Foreigners who marveled at the wealth the Dutch enjoyed during their Golden Age never ceased to wonder how they did it. The regents and great merchants of the United Provinces might be rich, but the country they lived in was one of the poorest places in Europe. Few other nations were quite so lacking in fertile land, charming countryside, and a pleasant climate as the Dutch Republic; from the war-ravaged territories of the south to the immense peat bogs that sprawled across the northern provinces, there was almost nothing to suggest that this was a land of any promise.

Here was a nation described by one scornful Englishman as “an universall quagmire … the buttock of the world,” a country whose greatest city—Amsterdam—had been built on a swamp and could be reached only by braving the Zuider Zee, a fifty-mile-long inland sea full of sandbanks and treacherous shallows. It was a place where the air, in the words of the English ambassador, Sir William Temple, “would be all Fog and Mist, if it were not clear’d by the sharpness of their Frosts,” where the weather was “violent and surprising” and was so unhealthy, chill, and damp that it seemed to breed fevers and plague. For the regents of the Dutch Republic, money made this situation tolerable. Farmers, too, did well during the Golden Age—there were many mouths to feed in the republic, and there was additional demand for their produce from the Holy Roman Empire, where the Thirty Years’ War between the Protestant north and the Catholic south raged from 1618 to 1648, devastating local agriculture. But for ordinary workers—the weavers and carpenters, smiths, cobblers, and market tradesmen who lived in the towns and made up what the Dutch called the artisan class—life in the United Provinces could be very hard.

In the seventeenth century almost all Dutch artisans worked long hours for low wages. When the day’s work was done and they could finally go home, it was to cramped and sparsely furnished one-or two-room houses that were in such short supply that rents were high. Even the national diet was monotonous. To people trapped in an existence such as this, the idea that one could earn a good living by planting bulbs and sitting back to watch them grow must have been irresistible.

For many years most artisans had begun their working day before dawn and finished it after dusk. By 1630 the clamor that arose from city workshops as they opened for business in the small hours of the morning was so great that several towns had been forced to pass decrees forbidding fullers from beginning work before two in the morning, and hatters from starting any earlier than four. Blacksmiths suffered the greatest restrictions; their smithies were so noisy they remained closed by order until the bell that announced daybreak had been rung.

During these long days Dutch artisans were sustained by nothing more than snacks of cheese and raw pickled herring and a dinner, taken in the middle of the day, which typically consisted of the national dish, a meat stew known as hutespot that was made of chopped mutton, parsnips, vinegar, and prunes boiled in fat. A good hutespot was supposed to be left to simmer for at least three hours, but when times were bad and the work was hard, it was often cooked for no more than an hour, so that when served, it was still—in the words of one appalled French visitor—“nothing more than water full of salt or nutmeg, with sweetbreads and minced meat added, having not the slightest flavor of meat.”

For many of the Dutch, though, even a poor hutespot was at best an occasional luxury. Those who could not afford meat lived on vegetables and the sticky black rye bread of the time, which was sold in huge loaves weighing twelve pounds or more; in poorer households, the mother might buy a single one of these loaves to feed her whole family for a day. Even when other food was available, Dutch eating habits were generally very conservative. Seafood, for example, almost always meant either herring or cod; mussels, though available, were despised as the poorest sort of food, and the servants at one grand house were so disgusted at being asked to eat salmon that they begged their mistress to promise she would not serve it to them more than twice a week.

With dinner over, work began again immediately and lasted at least until dusk—much later, if it was possible to continue under artificial light. During the Golden Age fourteen-hour days were thought perfectly normal, and at Leiden in 1637 hard-pressed cloth workers who had just worked a sixteen-hour shift needed money so badly that they asked to be put on overtime. Nor was there much time off; everyone worked six days a week, and one of the less welcome results of the Reformation had been the abolition of a good number of holidays that had previously been celebrated on saints’ days.

The artisans rarely complained about this because they were paid by the hour. The money they could earn thus varied according to the number of hours it was possible to labor in a week, so a job that generated a little surplus income in the summer might become one that paid not much better than starvation wages when the days closed in for winter. Even when times were good and the days were long, the pay in most jobs amounted to something between half a stuiver and two stuivers an hour, and hundreds of thousands of Dutchmen worked long and hard for a guilder a day or a little less. The upshot was that at a time when Sunday working was not permitted and a family of five needed a minimum income of 280 guilders a year simply to avoid starvation, a Dutch artisan in regular work often expected to earn an annual wage of no more than 300 guilders.

Those who did take home more than this were not necessarily much better off. Most of the trades in which an artisan could hope to earn a decent living were still controlled by guilds, which imposed considerable dues and expected their members to contribute to the costs of the frequent banquets and receptions that marked the course of a guild’s year. A good number of artisans who had successfully completed the lengthy and poorly paid apprenticeships that were expected of them never could afford to pay such sums and had to remain journeymen all their lives. Even at the height of the Golden Age, when wealth was pouring into regent coffers from investments and the rich trades, the master craftsmen of the republic, who had surmounted every obstacle and joined their chosen guild, were generally so poor that they could not afford to hire apprentices of their own to help them.

