Image credit: “Flora’s Wagon of Fools,” Hendrick Gerritsz Pot, ca. 1637, Frans Hals Museum, Haarlem
In the 1630s, prices for tulip bulbs in the Netherlands took off. The market concentrated on bulbs infected with a mosaic virus that triggered brilliantly colored stripes and flamboyant feathering in the petals. These spectacularly colored and shaped tulips could not be readily reproduced from seed; growers typically propagated buds from a bulb already tainted with the virus. In one of the first great ironies of financial history, these precious bulbs were highly prized only because they were diseased: While uninfected tulip bulbs had little resale value, those that harbored the virus produced fewer buds and had shorter useful lives, creating great interest in them among traders.
One “Semper Augustus” bulb,
like the one shown in this image from the Norton Simon Museum, sold for 5,500 guilders (the estimated equivalent of more than $122,000 in late 2015) and, by early 1637, one was offered for sale at 10,000 guilders, a sum sufficient to buy 10 small houses.
In late January and early February 1637, the prices for many flamboyant tulip bulbs doubled, tripled, or even rose ten-fold and more.
The spike in prices was driven largely by wealthy merchants in the Dutch city of Haarlem, who malingered in local taverns as the Thirty Years’ War ravaged the nearby countryside and an outbreak of bubonic plague swept through the city. With mortality on their minds, wine in their gullets, and even more time than money on their hands, the merchants traded the bulbs in a brief, captive frenzy. Since they were dealing in assets they didn’t own or hadn’t paid for, the merchants’ speculations came to be called windhandel, or “trading wind.”
The bulbs, and the prices speculators paid for them, were immortalized in “tulip books,” a ravishing example of which is displayed online in full at Wageningen University & Research Centre. “Viseroij” (Viceroy) bulbs, for example, sold for between 3,000 and 4,200 guilders around 1637, as this plate shows:
Tradition contends that thousands of tulip-bulb speculators were ruined when the market collapsed, taking the entire Dutch economy down with them. But social and cultural historian Anne Goldgar, in her brilliant book Tulipmania, has shown that the traditional view of the tulip trade was a kind of caricature created by moralizers who feared that unfettered capitalism would corrupt the Dutch and turn them away from the proper worship of God. In particular, many preachers and moralists were offended by the notion that people could get rich by trading pieces of paper — or even “wind” — instead of working with their hands. As Simon Schama argued in his classic survey, The Embarrassment of Riches, the 17th-century Dutch reviled their wealth even as they piled it up.
At its peak, the market for rare tulips seems to have been limited to a few hundred people in total, many of whom traded only once or twice. But a smaller group of a few dozen merchants and other members of the middle class did trade avidly, exchanging ownership rights while the bulbs were still in the ground — then taking delivery, and making final payment, only when the bulbs bloomed and the buyers could confirm with their eyes that the tulips were as beautiful as described. The trade in tulip bulbs was thus one of the earliest markets for derivatives — specifically, futures contracts — in the modern world.
Then, as now, derivatives were popularly regarded as a kind of devil’s workshop in which speculators profited from mysterious and complicated practices. Individuals weren’t the only traders; at least six companies or partnerships were formed, enabling speculators to pool their assets to own a share of a variety of rare bulbs. At one such company, the managing partner was entitled to take 25% of any trading profits, much like the manager of a modern hedge fund.
Each trade in the taverns was sealed with the exchange of wijnkoop (wine money), a kind of margin deposit totaling no more than 2.5% of the principal value of the trade. The seller typically spent the wijnkoop on a round of wine or beer or tobacco or “girls,” presumably to be shared among all the traders. With war and disease raging outside the taverns, and alcohol flowing freely inside, it isn’t hard to imagine how prices could rapidly get out of hand.
Nor is it difficult to see why the moralizing Dutch would regard the windhandel in tulips as a dangerous contagion.
In this painting from 1634, as the market for tulips was beginning to boom, the still-life artist Jacob Marrel — who himself was among the ardent traders of the bulbs — sounded an ominous warning. The tulip at the center, probably an “Admiral Coornhardt” or Coorenaert, stands rigid and almost disturbingly rampant on the end of its long stalk. A yellow-and-red goblet tulip tilts to the right, while a brilliant red-and-white specimen has keeled over and is listing out of the right side of the vase. The claws on the footed bottom of the vase seem sinister and alive, like the talons of a bird that feeds on carrion. A worm, evoking death and decomposition, creeps along the left edge of the marble shelf; in the center left, a cluster of gooseberries may illustrate an old proverb, “The words of the elders are like the gooseberry: bitter at first, then sweet.” On the right of the shelf, shockingly ugly amidst the beauty of the flowers, a frog lies dead, belly-up; in medieval Europe, frogs and toads were symbols of greed. Marrel’s painting rings down through the centuries as a warning of what will happen to people who put profit ahead of all other things.
