At the Sign of The Golden Grape

Right in the heart of Amsterdam, almost on top of the dam that actually gave the town its name, was an elegant four-story quadrangle, built in the Flemish style and crowned with a slim and elegant clock tower. This building stood opposite the central bank and close to the town hall in a position that emphasized the central role it played in the life of the city and indeed the United Provinces as a whole. It was Amsterdam’s new beurs—the city’s stock exchange.

Not too many years before, the traders who now occupied one or other of the 123 offices in the exchange had been forced to transact their business out in the open on Amsterdam’s New Bridge or—if wet—among the pews of St. Olaf’s Chapel or the town’s Old Church. As the city boomed in the early years of the seventeenth century, however, and foreign trade poured in, it became clear that the stock exchange needed a permanent and weatherproof home. The beurs, which opened for business in 1610, met that need and, by its sheer physical presence, went some way to assuaging the suspicions of Amsterdam’s more conservative burghers, who felt there was something faintly ungodly about dealing in shares.

Trading on the beurs was strictly regulated and was permitted only between the hours of noon and two. Each day’s trading had to be packed into those two hours, and the raucous frenzy that erupted within the quadrangle as the big clock in the tower struck midday was such that anyone strolling past the exchange at noon might be forgiven for concluding that the burghers had a point. Business was conducted at such a pace that brokers who years earlier had sealed each deal with an elaborate ritual of handshakes now merely slapped wildly at each other’s hands before rushing on to the next trade.

Hundreds of traders were licensed to deal on the stock exchange—there were perhaps four hundred official beurs brokers in the 1630s, and they were joined on the trading floor by up to eight hundred unlicensed freelance dealers who specialized in trading small packages of shares at low prices. In one description of the exchange, the contemporary writer Joseph de la Vega observed one such freelance dealer, who “chews his nails, pulls his fingers, closes his eyes, takes four paces, and four times talks to himself, raises his hand to his cheek as if he has a tooth-ache, and all this accompanied by a mysterious coughing.” Vega does not mention what his small-time broker was hoping to buy or sell for his handful of guilders, but he had a considerable choice: By 1636 at least 360 different commodities were traded on the Amsterdam exchange. Tulips, however, were not among them.

This fact may come as a surprise to those who assume that a financial calamity with the reputation that the tulip mania enjoys must necessarily have been serious and widespread and have had a significant impact on the stock market, on trade, and on the Dutch economy in general. Nothing could be further from the truth. The speculation in tulip bulbs always existed at the margins of Dutch economic life. It was conducted by amateurs, not professional traders, and was never subject either to the customs (however peculiar) or to the regulation of the stock exchange. The mania took, in fact, the form of a rough but intended parody of the trade in commodities and shares that flourished on the beurs. It was the province not of financiers experienced in the ways of business, but of country people and poor city dwellers who had, when they started dealing in bulbs, almost certainly never owned a single share in their whole lives.

The fact that the tulips were not dealt on the stock exchange does not mean the flower business was not regulated. In fact, it soon evolved into a complicated, even ritualized affair in which buyer and seller dealt according to fixed rules and were united by mutual obligations, agreed to in front of witnesses, and noted in writing. Like the brokers who once congregated on the New Bridge, the tulip traders needed somewhere to transact their business. Like the brokers, some of them used the house of God upon occasion; when the mania took place, the local church was a general meeting place pressed into use by everyone from local merchants to courting couples. Most, however, found it far more comfortable to buy and sell their bulbs in a convenient tavern. The tulip trader’s stock exchange was his local pub.

The “colleges” of growers and dealers who met in the back rooms of Dutch inns were such a central feature of the tulip mania that it is important to get an impression of what the taverns of the 1630s were like. Unless the conditions in which the bulbs were actually traded are understood—late at night, in smoke-filled rooms, by drunken men—the mania itself will always remain a mystery.

