A vivid narration of the history of the tulip, from its origins on the barren, windswept steppes of central Asia to its place of honor in the lush imperial gardens of Constantinople, to its starring moment as the most coveted—and beautiful—commodity in Europe.
In the 1630s, visitors to the prosperous trading cities of the Netherlands couldn't help but notice that thousands of normally sober, hardworking Dutch citizens were caught up in an extraordinary frenzy of buying and selling. The object of this unprecedented speculation was the tulip, a delicate and exotic Eastern import that had bewitched horticulturists, noblemen, and tavern owners alike. For almost a year rare bulbs changed hands for incredible and ever-increasing sums, until single flowers were being sold for more than the cost of a house. Historians would come to call it tulipomania. It was the first futures market in history, and like so many of the ones that would follow, it crashed spectacularly, plunging speculators and investors into economic ruin and despair. This colorful cast of characters includes Turkish sultans, Yugoslav soldiers, French botanists, and Dutch tavern keepers—all centuries apart historically and worlds apart culturally, but with one thing in common: tulipomania.
The centerpiece of this story is a stunning two months, December 1636 and January 1637, when fortunes were made and lost in the Netherlands--in tulip bulb futures trading. Stripped to its basics, this would be a dry case study in an economics textbook. But Dash adds depth to the tale by including relevant bits of botany, sociology and history, as well as glimpses of the personalities involved in the creation of the tulip market, such as the orphans who made a fortune selling their late father's tulip bulbs and the man who owned a dozen extremely rare bulbs and wouldn't part with them at any price. Occasionally, he provides too much detail--his descriptions of how many guilders changed hands in particular transactions become repetitive, as do his physical descriptions of specific tulip varieties. Dash is fascinated by the contrast between the aesthetic sense of the Ottoman sultans (reflected in their love of tulip-laden gardens) and the ferocity of their rule (evidenced by fratricide, garroting and torture), but his musings on this interesting paradox are too unfocused to be enlightening. Overall, however, Dash (The Limit; Borderlands) effectively brings together a diverse mix of disciplines to illuminate the cultural, financial and psychological elements of an economic bubble--a subject that should be of great interest today. Readers interested in the technical aspects of economic speculation and those attuned to human folly will find this a worthwhile read.