A new movie sets its doomed entrepreneurs amidst 17th-century “tulipmania”—but historians of the phenomenon have their own bubble to burst.
When tulips came to the Netherlands, all the world went mad. A sailor who mistook a rare tulip bulb for an onion and ate it with his herring sandwich was charged with a felony and thrown in prison. A bulb named Semper Augustus, notable for its flame-like white and red petals, sold for more than the cost of a mansion in a fashionable Amsterdam neighborhood, complete with coach and garden. As the tulip market grew, speculation exploded, with traders offering exorbitant prices for bulbs that had yet to flower. And then, as any financial bubble will do, the tulip market imploded, sending traders of all incomes into ruin.
For decades, economists have pointed to 17th-century tulipmania as a warning about the perils of the free market. Writers and historians have reveled in the absurdity of the event. The incident even provides the backdrop for the new film Tulip Fever, based on a novel of the same name by Deborah Moggach.
The only problem: none of these stories are true.
What really happened and how did the story of Dutch tulip speculation get so distorted? Anne Goldgar discovered the historical reality when she dug into the archives to research her book, Tulipmania: Money, Honor, and Knowledge in the Dutch Golden Age.
“I always joke that the book should be called ‘Tulipmania: More Boring Than You Thought,’” says Goldgar, a professor of early modern history at King’s College London. “People are so interested in this incident because they think they can draw lessons from it. I don’t think that’s necessarily the case.”
But before you even attempt to apply what happened in the Netherlands to more recent bubbles—the South Sea Bubble in 1700s England, the 19th-century railway bubble, the dot-com bubble and bitcoin are just a few comparisons Goldgar has seen—you have to understand Dutch society at the turn of the 17th century.