Inns were, to begin with, so common in the United Provinces as to be commonplace. In 1613, for example, Amsterdam already had five for every hundred inhabitants, which suggests that in 1636 there were probably two hundred packed within the city walls of Haarlem—an area not that much bigger than Hyde Park. These drinking houses ranged from full-fledged taverns to dingy cellars and apothecaries’ shops. Perhaps a fifth were unlicensed and illegal and specialized in evading the high beer tax imposed to help pay for the war with Spain. The authorities had to carry out frequent raids to keep the spread of such establishments in check.

It was only the larger and more reputable inns, however, that would have been able to offer the private rooms required by the tulip traders. They went by names such as the Beelzebub, the Finch, the Lion, and the Devil on a Chain. Establishments of this sort could be found both within and without a city’s walls.

In Haarlem, for example, many taverns clustered to the south of the city, amid the glades and walks of Haarlem’s famous woods. Because they were close to the earliest tulip farms just to the north, it seems reasonable to assume that some of them, at least, must have hosted groups of florists trading bulbs. If so, then the tulip dealers would have shared the premises with unsavory companions. Prostitution having been outlawed—ostensibly at least—within Haarlem’s city walls, the taverns of the Haarlemmerhout frequently doubled as brothels. The most notorious of the local whorehouses cannot have been easy to miss—it appears in the records of the time as “the red house outside the gate of the cross.”

We do not know for certain how many of the dozens of taverns in Haarlem itself played host to the tulip maniacs of 1636, but it seems a fair guess that one that did was a large and well-known inn called De Gulde Druyf, which occupied a prime location on the corner of the market square and the city’s main street, the Koningsstraat. This tavern—the name means “The Golden Grape”—was owned by the brothers Jan and Cornelis Quaeckel, though they did not run it day to day. The Quaeckel brothers were the sons of an innkeeper named Cornelis Gerritsz. Quaeckel, who had been one of the most important pioneer tulip growers in Holland. At least five new varieties of tulip, created by him in the first quarter of the seventeenth century, bore the Quaeckel name in honor of his achievements, including the white and violet Lack van Quaeckel and a popular Bizarden named Mervelye van Quaeckel—“Quaeckel’s miracle.” Old Quaeckel died, aged almost seventy, in 1632, but his youngest son, Jan, continued to be active in the tulip business up to and beyond the peak of the mania. Nothing could have been more natural than for him to have played host to Haarlem’s traders in a back room of his own tavern, which was not only perfectly situated but also one of the most popular watering holes in Haarlem.

Suppose, then, that we were to travel from Amsterdam to pay a visit to The Golden Grape one day in the late autumn of 1636 and watch tulip traders at work. What would we have seen? Leaving Amsterdam late in the afternoon and traveling, perhaps, along the newly opened passenger canal that linked the two cities—the first of its kind in the United Provinces—visitors would arrive at Haarlem at dusk. The journey from one city to another took only two and a quarter hours. It was so quick and so convenient that fashionable Amsterdammers soon found it easier to send their dirty washing by boat to the superior laundries of Haarlem than to do it themselves. Those on board the canal boats passed the time discussing current affairs and reading specially produced small pamphlets called schuitepraatjes, or “towboat talks.” During the autumn and winter of 1636, the new brightly colored barges would certainly have been hotbeds of gossip about the latest developments in the tulip mania.

As the boat approached Haarlem, the travelers’ first glimpse of the city would be of a long line of red-brown roofs, crowned with wisps of smoke from many thousands of chimneys, rising clear of the meadowlands that surrounded the town. Next they would see that a low perimeter wall of brick and a defensive moat spanned by nine bridges protected the city. Far to the west, beyond the roofscape, the ragged outlines of the giant sand dunes that lined the North Sea coast might just be seen rising to meet the characteristic soft gray sky of Holland. And to the south they would glimpse the grim black expanse of the Haarlemmermeer—huge, brackish, and shallow, a windswept inland sea prone to violent storms, constantly eroding its banks, and eating up more and more of the surrounding farmland so that now it washed up only a mile or so short of the walls of Haarlem itself. The meer enjoyed an evil reputation for claiming the lives of those foolish enough to sail on it; Haarlemmers called it “the water wolf.”

