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Basic Information

Tulipomania (also called Tulip Mania, Tulip Fever, or Tulpenmanie) was the oldest documented speculative bubble where a fashionable rage for something led to crazy escalating prices, with widespread frantic or predatory trading of the same, and a sudden crash when the fad died off in a hurry. While chances are good that things like this have been going on for as long as money has existed, and probably before that in pure barter economies, this is the one that was big enough and memorable enough to get lodged in the history books.

Like the name implies, the rage here was for tulip bulbs and the flowers that would grow from them. At the time, they were the most vibrantly colored flowers in Europe. Heading into the 17th Century, crossbreeding had led to new varietals and colorations. There was also a poorly understood biological phenomenon at play: a virus had evolved (now called the tulip-breaking virus) that was causing mixed colors, stripes and variegated patterns on tulips. All together, this led to a proliferation of beautiful new flower options. Tulips take a long time to grow and develop as well, so speculation on tulip futures became a thing starting around 1600 or so, most especially around Amsterdam. At their height in the Dutch Golden Age, tulips were the 4th largest export from the Dutch Republic, and the most prized bulbs could be sold for 10 times the yearly income of a skilled middle-class artisan. A rapid-fire market traded bulbs and bulb futures all day long, much like a stock market. The upper class and speculators invested heavily, and a series of laws passed every few years leading to greater and greater regulation of the trade, the banning of short-selling, etc.

And then, in February 1637, the market collapsed. Suddenly tulips weren't worth more than any other flower, no one was buying, and some level of economic crisis occurred. It didn't tank any governments, so it's possible the whole thing has been overstated or sensationalized with the passage of time, but certainly a run on the market or market crash is a thing we've seen happen in other sectors many times over the years, so it's possible at least.


2. Non-Fiction Book: Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds by Charles Mackay - written in 1841

Game and Story Use

  • Any game set in the Netherlands of the early 17th Century would definitely need to have some reference to this, and it may appear as a background detail for games elsewhere in Europe at the time, given how many tulips were exported.
    • While much of Europe was tearing itself apart in the Thirty Years War, some folks were haggling madly over flowers.
    • A failson, wastrel, mad king or other character with a large budget and reckless spendthrift persona might fritter their savings or inheritance away on such things. They could have a green thumb or interest in botany, but they could just as easily have no such knowledge or skill and be merely chasing after financial gain, social status, or desire to cash in on the fad.
      • Such a figure could be the PCs patron, whom they have to wring resources out of via strong proposals and numerous charisma checks, while ol' moneybags is in the background just throwing money away at fleeting floral finery.
        • After a bad investment, the patron can now only afford to pay the PCs in striped flowers.
      • Or it could be a weakness of an important personage, making them a target for a gardener-turned-confidence artist who convinces them to go deep on plant futures just as the market is about to tumble. You could tailor a confidence game to tulips, such as a floral version of the glim-dropper, melon-drop, or wire-game. "You sir have ruined my prized tulip! I demand satisfaction!"
  • In a fantasy or speculative-fiction take on it, you could have a magical or mechanical explanation behind it all. If the flowers can be used for herbalism or alchemy, then the high-demand makes sense. If the petals or bulbs can be used for practical effects, the PCs are likely to want to get involved. This is especially true if the players are used to the effects-based-pricing so common to RPG equipment sections. "I know it only gives +1 vs bees, but if they're selling it for $500 a stem the GM must be planning to have giant insects attack in the third act!"
  • Can be referenced as a familiar pattern to illustrate something about your setting, possibly by substituting something else for the flowers. It shows the recklessness of the social groups involved in the market, or the importance of the symbol the sought-after item represents.
  • A secret society or secret agency could be operating out of the market, and communicating code/secret messages hidden in flowers, or using the bulb sales for money laundering. The craze is engineered as a cover story to obfuscate this activity, or aggressively as a way to destabilize the economy of an enemy nation akin to counterfeiting.
    • Reminds me of the adventure for Palladium's Recon RPG where Vietnam era PCs engaged in a civil aid programme somewhere in former Indochina are alerted to the fact that cardamom is selling at a ridiculous price. Attempts to cash in discover that the apparent price spike is actually being caused by leaked information about the wholesale price of opium whose suppliers are using "cardamom" as a codeword and, indeed, disguise for shipping. Something more widespread could generate a significant market disturbance, followed by a crash as all of the actual cardamom hits the market.
  • A veteran chrononaut or character with a "grays sports almanac, but for plants" might see tulipomania as a great way to turn a quick buck using a time machine. Go down a few decades and buy low before anyone realized their value, then up a few decades to sell high just before the bubble bursts. Step 3 legitimately is profit.
    • Or maybe, the first time it all played out, tulipmania tanked the economies of Europe, and only after intervention by the time police where they able to stave off the societal collapse by tightly controlling the fate of the flowers.
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