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Was Tulip Mania really the first great financial bubble?

One frosty winter morning, at the start of 1637, a sailor presented himself at the counting house of a wealthy Dutch merchant and was offered a hearty breakfast of fine red herring.

The sailor noticed an onion - or so he thought - lying on the counter. According to Charles Mackay, writing in Scotland 200 years later, he pinched it.

"He slyly seized an opportunity and slipped it into his pocket, as a relish for his herring, and proceeded to the quay to eat his breakfast. Hardly was his back turned when the merchant missed his valuable Semper Augustus, worth 3,000 florins, or about £280."

Relative to the wages of the time, that is well over $1m (£770,000) today.

Seeking a zesty accompaniment to his fish, the sailor had unwittingly pilfered not an onion, but a rare Semper Augustus tulip bulb.

And in early 1637, tulip bulbs were reaching some truly extraordinary prices.

Then, very suddenly, it was over.

In February that year, bulb wholesalers gathered in Haarlem, a day's walk west of Amsterdam, to find that nobody wished to buy. Within a few days, Dutch tulip prices had fallen tenfold.

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28 May
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