Anne Goldgar explains that the cautionary story of the great 17th century Dutch Tulip Bubble is mostly wrong.
Why have these myths persisted? We can blame a few authors and the fact they were bestsellers. In 1637, after the crash, the Dutch tradition of satirical songs kicked in, and pamphlets were sold making fun of traders. These were picked up by writers later in the 17th century, and then by a late 18th-century German writer of a history of inventions, which had huge success and was translated into English. This book was in turn plundered by Charles Mackay, whose Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds of 1841 has had huge and undeserved success. Much of what Mackay says about tulip mania comes straight from the satirical songs of 1637 â€“ and it is repeated endlessly on financial websites, in blogs, on Twitter, and in popular finance books like A Random Walk down Wall Street. But what we are hearing are the fears of 17th-century people about a 17th-century situation.
It was not actually the case that newcomers to the market caused the crash, or that foolishness and greed overtook those who traded in tulips. But this, and the possible social and cultural changes stemming from massive shifts in the distribution of wealth, were fears then and are fears now. Tulip mania gets brought up again and again, as a warning to investors not to be stupid, or to stay away from what some might call a good thing.