Carolus Clusius, father of the Dutch tulip industry

Today is the birthday of Charles de L’Écluse (19 Feb 1526 – 4 Apr 1609), also known as Carolus Clusius. A Flemish doctor and botanist of French descent, he introduced the tulip to Holland, and effectively shaped the image of an entire nation.

Clusius worked throughout Europe as a collector of botanical information and material and also introduced various new plants from outside Europe. In 1593 he became the Chair of Botany at the University of Leiden in the Netherlands. Here he established one of the earliest botanical gardens, where he introduced and grew a wide variety of flowering bulbs, including the tulip. He planted the first tulip bulbs in 1593, and hence 1594 is considered the official date of the first tulip flowering in the Netherlands.

The tulip, one of the main export products of the Netherlands.(© All Rights Reserved)
The tulip, one of the main export products of the Netherlands.
(© All Rights Reserved)

Interest in the lovely tulip flowers quickly blossomed (excuse the pun!), to such an extent that it resulted in a frenzy that came to be known as the ‘tulip mania’. Tulip prices spiraled out of control, and they were even treated as currency by speculators. Tulips became the fourth largest export product of the Netherlands (behind gin, herring and cheese) and many traders became very rich very quickly. It is said that at the height of tulip mania, sought-after tulip bulbs were sold for prices 10 times the annual income of a skilled worker. Of course the economic bubble couldn’t be sustained, and as quickly as fortunes were made, fortunes were lost. Subsequent to this manic period the bulb industry stabilised, eventually growing again to become a huge international trade. Holland currently produces approximately 3 billion tulip bulbs annually, of which the majority is exported.

Clusius’ work laid the foundations of Dutch tulip breeding and their bulb industry, including the tulip industry in particular – a flower that to this day forms an integral component of the visual identity of the Netherlands. The country is popular for its tulip festivals, and it plays host to the world’s largest permanent display of tulips, at Keukenhof.

Decimal Day and the decimalisation of the Pound

It’s 15 February, and today we celebrate the power of 10. More specifically, we celebrate Decimal Day, commemorating the day in 1971 when the UK and Ireland finally decimalised their currencies.

Before decimalisation the UK, and most of the Commonwealth, operated on a rather odd monetary system, where a pound was made up of 20 shillings, and a shilling consisted of 12 pence. Hence a pound was worth 240 pence. Working in this monetary system was not only much more difficult than using decimal currency, but it also left tourists utterly confused, having to contend with things like a ‘half-crown’, which was worth two shillings and a sixpence, or one eighth of a pound. It was certainly far from ideal for international trade too. Given these hassles, it surely is testament to the unique character of the Brits that they clung to their old monetary system for so long.

An English decimal handful.(© All Rights Reserved)
An English decimal handful.
(© All Rights Reserved)

It’s not as though there wasn’t a realisation, many years before, that decimalisation made logical sense in a world where international trade became more and more common. Proposals to decimalise the UK currency date back to the early 1820’s and a Decimal Association was founded in 1841 to promote decimalisation and metrification. This prompted a Royal Commission on Decimal Coinage, tasked to investigate the pros and cons of decimal currency. Amazingly, in their final report (1859), they recommended that decimalisation be scrapped as it had ‘few merits’.

Things puttered along until a new Royal Commission on Decimal Coinage (1918-1920) revisited the idea. This commission was slightly more open minded, yet still decided that, all things considered, decimalising the currency would just be too inconvenient.

It was only after a joint report in 1960 by the British Association for the Advancement of Science and the Association of British Chambers of Commerce, that the adoption of a decimal system gained serious ground. The feasibility of moving to a decimal currency was based in part on the recent success of decimalisation in Australia, New Zealand and South Africa. A Decimal Currency Board was created to manage the process.

Changing the currency was obviously not without complications. First it had to be decided what the basis for the new currency should be. In Australia and New Zealand, for instance, a replacement for the pound was adopted – the new Australian Dollar and New Zealand Dollar was defined as being worth 10 shillings, and this was divided into 100 cents. Thus the currency was not only decimalised, but the naming of the currency units was also internationalised. In the UK, however, the historical importance of the pound resulted in its value being retained, and instead the British pound was divided into 100 ‘new pence’. In addition, 5p and 10p coins were introduced, followed later by a 50p coin.

So, after 150 years of lobbying and investigation, and the formation of numerous commissions, boards and asociations, the British currency finally entered the decimal age.

In this era of international e-commerce, where buying from anywhere in the world is the norm, and transacting between different currencies is almost a no-brainer, it’s hard to imagine that a mere 50 years ago, such a big part of the world operated on a non-decimal currency!

Start you journey to financial freedom on Buy Nothing Day

Today, the Friday after Thanksgiving, is widely known as Black Friday, one of the busiest shopping days in the United States. In a bid to counter this as yet another day of mindless consumerism, Buy Nothing Day came into being. The day was founded in Vancouver, Canada by artist Ted Dave as a day of protest against the ‘buy or die’ attitude that gets promoted relentlessly by shops and other commercial entities. While it started off having a US/Canada focus, it has since become an international movement. It is estimated that Buy Nothing Day has grown to an event celebrated in more than 65 countries. The day is celebrated on the Friday after Thanksgiving in the US and Canada (this year, 23 November), and on the last Saturday of November in the rest of the world (or 24 November this year).

Shops go out of their way to promote spending money as the best fun ever, while in truth saving money can be just as exciting.
(© All Rights Reserved)

Over the years participants in Buy Nothing Day have come up with a range of amusing strategies to focus attention on the problem of indiscriminate over-consumption. These have included credit card cut-ups, where people advertise a credit card cutting up service in shopping malls to help people cut themselves free from a life of debt, and zombie walks, where groups dressed as zombies wander around shopping malls with blank stares as a commentary on the mindlessness of consumerism.

Promotion of a culture of considered buying is not only good for a society caught up in an ever deepening spiral of debt, it benefits the economy of countries as a whole. And while the focus of the day is mainly on economics, I believe there’s also an important second level message – to promote the move from a dependent, buyers culture to a state of independent self-sufficiency. Growing your own vegetables, recycling and making your own compost, community based swapping and exchange (vegetables for meat, goods for services etc); all these things have the potential to result in a healthier and potentially much less costly lifestyle.

Sounds like fun? Here’s to Buy Nothing Day, and the journey to self-sufficiency – good luck!