The first bubble – or bulb – that burst

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Tulip mania or tulipomania was a period in Dutch history when contract prices for bulbs of the newly introduced tulip reached extraordinarily high levels and then crashed.

At the tip of tulip mania in February 1637, tulip contracts sold for more than ten times the annual income of a skilled craftsman. Consequently, tulipomania has become shorthand for any bubble – or bulb – that burst.

British journalist Charles Mackay’s book Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds, written in 1841, recorded the events although – as with many journalistic accounts particularly those hailing from Britain – it was later ascribed a certain degree of artistic licence and hyperbole. Mr Mackay reported that at one point twelve acres of land were offered for a single prized bulb.

So, aside from being the first recorded example of market fever, it is among the earliest examples of hack-fuelled exaggeration.

At least one painting from the time, by Hendrik Gerritsz Pot depicts the overheating bulb market in pictorial allegory. In this work, Flora, the goddess of flowers, is blown by the wind and rides with a tippler, money changers, and a two-faced woman. They are followed by dissolute Haarlem weavers, on their way to destruction in the sea.

It is hard to imagine that a flower that was in time to become commonplace in certain parts of Europe was a coveted luxury item and status symbol when introduced. Bulbs came as single colours such as red, yellow, or white or the multi-coloured, red, pink or purple on a white background or red, brown or purple on yellow background. Mixed colours were most prized.

But all that glistened was not gold, tulip petal or otherwise. The most distinctively coloured tulips, it later came to light, displayed these characteristics as a result of being infected with a virus.