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July 22, 2011

Historical Echoes: “South Sea Bubble” Deals Speculators a Bad Hand

New York Fed Research Library

The “South Sea Bubble” in Britain, 1720, followed the typical pattern of a period of speculation, “irrational exuberance,” and the subsequent collapse of a major company or industry. A speculative frenzy fueled by corporate deceit, investor hysteria, and other market forces caused the South Sea Company’s share price to skyrocket from £128 in January to a whopping £1,050 in June. By September, the price plummeted to £175.

The tumultuous period surrounding South Sea’s rise and fall was recorded extensively, partly in a remarkable collection of artistic works, poetry, music, and even playing cards. Harvard University’s Baker Library provides access to this memorabilia through its digital South Sea Bubble Collection. Much of the material provides an allegorical, cautionary message about risky investor behavior and greed.

Below are two examples of South Sea Bubble playing cards:

    1. A Tradesman’s Wife, grown Angry thro’ her Pride,
      To see some Dames in South Sea Coaches Ride.
      Pres’d her Good Spouse to lay his Money out,
      In South Sea Stock, but still she walks on Foot.

Card_tradesmans wife post-size

Ace of hearts, South Sea Bubble playing cards. London: Printed for Carington Bowles, 1721. Bancroft Collection, Kress Collection of Business and Economics, Baker Library Historical Collections, Harvard Business School.

    1. A Farmer sold a small Estate outright,
      To Buy South Sea, but meeting with a Bite.
      Purchas’d Sham Stock, paid down five hundred Pounds,
      And now would thank South Sea to Stock his Grounds.

Card_sold estate post-size

Ace of diamonds, South Sea Bubble playing cards. London: Printed for Carington Bowles, 1721. Bancroft Collection, Kress Collection of Business and Economics, Baker Library Historical Collections, Harvard Business School.

The South Sea Bubble Collection is a group of specialized research resources at Baker Library, Harvard Business School. The collection focuses on the South Sea Bubble stock market crisis in the early part of the eighteenth century and the speculative mania surrounding it, and is made up of books, broadsides, pamphlets, Parliamentary documents, manuscripts, prints, and ephemera.

The views expressed in this post are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York or the Federal Reserve System. Any errors or omissions are the responsibility of the author(s).

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