From this perspective it is obvious that although the United Provinces were rich, few of those who lived there could be considered wealthy. Some artisans did earn good livings, it is true, and even the poorer ones were paid something like twice as much as the poor of other countries. But taxes and prices were correspondingly high throughout the republic. Those who did have jobs worried constantly about money, and their wives generally had to work to supplement the family income.

A typical Dutch family, then, had little money to spare and would have owned relatively few possessions. If they were artisans and citizens of one of the great towns, like more than a quarter of the population of the republic, they probably lived behind a door made of oak, waxed or painted green, in one of the small, neat houses that lined the crowded streets. The interior would almost certainly have been kept scrupulously clean—the Dutch fetish for cleanliness was something almost every traveler remarked on, and it was not at all uncommon for a house to be permanently damp from repeated scrubbing and for any visitors to be required to wear straw slippers over their outdoor shoes to keep out dirt. But it would also have been relatively bare. An artisan household might boast a table, a plain cupboard, some tableware, and perhaps a few straight-backed chairs (which sold for a guilder apiece). It took a long time to scrape together enough money to purchase the most expensive item of household furniture, a bed. The cheapest varieties, known as cupboard beds because they were set into a wall to help retain warmth, were so small that they required their occupants to sleep in a sitting position, and even these cost ten or fifteen guilders; only members of the merchant class could have afforded a modern freestanding bed at the enormous price of a hundred guilders. Among the artisans, children slept on couches or boards, or in drawers under their parents’ bed, and when they reached the age of fourteen, they too were expected to find work and contribute what they could to the household.

By 1630, moreover, the precarious prosperity of the artisan class was increasingly under threat from the flood of Protestant refugees arriving from the south. Even in the previous century the people of the United Provinces had begun to realize that their republic was becoming crowded, since most of the cultivable land, and thus much of the population, was concentrated in the three relatively fertile provinces that lay at the heart of the country: Holland, Gelderland, and Utrecht. (One other reasonably prosperous area lay to the south, where the people of Zeeland mostly earned a living from the fisheries, but the remaining provinces were not capable of supporting many people.) With the arrival of tens of thousands of immigrants from the southern Netherlands, most of whom were seeking work, the population had swollen to some two million people. The fact that many of the southerners brought their wealth with them certainly helped ease the burden, but even so overcrowding became a significant problem, and those who were not already wealthy could see that their chances of ever prospering were increasingly limited.

Opportunities did exist, and people could see them and badly wanted to take them, but “whenever there is a stuiver to be earned,” as the Flemish preacher Willem Baudartius put it in 1624, “ten hands try to grab it.” If you were poor and struggling to make a living in the oversupplied labor market of the Golden Age, you were actually more likely to slide down the social scale than to climb up it. That is what made the allure of the tulip so irresistible, and the instant profits it seemed to promise so tantalizing, to so many poor Dutchmen.

One vital national characteristic, which the United Provinces possessed in greater measure than any other nation in Europe in the first half of the seventeenth century, did more than anything to persuade precarious tradesmen and artisans to try their luck in the bulb trade. This was the extraordinary belief that social mobility was the birthright of every Dutchman. In France or the Holy Roman Empire a peasant knew that whatever happened to him, he would always remain a peasant, just as a shopkeeper would be the son and the father of shopkeepers. But the United Provinces was a land where an immigrant’s son had become the wealthiest man in the richest city on earth and been co-opted, despite his entirely humble origins, into the regent class; where a village laborer could try his luck in the towns, and where a moderately well-off artisan could and occasionally did invest his money by taking a minute share in a ship setting off to trade in the Baltic, reinvest his profit, and work his way up until he himself became a shipowner. For Dutchmen the Golden Age was pregnant with expectation of change. That emotion was felt by the poor at least as much as it was by the rich—and by the tulip traders most of all.

As demand for bulbs grew and the prices quoted for particular varieties increased year by year, it became increasingly obvious that there was money to be made in the flower trade. From the early 1630s, then, a new sort of buyer began to nose about the nurseries of the Dutch Republic. The newcomers were not connoisseurs of flowers, and many of them probably knew little or nothing about cultivating bulbs. They called themselves “florists,” and they were interested only in making money out of tulips.

Probably the first florists thought of establishing themselves as growers. The idea of taking a simple bulb and turning it into cash in the course of a single winter must have been a very attractive one, and naturally it appealed particularly to the itinerant, the indolent, and the chancers in Dutch society—people with no fixed employment and no fixed income, who welcomed what seemed a fine opportunity to earn some easy money. Many honest artisans who worked enormously hard to make a fraction of what some tulip growers earned found the flower trade increasingly attractive as well. Equally naturally, it was less enticing to the better off and those fixed in stable professions, who were already living a reasonably comfortable life.

