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Chris Melnick: Reads & Watches

by Chris Melnick, April 2023

[Editor's note: Chris Melnick is the Executive Director of Share the Magic Book Program, which is a federally registered charity that distributes books, from books for babies to adults, fiction and non-fiction to underserved communities in Manitoba.  To date, Share the Magic has given away over 630,000 books at an estimated value of over $4.2 million. You can follow Share the Magic on Facebook by searching "Share the Magic Book Program"]

 

 

Tulips and Baseball

 

        Hmmmm – Tulips and baseball, must mean spring is around the corner.  The calendar says it is already here but as I look out of my office window at the remains of the early April snow storm, spring still seems a ways away. I have a theory about this.  I believe that it is climate change and that the timing of the seasons is changing.  Over the past number of years, our falls have become extended, with warm weather lasting well into October.  Our springs on the other-hand are occurring later and later.  This is the price we are paying for the late falls and I do believe that the time will come when the school summer break will be August to September, as that will be best weather of the year and the school year will switch to October to July. This won’t happen next year but we’ll see what does happen as the years go by.  Now onto this month’s column!

 

        To begin I must ask if you are willing to trade your home for a single tulip bulb?  If the answer is “no”, continue reading this column.  If the answer is “yes”, seek professional help immediately.

 

        My interest in the tulip fever of 17th century Europe developed when I watched a so-so, soap-opera-ish movie entitled Tulip Fever directed by Tom Stoppard.  The backdrop to the movie was the tulip trade at its height in Holland.  Never having heard of this before, I found myself wondering just what the heck was going on. 

 

        What, other than the prairie crocus, says spring better than tulips?  The Tulip by Anna Pavord is a tome of a book, all 439 pages of it.  Don’t be scared off by this number, it is beautifully written, pleasant to spend time with and filled with full page colourful pictures of tulips as art motifs, in paintings and of course the actual plant itself. 

 

        Tulipmania: Money, honor and knowledge in the Dutch Golden Age by Anne Goldgar focuses on the financial situation of the tulip trade and its ramifications.  As both books contain complimentary and often the same information, I am reviewing them together. 

 

        This is not a short tale.  It begins with a fascination of the original flower by the wealthy Turkish rulers. Turkish tulips were often being depicted on locally made Iznik tiles, a popular art piece of its day.  The story then moves onto the importation of the Turkish tulip to northern Europe in the mid-1600’s and it’s breeding into the round bottom tulip we know today.  Along the way, Tulipmania developed in Europe, specifically Holland, Belgium, France and Germany, eventually including England.  The craze culminated with what became known as “Tulip fever” in early 17th century Holland, most specifically 1634 - 1637.

        Why tulips?  One reason is that a fascinating characteristic of the tulip is that you could plant, for example, a bulb for a red tulip. The flower of that bulb may emerge with a stripe or flame of a different colour.  No other flower seed or bulb did this.  An amazing plant and a phenomenon that science could not explain.  It was not until a few hundred years later that it would found to be the work of a virus.

        During Tulipmania in Holland, the price of bulbs were continuously increasing, some going for 1,000 florins each, at a time when the annual average income was 150 florins. 

        The trade itself contained many disruptive elements.  A unique feature of the tulip trade is that bulbs were sold on the promise of what the tulip would flower as – one colour was least expensive, a flame or stripe costing more and a tulip that bloomed unexpectedly as more than one colour even more dear.  Bulbs were bought on speculation in the months of flowering, April, May and June and not paid for until the buyer had full possession of it in the fall.  Due to this timing, any number of things could and did happen in terms of the buyer’s/seller’s personal wealth.  Another issue was that if the tulip did not bloom as expected, the buyer could sue the seller for not delivering what the buyer believed they were buying.  This timing also leant itself to unscrupulous sellers, sometimes selling one bulb several times over through the summer months.  On top of these issues, there was no law or regulations to monitor sales and no legal way to actually deals with situations when they arose.  Only local guidelines existed and the decisions made through local authorities were non-binding and could take years to resolve, if ever they were.

        Another characteristic of the tulip trade was that a popular way of selling large amounts of bulbs was through public auctions in the back of taverns and bars as depicted in Tulip Fever.  This, of course brought on its own form of pandemonium, often with prices previously fixed by the seller and a buyer by an arbitrator to make public the price of the bulbs.

        Another occurrence leading to the tulip bubble bursting, was the 1636 plague that occurred throughout northern Europe.  At times purchasers alive and well in the spring were dead and gone in the fall when payment for bulbs came due. As thousands were literally dying on a daily basis, the uncertainty of people surviving caused many to anticipate inheritances, often spending the monies before the person was laid to rest.  If the anticipated death did not occur, those who had spent on speculation, were often caught in difficult financial situations.