Other commentators, like this one in 1636, warned that the price rise was unsustainable. As bubbles always do, the windhandel burst, with prices in the thinly traded market collapsing after the peak around Feb. 5, 1637. Even the finest bulbs lost most of their market value in a matter of days, and in April 1637 the state governments of Holland voided all contracts. Since most of the buyers had never paid more than the 2.5% wijnkoop margin deposit, the common belief that speculators lost 95% or more of their money appears to be mistaken. The exact extent of losses remains difficult to determine, but the market for tulip bulbs never again approached the highs of 1637.
In the wake of tulipmania, the speculators were portrayed as fools. Jan Brueghel the Younger, son of the great floral still-life painter Jan Brueghel the Elder, created his scathing “Satire on the Tulip Madness,” now in the Frans Hals Museum in Haarlem, around 1640:
Here, the men who traded tulip bulbs — and, so far as we know, the traders were nearly all men — have been transformed into monkeys. On the veranda at the the upper left, under a flag emblazoned with a tulip, a half-dozen apes stuff their faces with food and drink. An aristocratic ape in formal dress haggles over the price of the tulips on display, but the blooms are already drooping and heeling over, as if blasts of hot air from the windhandel have battered them too badly to stand up straight. In the center foreground, a golden monkey scribbles in a trading ledger while an owl — symbolizing not wisdom but blindness and stupidity — hunches on his shoulder, looking the wrong way. Behind him, another monkey lugs a cask of wine or beer (presumably for wijnkoop) toward two apes seated at a red-covered table, counting heaps of gold and silver coins. Toward the right, one monkey weighs bulbs in a pan balance; another, clutching a trading contract in one hand, urinates on three huge bulbs as if trying to extinguish them like flames. You can almost hear the squeaks and cries of the monkeys in this scene of greed and pandemonium.
In “Flora’s Fool’s Cap,” a cartoon originally etched in 1637 by Pieter Nolpe, reproduced here from the Yale University collection, merchants gather inside a giant fool’s cap to compare and trade bulbs.
But it is too late; the bubble has already burst. As the title of the etching says, “in the wonder-year of 1637, one fool after another schemed to get rich without assets and wise without understanding.” At the right, three men dressed in rags rummage through a basket of wilted flowers and moldy bulbs. The flag over the cap, emblazoned with two brawling drunks, reads “At the Sign of the Two Drunken Fools,” evoking the taverns in which so many of the bulbs had traded. Inside the gaping cap, the traders sit beneath the label “De Comparitje,” or “the comparison,” sorting the bulbs by quality.
The shape and wide maw of the cap evoke the hellmouths so common in medieval illuminations, like this one from the Morgan Library; the tulip traders haggling inside the cap are oblivious to their eternal damnation. In the background, the goddess Flora is led away in disgrace, riding a donkey, as villagers attack her with bludgeons. At the left, a wealthy merchant watches while a man dumps a basket of tulip bulbs onto the heedless ground and peasants wheel and haul away bulbs, flowers, and bouquets. Tulips spill from the cart and litter the ground. At the extreme left, a devil with the hairy goat legs and hooves of the Greek god Pan brandishes an empty hourglass and holds a pole over the simpering merchant’s head, positioning a fool’s cap over him.
The painting I introduced at the top of this page, “Flora’s Wagon of Fools,” by Hendrick Gerritsz Pot, ca. 1637, seen again here in full size,
was elaborated around the same time in a print by Crispijn van de Passe, reproduced here from the collection of the Rijksmuseum:
There is little doubt that Pot and van de Passe based their image partly on earlier views of the “wind-wagon” or “sail-wagon” designed by the scientist and engineer Simon Stevin around 1600:
But van de Passe’s version of Pot’s “mallewagen,” or ship of fools, is richly detailed with satirical images that place it in a long tradition of illustrating the eternal carnival of human folly.