Alighting from their barge just outside the city walls, travelers from Amsterdam would find themselves standing at a gate called the Amsterdamsepoort. Here Haarlem’s regents had erected a set of gallows, a triangle of three brick pillars joined by iron beams, and some wooden posts to which were strapped the bodies of recently executed criminals. Because the city was the home of the official executioner for the whole province—a man who bore the title “master of high works of Holland”—and saw to the dispatch of prisoners from Amsterdam as well as its own criminals, these contraptions would probably be full. When Sir William Brereton passed this way in 1634, he encountered not only the fleshless skeletons of two unfortunates swinging from the gallows, but also the mutilated body of a girl who had been broken on the wheel for murdering her own child and the blackened corpse of a beggar who had been burned at the stake for setting a whole village ablaze.

Entering the city through the Amsterdamsepoort, the visitor’s first impression would probably be of Haarlem’s distinctive smell. The city stank of buttermilk and malt, the aromas of its two principal industries: bleaching and beer. Haarlem breweries produced a fifth of all the beer made in Holland, and the town’s celebrated linen bleacheries, just outside the walls, used hundreds of gallons of buttermilk a day to dye cloth shipped to the city from all over Europe a dazzling white. The milk filled a series of huge bleaching pits along the west walls, and each evening it was drained off into Haarlem’s moat and thence into the river Spaarne, dyeing the waters white.

Night draws in quickly in the Dutch Republic by late autumn, and it would have been dark by the time travelers from outside the city found their way to the market square. In 1636 Haarlem did not yet enjoy more than rudimentary street lighting, and the only light in its maze of cramped streets—some so narrow that the occupants of a house on one side of the road could reach across and shake hands with their neighbors on the other—came from fires and oil lamps gleaming through shutters barred against the cold. The town, so crowded and alive with noise during the day, would have been much quieter by night. With the exception of the ritualistic clatter of a militia company on guard, most of the roads would be deserted but for the hunched and huddled figures of drinkers flitting along alleyways, heading for the smoky warmth of their favorite tavern.

It would have been smoke, more than warmth, that assailed the patrons of The Golden Grape as they entered the inn. The eye-watering fug that permeated every seventeenth-century tavern was so thick, it was often difficult to see across a room. Part of it, certainly, came from the roaring open fires that were the only form of heating, but they were fueled by local peat—excavated in such huge quantities that the Dutch of the Golden Age were creating new swamps and bogs almost as fast as they drained the old ones—piled up in hollow pyramids in the grate. Visitors such as Peter Mundy found that Netherlands peat burned “very Sweet and Cleare,” even though the sulfur in it did turn those huddled around fires “pale and livid, like ghosts.” So the smoke that filled The Golden Grape came almost entirely from the pipes smoked by its customers.

By 1636 pipe smoking was so prevalent among the Dutch that it was practically a national characteristic. Tobacco, mostly imported from America but just now beginning to be grown in the United Provinces too, was puffed in slim, long-stemmed clay pipes. Smokers smoked almost constantly, not least because the doctors of the period touted tobacco as a potent medicine, capable of protecting against the plague and curing everything from toothache to worms. The fact that tobacco was also said to soak up vital bodily fluids, making the men who puffed it infertile, does not seem to have put many people off. Entering The Golden Grape must have been like going into one of the overused and stale-smelling smoking rooms set aside by twentieth-century companies that have banned tobacco elsewhere in the workplace.

Once a newcomer’s eyes had become somewhat accustomed to the murk, however, he would have seen that the tavern was packed and lively. Some of the details, which would not have struck a contemporary Haarlemmer as in any way unusual, might seem odd to modern eyes. One was the requirement to surrender weapons at the door, the result of one too many knife fights in the past. (Dutchmen of the Golden Age had a dangerous passion for this sort of combat—“a hundred Netherlanders, a hundred knives,” as a contemporary proverb bluntly warned.) Another was the quality of the paintings displayed on the walls. Works of art were so ubiquitous in the Golden Age, and prices so low—a matter of a few stuivers or a guilder or two in some cases—that it was very common for taverns to display fine canvases or tapestries and allow them to yellow and blacken in the smoky air.