        Some speculate that the major reason for the collapse was that gradually the number of sellers grew well above the number of buyers and so the value of the tulips fell drastically.  People were simply not wanting to pay the huge prices any longer.

        The culmination of all of the above caused a general collapse of the tulip trade in Holland.  The date can roughly be specified. The last major recorded auction was held in early February 1637, for 9 lots of tulips bulbs.  The average price per bulb was roughly two year’s pay for a master carpenter in Leiden.  It realized 90,000 guilders or roughly $12 million in today’s Canadian currency.  A commonly held belief is that the collapse of the tulip trade caused the general economy of Holland to also collapse and that many people were ruined, with thousands declaring bankruptcy and all that entails.  The most interesting aspect of Ms. Goldgar’s book is that she thoroughly disputes this belief and claims that the frenzy of the tulip trade was greatly exaggerated.  Instead, after a thorough review of the archives of time, Ms. Goldgar states that tulipmania was reserved for the very few who could, or in many cases could not, afford the tulip trade and she could find only one case of bankruptcy directly related to the tulip. 

        Once the bubble burst, a hatred of the once so coveted flower began and virtually no one wanted to purchase any bulbs.  While the Dutch speculators disappeared, the true lovers of the flower did not.  Interest in growing and selling tulips did not completely end and as markets in the new world opened in the mid-19th century, the Dutch became the chief producers and suppliers to foreign lands as they developed a system to preserve bulbs in transit.  Today, the Dutch export roughly 2 billion bulbs annually.

        England saw its own craze in the late 17th and early 18th centuries.  But unlike the Dutch craze which focused only on the wealthy, tulips became much more accessible to the middle-class in England and so the market was more sustainable.  English tulip growers formed associations, with regular meetings and eventually contests. They called themselves “florists”, a word which survives today to describe one who sells all sorts of flowers and plants.  England itself went into the bulb market in the 1920’s and during WWII exchanged 4 million bulbs with the US for arms.

        Tulips have been named after several well-known people such as Bing Crosby, General Eisenhower, Mickey Mouse, Mona Lisa, and not to be outdone by Mickey Mouse – Pinocchio. Even the bard himself has a tulip named after him, even though Shakespeare never mentioned tulips in any of his writings, listing many other flowers and plants.

        Tulipmania would be followed by hyacinthmania and as I believe is the case to this day, orchidmania. 

        I read these books in the dead of winter and found myself looking at bunches of tulips for sale at my local Co-op grocery store, marveling at the rich history of this pretty little flower.

        I recently heard the housing situation in Canada being compared to the Dutch tulipmania.  It has become a good example of the market run wild.

 

        All four following titles are available at the Winnipeg Public Library.

 

Tulip Fever

DVD:  DVD FILM/TV TULIP

 

Tulip Fever by Deborah Moggach

Book:  Fiction Moggach

This is the novel the movie Tulip Fever is based on.

 

Tulipmania: Money, honor and knowledge in the Dutch Golden Age by Anne Goldgar

Book: 330.949203 GOL 2007

 

The Tulip by Anna Pavord

Book:  635.93432 PAV

 

        Heading home: The Tale of Team Israel, is the real life documentary of the Israeli baseball team which made it to the once in every four years, World Baseball Classic in 2017.  Many of the players were born and raised on baseball in the United States.  Although Jewish, few have any connection to the Jewish religion, even fewer a connection to the State of Israel, let alone have visited it.  They are a group of semi-professionals and professionals, who have never met before.  Together they create a team for Israel, based on their common heritage.  Several of the players must prove their Jewish ancestry, one going so far as to take photos of his grandfather’s grave, displaying the Star of David.  If you didn’t followed the team through the World Baseball Classic of 2017, there are numerous pleasant surprises along the way.  Many very touching scenes as you can see the players, who partly train in Israel, develop a clear connection to the land and the people.  This is a fun, pleasant documentary of the little team that could.

        Oh yeah, many have heard of the Elf on the Shelf.  Well, be prepared to meet the Mensch on the Bench and that is all that I am going to tell you!

 

        Heading home: The Tale of Team Israel, is available at Winnipeg Public Library.

 

DVD 796.357095 Heading

 

And now for this month’s Yiddish Proverb

 

Shtil vasser grobt tif.

 

Still waters run deep.

 

(Hope we can avoid flooding in Manitoba this spring!)

 
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