Beauty is often expressed in metaphors to flowers, and has been through the ages. Almost all of the ancient religions have a story involving a flower as a symbol of beauty. And as spring begins to turn to summer, the mid to late bloom flowers are in full bloom.
One of the most famous flowers is the rose. Quoted in so many pieces of literature symbolizing beauty and love, including one of the greatest lines from Romeo and Juliet “A name; a name. What’s in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.”
The rose was a popular flower for royalty and important people from the BC era as it is reported that Confucius had an entire library on how to care for the flowers. Cleopatra was so enamored with roses that she would have the entire floor of her palace covered in rose petals on special occasions.
After the fall of the Roman Empire, roses were primarily used in monasteries as a healing plant. It wasn’t until the 12th and 13th century crusaders began returning with Damask roses from the Middle East that roses saw new popularity. In the 1400’s, the “War of the Roses” was named so because the two opposing forces, Lancaster and York, were identified by different colored roses as their house symbols.
During the 17th century, roses and rose water were actually used as legal tender. How much a rose or rose water was actually worth is not clear, but they were not for the average peasants for sure.
Empress Josephine of France (1763-1814) sent out expeditions all around the world to find her new types of roses. Expeditions are costly, therefore the roses had to be worth the cost, at least to the Empress.
The rose, as popular as it was and still is, does not compare to the sharp rise and fall of another flower in history: the tulip.
Known as tulip mania, this flower had the Dutch peoples of the 17th century paying 10 times what the average skill tradesman made in a year!
Having believed to have been introduced to Europe from the Ottoman Empire to Vienna, then to Amsterdam and the Netherlands (or the United Provinces as they were known) from there, in 1593 the flower began its rise to popularity and cultivation.
Tulips bloom in April or May for about a week, but during the months from June to September, the bulbs are dormant and can be uprooted to be sold in the market. So it was, because the plant had become so desired and highly traded, that most of the trade was done during these dormant months. If someone wanted to place a purchase on bulbs in months other than these times, they went before a person with the title of a modern notary with the merchant and signed a contract to ensure delivery of goods.
By 1636, the tulip bulb became the fourth leading export of the Netherlands after gin, hearing, and cheese. The popularity of the tulip bulb continued to grow, with some rare bulbs reaching 5,000 guilders for one bulb. Wind trades or windhandel as they were called, took place widely so called because no goods actually exchanged hands, just promissory notes. It was said at one time that the trades were so feverish, with France among the top importers, that bulb would exchange hands ten times in one day, without any of these hands ever having touched the bulbs.
To put in perspective just how much people were spending on just one tulip bulb, the Viceroy bulb was averaging sales of about 2,500 guilders a piece. The average skilled tradesman brought home somewhere between 150 to 300 guilders (or florins) a year.
Below is a chart of an example of what all would need to be traded in order to receive just one tulip bulb of Viceroy:
Two lasts of wheat 448ƒ
Four lasts of rye 558ƒ
Four fat oxen 480ƒ
Eight fat swine 240ƒ
Twelve fat sheep 120ƒ
Two hogsheads of wine 70ƒ
Four tuns of beer 32ƒ
Two tons of butter 192ƒ
1,000 lb. of cheese 120ƒ
A complete bed 100ƒ
A suit of clothes 80ƒ
A silver drinking cup 60ƒ
The Tulip was, however, dropped as fast as it was picked up. There are speculations about why, but in February 1637, sellers went to Haarlem in the Netherlands. It was expected to be one of the highest selling markets, but no buyers showed up. Haarlem was in the midst of the bubonic plague. The price of the bulbs dropped like an anvil, plummeting to near worthlessness. Men who had made fortunes were now homeless and starving. Though economist say that it was also due to many other factors why the tulip rose and fell, the fact remains that the tulip had a glorious day and a terrible downfall.
Anne Goldgar will argue that the rise and fall of the tulip was nothing more than a drinking game for plague ridden cities to pass the time, but this has been proven not to be the case by several other historians and economists. This happened, and was real. To exactly what extent this mania spread throughout the world and exactly what impact it had on the economy as a whole, it is still debatable.