Jan Davidsz. de Heem, Vase of Flowers, c. 1660, oil on canvas,
National Gallery of Art, Washington, Andrew W. Mellon Fund 1961.6.1
as it may seem, the first speculation crisis in modern capitalism arose
over the Dutch love of tulips. At the height of "tulipomania," one could
have purchased a lifetime of goodsseventy-seven tons of grain, four
oxen, eight pigs, twelve sheep, two tons of butter, three tons of cheese,
a good supply of wine and beer, a bed, and a new wardrobefor less
than the cost of a single rare bulb.
bulbs could not be sold in the winter and spring when they were planted
in the ground, and speculators began to trade them on paper. All levels
of society bought into the market, becoming paper millionaires. A selling
panic in February 1637 sent prices crashing. Growers, and quite a few
buyers, were ruined. Though the economy as a whole remained strong, the
tulip became symbolic of the perils of excess.