Most remarkable of all, though, was the sheer scale of the debauchery within. Even at a time when drinking was universal and drunkenness commonplace, the Dutch were Europe’s most notorious sots. Beer was cheap—a whole evening’s drinking could be enjoyed for less than a guilder—and Sir William Brereton found scarcely a sober man among the denizens of the Dutch taverns he visited. Even the English, no mean drinkers themselves, complained of the Hollanders’ appetite for beer and accused the Dutch of exporting the habit of drunkenness to Britain.

Virtually every Dutchman, in fact, frequented one tavern or another, as did many of the less genteel women and a good number of children. The atmosphere within these establishments was both convivial and inclusive, although there was a general suspicion, in many of the less salubrious establishments, that the staff were engaged in a systematic attempt to defraud their customers—which occasionally they were. As well as the usual tricks of shortchanging sozzled patrons or watering down their beer, some innkeepers colored wine with sunflower or stuffed cloths into the bottom of their pitchers to reduce the amount of drink they would hold. Visitors to such estabishments—at least those who avoided being bilked—were frequently appalled by the systematic way in which Netherlanders set about becoming intoxicated. Dutchmen seldom drank alone; they came in company or would be welcomed into one of the groups already working their way through vast flagons of beer. Typically the consumption of each new round would be prefaced by a toast, which was one of the rituals that the tulip traders adopted with enthusiasm. “These gentleman,” the Frenchman Théophile de Viau observed of the habitués of one tavern he visited, “have so many rules and ceremonies for getting drunk that I am repelled as much by the discipline as by the excess.”

It was, in any case, all but impossible to avoid beer in the seventeenth century. The water was generally undrinkable—that would certainly have been true in Haarlem, thanks to the bleacheries—and tea and coffee were little-known luxuries; wine was relatively expensive. Beer was drunk with every meal: warmed and spiced with nutmeg and sugar at breakfast time, on its own at lunch and supper. Naturally not all the beer consumed in Haarlem was very alcoholic—it was brewed in two strengths, “simple” and “double,” the former to quench thirst, the latter to intoxicate—but what there was was drunk in quantity. At the turn of the century, when the population of Haarlem was only thirty thousand men, women, children, and babes in arms, the consumption of beer ran at about 120,000 pints a day, which is five and a half million gallons a year, a third of which was drunk in taverns. To meet this demand, Haarlem alone contained about a hundred breweries, fifty of which were of a good size. The brewers were, in fact, not only wealthy but a potent political force in the city; a cabal of twenty-one of them had actually controlled the government of Haarlem for a number of years from 1618.

The florists of the city, cloistered in a back room of The Golden Grape away from the worst noise and smell of the city and the tavern itself, met by arrangement two or three times a week. In the early days of the tulip trade, these meetings took an hour or two at most, but as the mania took hold, the colleges began to sit for longer periods, sometimes starting in the morning and not concluding the last of their business until the early hours of the next morning. Since each deal was celebrated with a call for wine—in itself a symbol of ostentation and wealth in what was a predominantly beer-drinking province—and since wine in Dutch taverns was served in vast pewter pitchers that held anything from two pints to one and a half gallons, the trade was conducted for the most part in a haze of inebriation. Doubtless this, combined with the bravado generated by groups of friends laughing and talking into the night, explains a good deal about the otherwise puzzling mechanisms of the mania.

In important respects the tavern colleges seem to have operated independently from the rest of the tulip trade. Their members, though they did include a few merchants and other affluent dealers, were drawn almost exclusively from the working classes. These men would have had little if any contact with the connoisseurs or established growers, and they generally possessed at best secondhand knowledge not only of tulips but also of finance, the stock exchange, and the way that regents and great merchants dealt shares and bought and sold commodities.

Many of the elaborate customs developed by the colleges seem to have been deliberately modeled on the methods of the stock exchange, a practice that must have heightened the florists’ sense of self-importance and also helped to persuade the tulip traders that they were involved in a genuine and properly regulated business. Bulbs were put up for sale by auction, and where the more established growers and dealers sometimes visited a local attorney and had their agreements notarized so as to ensure there was no possibility of any dispute, the florists substituted the quicker and cheaper system of recording all their transactions in their own bulky ledgers. Each college also elected a secretary, who kept records of the deals struck around his table.