The notion of creating a little tulip nursery would have come quite naturally to many of the florists. By the 1630s the fashion for gardening, which had earlier been largely confined to the regent and merchant classes, had begun to spread much further afield. Many of the artisans who lived in cities such as Haarlem and Amsterdam had access to an allotment outside the city walls. Before the bulb craze got properly under way, these had mostly been used to grow vegetables, but even then a handful could be surprisingly elaborate, as Sir William Brereton observed of a poor man’s garden at Leiden; it contained some spectacular topiary that “portraited to the life in box all the postures of a soldier, and a captain on horseback.” Another English traveler, Peter Mundy, thought the pleasures of cultivating a little garden helped Amsterdammers cope with the miseries of living in their marshy climate. “The want of walking Feilds and Meddowes,” he observed in his journal, “which others enjoy in other places, have Made these seeke to countervaile itt in home delights, as in … little gardeins [and] Flower potts … in which latter very curious rare rootes, plantts, Flowers, etts.”

Dutch villagers, too, enjoyed the delights of horticulture. At the height of the Golden Age, even the smallest settlements generally had flower growers’ clubs, each with its own rules and fêtes. Most held a spring flower festival, where, just as today, different varieties would be placed in competition and prizes distributed. The festivals generally ended with a banquet held in honor of the winning flowers (any excuse for another feast, as foreign observers sourly remarked). Gardening had, in short, become something of a national passion.

Sometime before 1635 the very first florists began to realize a profit from what had probably been rather tentative initial investments in flower bulbs. Word of their good fortune spread, and a few more newcomers decided to try their luck in the tulip trade as well. The writers and pamphleteers of the time are unanimous in stating that many of the incomers were weavers, who enjoyed certain advantages over other artisans in that their looms were worth a fair sum and could be pawned or mortgaged to raise the seed capital needed to enter the bulb trade, but they were soon joined by men from other professions. The anonymous author of one pamphlet (who could well have been employing a certain amount of poetic license) suggested that people from almost every imaginable walk of life became tulip dealers: bricklayers and carpenters, glass blowers and confectioners, dry shavers and bookbinders, swineherds and demolition men—even members of the professional classes, such as lawyers, printers, and clergymen.

Almost every sort of artisan, then, had the desire to get rich, and at least some of them would have had the capital required to make a modest investment in bulbs. The chancers would have had less money but a greater willingness to risk what they did possess. Here two of the most striking characteristics of Dutch society came into play: the urge to save and the urge to gamble. These impulses may seem quite contradictory, but in fact they worked together to fuel the tulip mania.

Many visitors to the United Provinces were struck by the national horror of living beyond one’s means, which—when combined with the general increase in wealth that the republic enjoyed between 1600 and 1630—meant that (perhaps uniquely among all the people of Europe in this period) a significant number of Dutch families had savings. Because there were no banks, in the modern sense, in the republic at this time, we have no idea what sort of figures were typical, but Sir William Temple, for one, appears to have thought that a frugal Dutchman might save a fifth of his total income. If we take that as a guide, then a reasonably well-off artisan earning between 300 and 500 guilders a year might be expected to have had between 60 and 100 guilders a year to invest. Of course the working classes lived much closer to the poverty line than the merchants whom Temple had in mind when he made his estimate, so it is probably rather optimistic to use even his rough figure; but even so, it was surely possible that a family in which both parents worked consistently and tried hard to save money might scrape together 20 or 50 guilders at the end of a good year. In normal times that money would probably be spent on luxuries such as linen, household furniture, and a few pieces of china, but even after tulip prices had appreciated throughout the 1620s, it would also have sufficed to buy a few bulbs.

Like saving, the urge to gamble infected all classes of society. No Dutchman, the businessman Willem Usselincx said, would put his money into an old sock when he could use it to make more money. For a rich merchant this might have meant investing what he could afford in a risky voyage to the Indies. For the rest of society betting was often a product of the difficulties, which have already been noted, that many Dutchmen experienced in trying to better themselves in an overcrowded country. Lotteries, for example, were as popular in the Holland of the Golden Age as they are today, and for many people winning some wager seemed an enticingly simple way of making some money.

The Dutch were notorious for their addiction to gambling. The French traveler Charles Ogier wrote that it was impossible to find a porter to carry one’s luggage at Rotterdam, because as soon as a visitor had chosen one, another would arrive and play dice with the first for the client’s business. Contemporary records mention that a man named Barent Bakker won a life-threatening bet that he could sail in a kneading trough down the Zuider Zee from the island of Texel to Wieringen, and a Bleiswijck innkeeper named Abraham van der Stain lost his house on a wager concerning the precise appearance of a specific pillar in Rome. Dutch soldiers were even observed making odds on the outcome of battles that were still in progress.

Compared to such insane wagers, tulips looked like a good investment. Growing bulbs was a lot easier than working an eighty-hour week hammering horseshoes or working a loom, and because demand for the flowers was steadily increasing, prices, at least for the finer varieties, consistently rose. No wonder Dutchmen thought they had chanced upon the dream of every gambler: a safe bet.

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