on 5 August 2002
Although the subject matter of this concise volume is indeed a short history of the Tulip, the real interest and insight to be gained is from the theme of financial bubbles. Dash covers the background of the tulip from the steppes of asia in leaps and bounds and focusses in depth on the short 6 months of the 1630's Dutch mania.
He cuts through much of the false anecdotal stories from the mania and provides a good look at the truth as close as he can get it.
An easy read, and well worth it for any ex-dotcom players wishing to avoid making the same mistake twice, or those simply interested in a remarkable little history.
on 21 October 2000
When it comes to trends in publishing, popular history is the new black. Since the unexpected success of Longitude we've been deluged with small format narrative histories of colourful people and events. Some were good, some bad - but Tulipomania is one of the very best. The subject matter is a gift, to begin with, but the author tells the story beautifully. This book is lively, funny, engaging and - in passing - it teaches you a lot more about the history of the Dutch Golden Age than you probably realise. The chapters set in the Ottoman empire are if anything even more evocative, but, throughout, there's no shortage of colour and anecdote and even the index is amusing. Tulipomania is a sure-fire bet for anyone who likes history and loves a good story, well-told.
Everything you ever wanted to know about tulips is here - where they came from, why there was a mania for them in Holland in the 17th century, and later in the Ottoman court, and how the bursting of the bubble in tulip prices was handled by the Dutch authourities.
17th century tulips, which are beautifully illustrated in these pages, were much more beautiful than those we see today. Their beauty came from flame like streaks of colour - caused by a disease which has now been eradicated. At the peak a single bulb could sell for more than the cost of 2 grand Amsterdam houses - but within weeks of the peak they had almost no value at all.
The madness of speculatory booms is clear from this account. However I found some of it a little dry - perhaps because i found this account to be a little over long in the telling
on 3 March 2012
A small group of overly-ambitious and self-regulating traders pool together in a cramped room, electric with frenetic energy. These men begin the process of buying and selling increasingly complicated instruments about which very few of them possess any degree of knowledge. Ordinary citizens, wowed and fascinated by the astronomical profits being made by these traders, begin to deal on their own account. Intangible assets become more valuable than bricks-and-mortar and the majority of the population remain absolutely perplexed by what exactly is being traded.
This is not Wall Street. This is Haarlem. And the trade does not centre on CDOs, CFDs and ETFs; rather the focus of traders' attentions is a small flower indigenous to a mountain range in northern China. And this is tulipomania.
It was a flower only recently introduced to the United Provinces of Northern Europe and its rise had been meteoric. Renowned for its beauty and revered for its imperfections - the most desired flowers were disease-ridden - the tulip had first found its way into the gardens of French and German aristocracy in the middle of 1500s. Charting its course from there until, in 1637, when it caused the biggest financial disaster yet known to humanity is a difficult process tackled with a degree of aplomb by Mike Dash in his short narrative on this intriguing - and increasingly relevant - phenomena.
Dash is not given an easy task; by his own admission archives lack any great depth of literature on this period of the Dutch Golden Age and contemporaneous accounts are scarce or serve as moral warnings as opposed to candid accounts of this hyper-trade. And at times this weakness in source material is evident as Dash fills pages with speculation and assumption. Based entirely on fact, however, this book would be a great deal shorter and would not play along with some of the more exaggerated claims made about the period between the summer of 1637 and the following Spring.
Dash shows a keenness for history which does not always makes itself amenable to the reader and he is often guilty of acting outside his brief when he heads off on tangents about the Dutch Golden Age, specific characters in 17th century Amsterdam, and wider commentary on the nation as a whole. Whilst it could be construed as scene-setting, the author sometimes dallies too much in the social history of what is essentially a fiercely economic occurrence.
Though what he does well is undermine the common conception that tulipomania was a true supernova which broke the back of the United Provinces and bankrupted the nation. Its economic consequences, as severe as they were, affected only a minority who had optimistically thought there was a fortune to be made in holding promissory notes pertaining to an asset as unpredictable and volatile as an unplanted bulb.
The book's greatest strength is in reinforcing the idea that the crash was caused by the ineptitude of the tulip trade's dealers. As opposed to the stockbrokers who plied their trade in a sanctioned and regulated bours, the tulip trade was handled in smoky, ale-filled taverns by drunkards and laymen with no training and little knowledge of either horticulture or economics. It was a market riddled with opportunists and tainted by fraud - there was no assurance that the bulb being bought belonged to the seller or was of a particularly cherished variety of tulip - and the entire market was built upon the frailties inherent in dealing on something which had, at the end of the day, no tangible, realisable value.
