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What is the South Sea Bubble?

A complex network of intersecting financial, legal, political, and cultural factors all contributed to the development of the South Sea Bubble, the eventual collapse of the South Sea Company in 1720, and the financial ruin left in its wake.

The years leading up to the South Sea Bubble were a time of financial promise and enthusiasm for Britain. Following the War of Spanish Succession (1701-1714), there was the increased potential of foreign trade and the turn toward a more global marketplace. Wealth and luxury were no longer reserved to the aristocracy. Consumerism was on the rise, and class and gender boundaries were increasingly blurred when it came to investing in the stock market. The newspaper emerged as the innovative new information exchange, pamphlet literature recorded intellectual debate, and the coffee house was the thriving epicenter of literati and stock-jobber alike. It is in this environment that the South Sea Bubble story unfolds.

The South Sea Bubble affair takes on new allegorical overtones with each generation of financial exploration. In the early years of the twenty-first century, it is the events of the Dotcom Bubble and the Enron scandal that conjure up the lessons of the past. The South Sea Bubble continues to resonate with contemporary readers, who readily identify with the exposure of the scandal, the trauma of personal financial ruin, the vacuum of accountability following the collapse of the company, and the frightening awareness of the fragility of human reason. The South Sea Bubble Collection brings together a diverse collection of resources to preserve the history of this remarkable event and to facilitate scholarly research.

South Sea Bubble playing cards, 1721.