The tulips that were bought and sold by these tavern traders were rarely if ever the superbly fine varieties that obsessed the connoisseurs and wealthy dealers such as Jan Quaeckel. Probably they were bulbs of the second rank at first; and then, when demand rose further and even these became scarce, the colleges started to deal mostly in the least coveted and most common varieties of tulip. These flowers were known as vodderij, which means “rags,” or more politely as gemeene goed, “common goods.” They were unicolored or poorly variegated tulips that were often descendants of the earliest varieties to reach the United Provinces. Being both long-established and beneath the notice of the richer dealers, they were readily available by the end of 1636.

The vodderij were sold not by the ace but in baskets that were weighed out by the half-pound or the pound (9,728 aces in Haarlem, 10,240 in Amsterdam). In florists’ slang they were often called “pound goods,” to distinguish them from the piece goods that were sold individually by the ace or by the thousand aces. A one-pound basket might contain as many as fifty or one hundred bulbs, and so a single tulip, even at the height of the mania, would have been priced within reach of all but the poorest traders.

The hundreds of novice florists who flocked to the bulb trade in the autumn and winter of 1636–37 generally began by dealing in small quantities of pound goods, and the fantastic inflation that quickly occurred in the prices of these bulbs is a better indicator than any other of the vigor of the flower trade and the hold that tulip mania quickly exerted over the tavern colleges. A parcel of one of the cheapest pound goods, Gheele Croonen, which could have been had for as little as 20 guilders in September or October 1636, cost 1,200 guilders by the end of January. The more popular Switsers, a comparatively dull Bizarden variety, came onto the market in the autumn of 1636 at 60 guilders per pound. But by January 15, 1637, the price was 120 guilders; on January 23 it was 385; and by February 1 it had all but quadrupled again, to 1,400 guilders per pound. The peak price for this variety, recorded two days later, was 1,500 guilders per pound.

Remarkable though the tulip’s history had been up to this point, it was in the months of December 1636 and January 1637 that the bulb craze really reached its peak and tulip trading turned into tulip mania. There are, unfortunately, no eyewitness accounts of what really went on in the tulip colleges during the extraordinary winter of 1636, or how exactly bulbs were bought and sold. However, the three Samenspraecken appear to have been written by an author with a detailed knowledge of the tavern colleges, and they are generally agreed to give an accurate picture of the mania at its height.

In the first pamphlet Gaergoedt, the weaver who has become a florist, attempts to persuade his friend Waermondt to become a tulip dealer. He explains that he will teach him the secrets of the tavern trade and promises to tell his friend how to get himself admitted to one of the colleges and strike his first deal. Then he urges Waermondt to drink some wine with him. “This trade,” he confides, “must be done with an intoxicated head, and the bolder one is, the better.” As a one-line explanation of the worst excesses of the tulip mania, the weaver’s aphorism could hardly be bettered.

First, Gaergoedt explains, Waermondt needs to find one of the taverns where the florists meet. There he should ask the landlord to show him into the presence of the tulip dealers. “Because you are a newcomer,” he warns, “some will crow like a cock. Some will say, ‘A new whore in the brothel,’ but take no notice.”

Once accepted into the company, the weaver continues, Waermondt can start to deal in bulbs. First he has to understand that it is the custom of the colleges that no one actually offers tulips for sale. Instead, florists are expected to make their intentions known by means of dropped hints and veiled allusions. It is, for example, permissible to say: “I have more yellows than I can use, but I want some white.” When it does finally become clear that there is a deal to be done, two methods of trading are employed in the tulip taverns, and which is used depends on whether one wishes to buy or sell. Either way the trader chosen to be the secretary of the college will make a note of all transactions—and each and every deal means the donation of wijnkoopsgeld (“wine money”) to the seller.

