Cichlid Room Companion

How did it all begin?

By , 1999. image

Classification: Captive maintenance.

(This article was originally published in "Cichlidae communique" No. 114 May/Jun 1999 pp. 6-14, journal of the Pacific Coast Cichlid Association. It is reproduced here with the permission of author Robin Whittall).
Fancy aquarium

Old Victorian aquarium.

I am fascinated by the complex web of the centuries-old relationships between people, animals, and wild places. In 1990, I completed my research thesis for a Masters' in Museum Studies, part of which examined the origins of public zoos and aquariums. I spent many happy hours marveling at lovely color plates in books dating from Victorian England in the University of Toronto's Rare Book Library. The following is a summary of that work.


"Large private menageries go back perhaps 3000 years to collections in China and elsewhere. Perhaps the first documented menagerie was one in Mesopotamia around 2300 BC., which was probably private (Page, 1990). The practice of keeping animals no doubt originated before then."

Early "zoos" in China were primarily for hunting (e.g. deer), and contemplation of animals by Emperors and other powerful people (Mullan & Marvin, 1987). Another form of blood sport, the Roman Games, spurred the Emperors to make vast collections of animals. By Roman times, there is evidence that fish also were "collected". They were kept in ponds (with water flow from the sea) by rich and powerful men (Loisel, 1912). One of the examples listed by Loisel is that of Hortensius, who felt that it was more important that his fish were fed than his slaves. Another record exists of a wealthy Roman named Hirrius, who loved a pet moray eel, and decorated it with jewelry. When it died, he mourned its death as if it were his child.

In those times, as today, it was primarily the rich and powerful who could keep large private animal collections for pleasure. Status-bearing gifts from the opening of trade routes were also factors influencing the growth of early collections.

Goldfish was introduced to Japan around 1500, to England by 1611, Portugal in the 18th century

It is documented from around 950 AD., in China, as in Rome, that the purpose of keeping animals such as fish shifted to aesthetic in addition to utilitarian needs. Fish were kept not only as a source of food, but also in outdoor ponds and in vases of porcelain or crystal inside the house (Loisel, 1912). The species that could first be called an aquarium fish was a form of wild carp, bred into what we now call goldfish and koi. Loisel states that the goldfish was introduced to Japan around 1500, to England by 1611, Portugal in the 18th century, and from there through to France and other European countries. Gains in keeping a wider variety of fish than carp began in 1774, when Priestley discovered that oxygen was given off by plants (Bennett, 1889). He discovered that animals breathe this gas, and that they die when they use up all the oxygen in a closed container. By the 1830s, several scientists were experimenting with aquatic plants, which give off oxygen and use carbon dioxide, and aquatic animals, which use oxygen and give off carbon dioxide. Some experimenters of the day include Charles Des Moulins (Loisel, 1912), Professor Daubeny, and Mr. Ward (Gosse, 1854). The latter man, Nathaniel Bagshaw Ward, an English Whitechapel surgeon, was the inventor (in 1830) of glass cases for keeping plants, terrestrial animals, and later, fish (Allen, 1976). Even more than the keeping of other wild creatures, it was aquatic invertebrates and fish that caught his and the public's fancy in Britain's mid-1800s. In 1842 Mr. Ward set up a freshwater aquarium tank and published that in freshwater "the animal and vegetable respirations might counterbalance each other" (Bennett, 1889). This idea, contrary to Blunt's writings (1976) was being talked about by Ward and others in the 1830s (Gosse, 1854). Later, in 1850, Mr. R. Warrington published that plants are able to convert carbon dioxide to oxygen (Humphreys, 1857), and he set up a freshwater tank with plants, fish and snails living in balance. He and Gosse independently worked on trying to set up a salt water aquarium (Gosse, 1854). These investigations set a challenge to see if one could make a tank where the aquatic animals and plants could live in perfect balance. A "balanced" saltwater bowl was first documented in England in 1846 by Mrs. Thynne (she had seaweed in water that she periodically aerated by pouring back and forth between two bowls). Gosse's success followed shortly afterward, in 1852. Philip Gosse and Mrs. Thynne were only two of many people in England who were captivated with the idea of keeping aquatic animals. There are many reasons why people kept aquaria at home. An aquarium is defined in 1862 by the Society for promoting Christian Knowledge as:

"an artificial reservoir of water stocked with living animal and growing plants assorted in such quantities and proportions that all shall equally flourish, and moreover so arranged that whoever will may watch their habits and growth with pleasure and profit."

