During the 1600’s, Tulipia ‘Semper Augustus’ was considered to be the “Holy Grail’ of tulip bulbs, and it almost brought ruin upon an entire country. (The red-and-white striped Tulip ‘Semper Augustus’ no longer exists.) The striping on this particular tulip bulb was caused by a virus spread by aphids. The virus produced flames and feathering on the petals (called “breaking”) and it created a sensation when it was released upon 17th Century Holland where the populace was all too eager to get rich on an anomaly without knowing its severe detriments. Bulbs carrying the virus lose their vigor quickly, making it almost impossible to propagate and the result is the demise of a genetic line. No one knew that, of course, when the tulip frenzy started…
Legend and Lore of the Tulip as recorded by Charles McKay in 1841: Memoirs of Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds
17th Century Holland, 1636
The ‘Semper Augustus’ tulip was considered to be the most precious of all, and in 1636, only two such bulbs were known to exist (both of an inferior quality, due to the virus). One was in the hands of a dealer in Amsterdam, and the other was in the hands of a dealer in Harlaem. The desire for the ‘Semper Augustus’ tulip was so great that one speculator offered the fee-simple of 12 acres of surrounding property where the Harlaem tulip was located. In Amsterdam, another speculator purchased a single ‘Semper Augustus’ for 4600 florins (approx. $64,400…for a single bulb), plus a new carriage, two grey horses, and a complete harness.
The demand for rare tulips was so great in 1636 that their sale was established on the Stock Exchange of Amsterdam in several towns throughout the country. “Tulip-jobbers” speculated on the rise and fall of tulip stocks, making enormous profits for themselves, and it wasn’t long before people in all walks of life began to participate in the tulip stock trade: noblemen, farmers, chimney-sweeps and aristocrats who converted their homes and properties into cash so they could invest in the flower market.
The tulip frenzy was not to last, however. When the prudent portion of the population (namely, the noblemen and aristocrats) determined that the folly couldn’t last forever, they stopped purchasing bulbs and began to sell them off at discounted prices. Suddenly, confidence in the market was destroyed, and the streets were filled with defaulters in the tulip trade.
When the dust settled and the fury subsided, the courts ultimately refused to interfere in the mania-inspired debacle, stating that gambling debts were not debts of the law, and the population was left to sort itself out without judicial assistance.
It was many years before the country recovered from the economic shock resulting from the tulip-trading epidemic.