Many Dutch citizens, angry at such a corruption of the flower market, voiced their opinions on the matter in pamphlets.2 The Dutch government was also concerned and ended the tulpenwindhandel and the era of tulip mania by enforcing economic controls in 1637.
Growing trade with non-European economies, the rise in new learning and scientific experimentation, and a boom in the market for luxury goods are all aspects of early modern Europe that are demonstrated in the history of the tulip. Thus, the tulip truly stands out as a cultural symbol of Europe during the time of the flowers heyday.
1. E.H. Krelage, Bloemenspeculatie in Nederland (Amsterdam, 1942), 67; cited in Simon Schama, The Embarrassment of Riches: An Interpretation of Dutch Culture in the Golden Age (London, 1991), 350-365.
2. A collection of Dutch pamphlets about the tulpenwindhandel can be found in E.H. Krelage, De Pamfletten van den Tulpenwindhandel, 1636-1637 (The Hague, 1942).