Finding a book on this fascinating period of history is a tough task in itself and this is unsurprising as there is a clear lack of primary, contemporary literature detailing precisely what happened and when to precipitate such a devastating crash. Mike Dash has accomplished the most complete modern history of the event, however, and his books stands head-and-shoulders above the rest of the academic texts which document those turbulent few years.
Tulipomania is a quick read at fewer than 300 pages and it is easily digestible for those with, and those without, a firm grasp on the economics of market trading. More keenly, it serves as a timely reminder of the dangers of speculation and margin trading.
on 22 February 2016
Vivid read, steeped in history, beautiful written, supported by tidbits and historical anecdotes, loved reading it. Will dispel your perception of tulipomania as represented in popular media and the like, lessons learnt for todays post GFC climate.
on 17 October 2000
Definitely a book written for those who enjoy history and gardening, Mike Dash does a great job of engaging the reader in the motives behind the madness surrounding the tulip. The text is somewhat history heavy in the beginning, but Dash does paint a very vivid picture of the Netherlands during the 17th century. I enjoyed the combination of botany, economics and social history that Dash employed to describe this very interesting flower.
on 7 October 2011
How many key people in the 'financial industry' would have read Tulipomania? My hunch is, very few. First of all, most of these overpayed morons never read any books to start with (except ridiculous management books perhaps), secondly if they had, surely we would not be in the situation we are in now.
Is this too rash a verdict? No it is not. It is inconceivable that anyone who just finished Tulipomania could still, with a straight face, propose to invest billions in whacko 'financial products' or continue speculating on markets (kamikaze mortgages, government debt) that are obviously at the end of their bubble - and claim a huge bonus for himself on top.
This is not to say Tulipomania is in any way written as a warning against dubious financial practices or speculation. In fact the book is really mostly about the history of the tulip (how it was discovered & how it ended up in Northwest Europe), about renaissance botanists and Ottoman sultans. The 'core' part about the Tulipomania in the early 17th century Netherlands is as exciting as it is illuminating. Dash writes well; one can really imagine being in a smoke-filled tavern room in which first tulips, but later mostly 'futures' were traded, most of the traders drinking beer in copious quantities.
Perhaps the most interesting part of the book, especially in today's perspective, is how it all ended. Surprisingly, the inevitable collapse of the bubble did not hit the real economy all that badly. In the end, those who speculated had to accept the losses (how refreshing, lousy speculators that could NOT burden the taxpayer with the fruits of their failures!), those who lent money to broke speculators lost it, and that was that. The whole episode did not prevent the coming of the 'Golden Century' in the Netherlands at all.
Now on the scoring I was in doubt. I am not that much into tulips, then again the book is quite good, but then it is not nearly as good as Dash's other book "Batavia's Graveyard", but then again that latter book sets an impossibly high standard....well, 4 stars then.
A fascinating overview of the rise and fall of Tulipmania - with the emphasis on mania. Anyone looking for parallels with 2008 won't be disappointed. All the elements are there. Initially, tulips would be bought and sold on flowering, but it wasn't long before someone had the bright idea of creating a futures market in bulbs - putting down a deposit with a promise to pay at some later date - increasing leverage in the process by buying larger and larger quantities in the expectation of a significant rise in value. It all goes to prove that Put and Call options, and ineffective attempts to ban to ban short-selling are nothing new. There was even the development of a sub-prime market as cheaper varieties were sold by the pound and a flood of new investors entered the market, keeping the whole process going.
Unlike the current situation, however, and despite a hesitant and un-coordinated initial response by the authorities (sound familiar?), this `shadow market' in tulip derivatives was eventually unwound without seriously affecting the `real economy'. The collapse didn't prevent a similar, if smaller scale, mania for hyacinths a century later - but, we never learn, do we? The elements of every bubble are the same - a surge in value against a background of lax regulation creating unsustainable but irresistible expectations of future profits, and a growing disregard for risk.
Mike Dash has written an absorbing tale, recounting the history of the flower, and giving an outline of the political and economic context of the United Provinces - but the subject matter is immaterial, the story is a recurrent tale of the irrationality of markets and human folly, and that can happen in any context.
on 21 February 2012
Have read this in real print and now in Kindle. I find it most interesting as it follows the history of tulips and what caused the financial "bubble" of the 1600's. Good idea for teenagers to read and understand. Told brilliantly and keeps your attention span. I can't believe people could have been so stupid as to sell their house for a single bulb but it was true. Anyone reading it will look at their flowers of tulips with a different look after this.
on 29 April 2013
Historical facts that I read like a novel as it is clear, chronological, "colored" and an easy way to understand what brought investors to the first big "financial crisis". Similarities with the crisis we actually face.
I recommend this book stronly.