Propelled by a blast of wind (or hot air) from the upper left bearing a stream of tulips, the juggernaut rolls along the shore of the North Sea with the walled city of Haarlem in the background. Middle-class citizens desperate to jump aboard the bandwagon chase after it, crying, “We want to ride with you.” Flora, the goddess of flowers, rides high in the wagon like a brazen prostitute, her breasts stripped bare; she brandishes specific varieties of tulips over which the speculators had gone particularly mad, among them a Semper Augustus. Just above her, a monkey climbs the main mast of the ship, probably a reference to a saying by the 13th-century theologian St. Bonaventure: “Consider the monkey: The higher he climbs, the more he shows of his behind.” The monkey sprays the ship’s heedless passengers with diarrhea. At the top of the mast, a flag whips in the blast of the windhandel, bearing the design of the world turned upside down. The most prominent passenger, a speculator named “Gragryk,” or “Greed-glad,” sits by the base of the mast, leaning his naked buttocks over the edge of the ship.
Everyone on board has a tulip tucked above each ear, with the flowers bristling out like giant ears, much the way the greedy ancient king, Midas, was often portrayed with the ears of an ass. The ground is strewn with tulips, each one carefully labeled by variety, as if to mock the notion that each should ever had a distinct value of its own. In the front of the car, at the right, a woman labeled “Idle Hope” releases a dove that flies off even faster than the wind can blow. At the far right, another image of the ship founders in the breakers of the North Sea, showing us how the scene will end up.
The hull of the ship is emblazoned with the signs of some of the taverns in which the tulip trade had boomed. In the four corners of the print are vignettes showing speculators inspecting a garden where bulbs are planted (top left),
drunken merchants examining bulbs in the town of Hoorn (top right),
speculators trading futures contracts in a tavern in Haarlem (lower left),
and the market finally unraveling, with one trader standing aside pulling his hair in bewilderment (lower right).
Flora’s wagonful of crazed speculators evokes the ship of fools that was portrayed in the late 15th century by the German theologian Sebastian Brant, which itself drew on medieval references:
But ships of fools often trundled overland in late-medieval Europe, making their passage seem even more ludicrous. Carnivals in Germany and other European countries featured life-sized models of wooden ships, manned by crews of costumed revelers. Imagine drinking stein after stein brimming with beer, then hauling this creaking wooden ship across one of the central squares in 16th-century Nuremberg:
Or consider this ship on wheels piloted by drunken demons, also from a carnival in Nuremberg, ca. 1590, from the collection of the Bodleian Library:
By modeling their portrayal of tulip speculators so suggestively after these images of besotted partygoers, Pot and van de Passe signaled to their audience that tulipmania was the latest outbreak of phenomena familiar to Europeans: public intoxication and the madness of crowds.
But Flora’s wagon of fools is also a subversive reference to the tradition of triumphal processions honoring the virtuous. (That tradition survives even today, in the custom of seating prominent people on parade floats!) By putting Flora and her companions in what would normally be a position of dignity, the artists made the tulip bubble seem even more ludicrous.
Consider these depictions of triumphs by Giulio Romano (“The Triumph of Titus and Vespasian,” ca. 1540, from the Louvre),
Antonie Wierix (“Air,” one of the four elements, with the Greek god Pan blowing a bubble at the front of the chariot, after 1565, from the Rijksmuseum),
Maarten van Heemskerck (“The Triumph of Patience,” 1564, in the Bibliothèque Municipale de Lyon),
and van Heemskerck again (“Opulence and Pride,” one of a series of works warning somberly against the excesses of wealth, 1564, the Rijksmuseum).
By turning the grave dignity of these triumphal processions into a kind of clown show, Pot and van de Passe made a mockery of the events of 1637 that has helped shape the historical view of tulipmania for nearly four centuries. A highly local phenomenon affecting only a few hundred people, at most, became a symbol of universal human folly.
Perhaps Jacob Marrel, the gifted artist who also traded tulip bulbs during the bubble, deserves the last word. Around 1675, he painted a picture, now in a private collection, that serves almost as a bookend to the spectacular warning he painted in 1634. Tulips were still valuable in the 1670s — but much less so than they had been four decades earlier. Now, fruit has taken pride of place, and the tulips have been relegated to the bottom of the marble shelf, as if they had been pushed out of the nest. Their petals are curling with neglect; light shines through a hole in a petal of the tulip at the lower left. They look as if they will soon wither and die, as they surely will. What once was precious has become a vivid reminder of the perishability of life and the transience of value.