The first method, met de Borden, “with the boards,” was the one used by those who wished to buy. Wood-backed slates were given to both the buyer and the seller, and the florist who wished to buy would jot down the price he was prepared to pay on his slate; but he would choose a sum well below the actual value of the bulbs he wanted. The seller would name his own price on another slate, and naturally that would be exorbitantly high. The two bids would then be passed to intermediaries nominated by the principals, and they would mutually agree on what they considered a fair price. This sum would fall somewhere between the two prices written on the slates, but certainly not necessarily in the middle. The compromise price would then be scrawled on the slates, and the boards would be passed back to the florists.

At this point bulb buyer and bulb seller had the option of either accepting or rejecting the arbitration. They accepted by letting the revised price stand; at that point the transaction was concluded, and the purchase price would be noted in the college register. The buyer was then expected to pay a commission of half a stuiver per guilder of the purchase price; if the agreed price was 120 guilders or more, the commission remained fixed at the maximum of three guilders. This was the wijnkoopsgeld. If, however, either the buyer or the seller did not want the deal to go through, he could signal his refusal to accept the compromise price by rubbing it off his slate. If both parties did this, the deal was off; but if only one rubbed out the new price, he had to pay the price—a fine of somewhere between two and six stuivers—for his intransigence. Thus the met de Borden system did offer an incentive to trade.

Those who wished to initiate a sale employed a slightly different system known as in het ootje, “in the little o.” Today this phrase is a piece of Dutch slang that means “to pull someone’s leg,” but during the tulip mania it referred to a portion of the rough diagram that the secretary of the college would draw to keep track of the bidding in what was effectively a form of auction. The diagram looked like this:

When selling in het ootje, this same figure was sketched on the slates of each member of the college. A florist who wished to dispose of some bulbs would write in the small o at the bottom of the diagram the number of stuivers he was prepared to donate as a bounty or commission to a buyer. The amount would vary depending on the seller’s assessment of the value of his bulbs, but again it would be somewhere between two and six stuivers—that is, about the cost of a round or two of drinks. Prospective florists among the college would then offer what they thought the tulips were worth, the secretary keeping track of the bids by noting down the highest offer in thousands in the top semicircle, in hundreds in the bottom one, and in units underneath the vertical line. When the bidding was at an end, the secretary would strike three lines through the diagram on his board and surround the whole thing with a big O—the tulip trade’s equivalent, it would appear, of the modern auctioneer’s cry of “Going, going, gone.” This concluded the auction, and the seller had the option of accepting or rejecting the highest bid; but if he refused it, he still had to give the thwarted buyer the commission specified in het ootje. This method of trading bulbs, then, also placed a premium on accepting rather than rejecting a decent bid.

So far so good, and it is clear that the tavern clubs facilitated the tulip trade by providing a meeting place for like-minded florists, offering them warm and comfortable surroundings and ensuring that their business was conducted in a haze of alcoholic enthusiasm. If they had done no more than that, the colleges would probably have ensured that bulb prices rose sharply, and a mania of some sort would have ensued. In fact, the customs of the tavern trade had an even greater impact.

First, as we have seen, the colleges proved willing to trade not just real, physical tulips but also the rights to ownership of bulbs that were still in the ground. Thus they changed the tulip trade from a seasonal thing, possible only for a few summer months after the bulbs had been lifted, to a business that could continue all the year round. This gave the traders—who, it must be remembered, rarely had gardens of their own to tend—something to do during the winter, maximized their potential for profit, and also ensured that thewijnkoopsgeld continued to flow to everyone’s satisfaction. Second, the colleges failed utterly to check whether their members had enough money to cover their debts or even owned the tulips they traded. In the absence of physically real bulbs, this would seem to be an elementary precaution, but they did not take it. The tavern clubs thus encouraged unbridled speculation, while offering their members absolutely no safeguards against insolvency and fraud. It was now quite possible for a florist who owned no bulbs to trade, in the expectation that he would be able to shift his obligation to actually buy a given bulb onto another dealer long before he was called to account, then use the profit on that deal to fund his next purchase. And it was equally possible for the same man to become technically insolvent the moment the price of tulips fell.

In the Samenspraecken Gaergoedt boasts of earning sixty thousand guilders from the flower trade in only four months. In the winter of 1636–37, the real tulip maniacs were to get a chance to see if they could match him.

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