People of the day felt that there were both aesthetic and educational gains to be had from a home aquarium. "Nor is it only for amusement that such parlor oceans and lakes are prepared and stocked; they are invaluable as a means of instruction" (Sowerby, 1857). There was no doubt some status attached to them as well. Shirley Hibberd was a part-time naturalist who wrote prolifically about the keeping of aquariums at home. She defines the purpose of aquaria as follows:

"By giving delight to the eye as a domestic toy, and by stimulating through the medium of recreation the spirit of scientific inquiry, it has brought subjects of profoundest interest within the practical reach of the humblest student of the ways of God in Nature (Hibberd, 1860)."

To her they served as both science and art: "The Aquarium has become established as a triumph of Art acting as the handmaid of Science" (1860). There were different names for the aquarium being used in the 19th century, as the word "aquarium" was just gaining popular usage. Hibberd cites such words as "Vivary, Aquavivarium, Water Show" in addition to the term "aquarium" (1860). At this time, private collections of one or two fish or other animals were fairly common in British people's homes. Worldwide, only the rich and powerful had larger collections of animals.


"...the object of the Brighton Aquarium is not merely to please the eye, and enable fashionable visitors to while away time in a novel and agreeable manner; it is intended to instruct as well as to delight, and at once to excite and gratify a thirst for information respecting submarine curiosities. (Anon., 1871)"
Fancy aquarium
Old Victorian aquarium.

The transition to public institutions was sometimes begun by powerful people donating their private zoo to the city that had grown up around it (e.g. Berlin Zoo, Jardin du Roi/des Plantes). The first public zoo may have been founded by Alexander the Great in the early 330s BC. (Page, 1990). Other possible examples could have been sacred menageries of Babylonia or Egypt (Mullan & Marvin, 1987). Jordan & Ormrod list Akbar, a Mogul Emperor of India, as having one of the first public collections, which opened during the late 1500s (complete with veterinarians and 'research'/study staff). Another early collection was King Louis XIV's Jardin du Roi/des Plantes, which opened to the public in 1663 (more animals were added in 1794 after the "Palais de Versailles [collection] was pillaged during the French Revolution" Hancocks, 1971).

However, most authors agree that Emperor Maximilian II's site, the 'Katterburg', is the oldest continuously open public zoo. The Emperor bought the land in 1569, and used it as a deer and exotic animal park. The public was first admitted in the mid-1600s, and encouraged by the 1700s (Cherfas, 1984). Francis I built a more formal zoo on this site in 1752, which became known as the Vienna-Schonbrunn Zoo (Fiedler, in Kirchshofer, 1966).

Jordan & Ormrod, (1978) and Hancocks (1971), among others write that the first historically important public zoo was the London Zoo in England, which opened in 1826. They justified this by citing the zoological society's charter, that named research as important. Part of its original 1826 prospectus reads:

"A collection of living animals such as never yet existed in ancient or modern times... animals to be brought from every part of the globe to be applied either to some useful purpose, or as objects of scientific research, not of vulgar admiration. (from Mullan & Marvin, 1987)."

