A blog about (hidden) Amsterdam


A blog about (hidden) Amsterdam

Tulip-mania and the Value of a Good Story

A picture may be worth 1000 words, but a story can carry a whole book. That’s why we at Badass Tours don’t talk about trends and historical events. We tell the stories of the individuals who lived through them. Why? Well, it all started with the first Amsterdam trip of Elyzabeth (our Badass-in-Chief). Check it out…

Judith Leyster's Tulip from Frans Hals Museum

I was working in New York City’s theater industry, so despite my love of travel, it was my first time leaving the country in eight years. We wanted to make the most of our trip, so we got a ticket for the standard Amsterdam day trip: a bus that took us to a Protestant fishing village on the shore, a Catholic fishing village on an island, a line of windmills, and a field of tulips. At the time, it seemed like everyone we met was suffering from terminal boredom, but I have to reevaluate that now that I know the dry Dutch sense of humor.

The tulip field was astonishingly beautiful, but it was introduced by a long string of facts that I forgot the second I heard them. Having worked in Amsterdam tourism for years now, my guess is it went something like this. “Tulips are a symbol of the Netherlands. They come from Asia. At one time, a tulip bulb was worth more than a house. The Netherlands is the world’s largest exporter of tulips.”

There’s a much better way to tell this story.

Imagine, you’re a middle-class Protestant man. You believe in hard work and modesty. Your father and grandfather and great-grandfather slowly built the family wealth to be solidly upper middle class. (You, of course, are oblivious to the work your mother did to enable your father’s social rise, as well as your widowed grandmother’s success in growing the family business – and that your great-grandmother actually built the business while your great-grandfather drank and tottered around.)

You invest in this new shipping company because it seems like an interesting way of distributing the risk. Usually, you’re asked to invest in single voyages, which bring either a fivefold profit or utter loss. These shares, however, are for the lifetime of the company. You don’t realize what this means until the first ships come back with a hold full of spices that are worth more than their weight in gold.

You are now rich beyond your wildest imaginings. Your faith tells you there’s something unseemly about all this. Do you actually deserve this? Of course you do! You’re an intellectual, after all. And to prove it, you take an interest in history, filling your sitting room with paintings of famous scenes. Then biology, with a cabinet full of natural wonders and a nautilus shell that you use as your drinking cup. Then botany.

Enter the tulip. Suddenly, everyone you meet is entranced by this exotic Turkish flower. (It’s from Central Asia, but you don’t know that.) You have to show your acquaintances how sophisticated you are. So, you buy a bulb, bidding high because there are more people who want one than there are bulbs in the country. You want to see if you can create this popular striped pattern, so you buy more and more, despite prices rising to almost the cost of a house.

It’s not enough, of course, to merely grow the perfect tulip. Flowers die, after all. You need to hire the best painters to preserve them on canvas and parchment. You’ve heard of this woman from Haarlem named Judith Leyster. It’s a bit… unorthodox… a woman painter. But she’s supposed to be the best and you deserve the best. She paints a print of your precious striped tulip.

Then one day, only a couple years after you first heard of tulips, you hear a new rumor from Haarlem. There was an auction there and tulips failed to sell for an astronomical price. Suddenly, no one wants to buy tulips. They weren’t like you, you see, interested in the intellectual status – I mean, botany. They just wanted money. And just like that, no one invests in tulips anymore. People who bought them on credit are destitute.

But that sketch you commissioned from Judith Leyster is collected in a book of tulip paintings. It survives, even when her name is lost. Now, it remains as a testament to not just the stock craze, but the first Dutch woman to enter the artist’s guild in her own right. And the country that was forming during your lifetime now uses the tulip as its international symbol.

Field of tulips with a windmill

See? The story has all the facts, but it’s also engaging because it has a point of view and a way into the history. We use storytelling at Badass Tours to make history come alive and to make sure it stays with our listeners. Why not read another story here, or just go ahead and book yourself a tour!

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