Tulip Mania Wasn’t a Frenzy
TULIP MANIA wasn’t a frenzy, either. In fact, for much of the period trading was relatively calm, located in taverns and neighbourhoods rather than on the stock exchange. It also became increasingly organised, with companies set up in various towns to grow, buy, and sell, and committees of experts emerged to oversee the trade. Far from bulbs being traded hundreds of times, I never found a chain of buyers longer than five, and most were far shorter.
And what of the much-vaunted effect of the plague on tulip mania, supposedly making people with nothing to lose gamble their all? Again, this seems not to have existed. Despite an epidemic going on during 1636, the biggest price rises occurred in January 1637, when plague (mainly a summer disease) was on the wane. Perhaps some people inheriting money had a bit more in their pockets to spend on bulbs.
Prices could be high, but mostly they weren’t. Although it’s true that the most expensive tulips of all cost around 5,000 guilders (the price of a well-appointed house), I was able to identify only 37 people who spent more than 300 guilders on bulbs, around the yearly wage of a master craftsman. Many tulips were far cheaper. With one or two exceptions, these top buyers came from the wealthy merchant class and were well able to afford the bulbs. Far from every chimneysweep or weaver being involved in the trade, the numbers were relatively small, mainly from the merchant and skilled artisan class – and many of the buyers and sellers were connected to each other by family, religion, or neighbourhood. Sellers mainly sold to people they knew.