Originally the London Zoo admitted only "members and their guests." By 1940 this restricted access held only on Sunday mornings, and by 1957 it was removed (Mullan & Marvin, 1987). The word 'zoo' (from zoological gardens) was coined after the London Zoo opened, and first appeared in the Oxford dictionary in 1847. The word 'aquarium' has been present since Roman times, but its meaning was different from today. To the Romans it meant any sort of reservoir for the purpose of containing water, such as that used for watering animals (Loisel, 1912). The term 'aquarium' was perhaps first used in the modern sense by Gosse in the mid-1800s (Wilson, 1962). Purpose-built public aquariums opened later than public zoos. The first public aquarium was delayed by both the oxygen-carbon dioxide problem mentioned previously, and by the production of plate glass, necessary for building large tanks for public viewing. Plate glass was manufactured first in 1773 in England (Wilson, 1962). When both barriers were removed by the 1840s, it became technically possible to build a public aquarium. Probably the final and most important impetus was when an excise duty was removed from plate glass in 1845, partly due to lobbying by Ward and others (Allen, 1976). The first purpose-built aquarium was built in Regent's Park, London, in 1853. At the time, the building was identified as "the world's first public Marine and Fresh Water Vivarium" (Blunt, 1976). It was aided by Mr. Gosse, who was working out how to keep fish, and Mr. Lloyd, who started a business of setting up private individuals with home aquaria (Sowerby, 1857). Lloyd was the first person to implement air bubbles and circulation to "purify" recirculating water commercially in public aquaria (Wilson, 1962). He used this principle with great success when he helped design a new aquarium in Paris that opened in 1861 (Wilson, 1962). Lloyd writes (1858) that the aquarium in Regent's park

"has been the origin of the whole popular movement in the cultivation of this subject."

Lloyd helped to promote the movement by expanding his shop and publishing catalogues. But it was not only a few elite people interested in keeping fish that started the hobby among people of England. There was at that time a new interest among the professional and amateur naturalists in sea and freshwater aquatic species of plants and animals. Lloyd (1858) quotes Quatrefages, who wrote a book entitled Rambles of a Naturalist on the Coasts of France, Spain and Sicily in 1857: From hence has arisen that special interest which belongs to the study of long-neglected animal groups; and hence, also, has emanated a spirit of emulation which brings the naturalists of all countries to the sea-side, in search of the objects of their study. These naturalists (most, dedicated amateurs) published books on how to keep and identify aquatic animal life, which fed the interest of the British public. There was a great up surgence of popular publishing and of the literacy rate in Britain in the 1850s (Allen, 1976). Soon it became a popular hobby for people at their seaside vacations to look for the creatures, then take them home and read about them. The Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge published one such book, and stated "the taste for keeping aquaria has become very general of late, and many treatises have been published on the subject" and "ten years ago the word Aquarium was of rare occurrence" (1862). At this time, people were very interested in the activities of collecting, describing, and naming plants and animals. Many people in the British public became avid part-time naturalists. So it may have been that the popular movement spawned the public aquarium, and not the other way around, as Lloyd had remarked. Soon after the London aquarium opened in 1853, others opened in Aston Lower Grounds, Birmingham; Royal Aquarium, Westminster (later destroyed) (Bennett, 1889); Paris, du Bois de Bologne, 1861; Brighton, 1872; Amsterdam 1877; Berlin 1869; Melbourne Zoo, 1865; New York Aquarium, 1896 (Loisel, 1912) Naples, 1874 (private at first); Crystal Palace, London, 1871; and Plymouth laboratory, 1888 (private at first) (Wilson, 1962), just to give some examples.

Fish were also kept in zoos of the 1800's as secondary parts of other displays, for example in moats. Zoos also grew in numbers during this period worldwide. But both the public and the fish-keeping institutions had problems keeping fish alive for any amount of time, and so "by the early seventies the fickle public had in any case already lost interest, and the Vivarium --henceforth curtly dismissed as 'the old Fish House' [in Regent's Park] -- was closed" not to open for another fifty years (Blunt, 1976). The interest in home aquaria had waned in the 1860s and 1870s, "since which period, however, public Aquaria have steadily grown into favour" (Hughes, 1975). Public aquariums did not keep to their goals of supplying both educational and entertainment value. Instead they swayed strongly into circus-like shows, such that Philip Henry Gosse's son is quoted from 1890: "When he [father] was eagerly proposing the preservation of marine animals alive in mimic seas, he certainly did not anticipate that within forty years an aquarium would come to mean a place devoted to parachute monkeys, performing bears and aerial queens of the tightrope" (Barber, 1980). Barber hypothesizes that as a result of unsuccessful public appeals by scholars that public aquariums needed to practice more scientific study, two private aquariums were founded for the express purpose of scientific study (the Naples Aquarium in 1874 and the Plymouth Laboratory in 1888, both now open to the public). A similar favoring of the entertainment function over education was happening in some zoo-type institutions at that time (Jordan & Ormrod, 1978). In the U.S., several other zoos opened in the late 1800s, some of which may have displayed fish. The first North American public aquarium was the New York Aquarium, opened in 1896. It is notable because education was a strong part of its mandate, including what we now term outreach programs to local schools (Townsend, 1925). The pre-1900 public institutions, whether zoo, aquarium, or museum, tended to play a role in helping the visitor catalogue life, and giving them the thrill of a look at bizarre wild creatures. Today, these public institutions instruct and entertain the visitor, and work to conserve and research life on earth.

References Cited

  • Allen, D.E. 1976. The Naturalist in Britain: a social history. Allen Lane Penguin Books Ltd., London .
  • Anon., 1871. Life beneath the waves and a description of the Brighton Aquarium. Tinsley Brothers, London.
  • Barber, L. 1980. The heyday of natural history: 1820-1870. Doubleday & Co., Inc., Garden City, New York. 320 pp.
  • Bennett, R.A.R. 1889. Marine aquaria: their construction, arrangement and management, with full information as to the best animals and seaweeds to be kept, how and where to obtain them, and how to keep them in health. L. Upcott Gill, London.
  • Blunt, W. 1976. The ark in the park. The zoo in the nineteenth century. Hamish Hamilton Ltd., and The Tryon Gallery, London. Cherfas, J. 1984. Zoo 2000: a look beyond the bars. British Broadcasting Corporation, London. 244 pp.
  • Gosse, P.H. 1854. The aquarium: an unveiling of the wonders of the deep sea. John van Voorst, London.
  • Hancocks, D. 1971. Animals and architecture. Praeger Publishers, New York. 200 pp.
  • Hibberd, S. 1860. The book of the freshwater aquarium or practical instructions on the formation, stocking, and management in all season, of collections of river animals and plants. G. Coombridge and sons, London.
  • Hughes, W.R. 1875. On the principles and management of the marine aquarium: a paper read before the Birmingham Natural History and Microscopal Society. John van Voorst, London.
  • Humphreys, H.N. 1857. River gardens; being an account of the best methods of cultivating freshwater plants in aquaria, in such a manner as to afford suitable abodes to ornamental fish, and many interesting kinds of aquatic animals. Sampson Low, son, and Co., London.
  • Jordan, B., and S. Ormrod. 1978. The last great wild beast show: a discussion on the failure of British animal collections. Constable, London. 271 pp.
  • Kirchshofer, R. (Ed.) 1966. The world of zoos: a survey and gazetteer. The Viking Press, New York. 327 pp.
  • Lloyd, W.A. 1858. A list, with descriptions, illustrations, and prices of whatever relates to aquaria. Hayman Bros., Printers, London.
  • Loisel, G. 1912. Histoire des menageries de l'antiquite a nos jours. Vols. 1 and 3. Octave Doin et fils & Henri Laurens, Paris.
  • Mullan, B., and G. Marvin. 1987. Zoo culture London. 171 pp.
  • Weidenfeld & Nicolson 1990. Zoo: the modern ark. Facts on File, New York. 192 pp. Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge. 1862. Hints for the formation of a freshwater aquarium. Published under the direction of the committee of general literature and education, appointed by the Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, London.
  • Sowerby, G.B. 1857. Popular History of the aquarium of marine and freshwater animals and plants. LovellReeve, London. .
  • Townsend, C.H. 1925. Guide to the New York Aquarium. New York Zoological Society, New York.
  • Wilson, D.P. 1962. The semi-closed circulation system at the Plymouth Laboratory. Communications Numero special I B, Ier Congres International d'Aquariologie, Bulletin de l'Institut Oceanographique, Monaco. 13-27.


Whittall, Robin. (Aug 17, 1999). "How did it all begin?". Cichlid Room Companion. Retrieved on Feb 24, 2024, from: