Category Archives: aquarium
I purchased this aquarium some years ago, entranced by its gilded “hairy paw” feet. It’s a neoclassical aquarium! I dated it between 1890 and 1910, but it may be a bit newer. A 1920s catalog of Cugley and Mullin, a Philadelphia pet store that also did a substantial mail-order business in the mid-Atlantic, offers an aquarium of similar design called the “Chief,” with a green frame and gold striping and feet.
This aquarium is small by our standards. Excluding the feet, it is ten inches in height, nine inches in depth and thirteen and one half inches in length and held less than than five gallons of water. While somewhat larger vessels were available, most home aquariums were small and and held only a few animals. The ideal was to have a “balanced” aquarium — that is, the plants and animals had to create equilibrium, with the plants producing enough oxygen to sustain the small pond fish or goldfish that were the denizens until the late 1920s, and the carbon dioxide produced by the animals supporting the plants.
The concept of the balanced aquarium appeared in the late 1850s. (I discuss the idea in more detail in Pets in America.) Here is an image of a balanced aquarium and plant stand exhibited at the Centennial in 1876. The artist who made this image took a certain amount of poetic license with the interior of the aquarium; there are too many fish to survive, even with the abundance of water plants emerging from the top of the round glass fishbowl.
The requirements for “balance” set the limits of the home aquarium until the 1920s, when the small electric-powered pump first appeared on the scene. Its invention coincided with the appearance in general pet shops of the first tropical fish — guppies, platys and a few other types. These freshwater animals needed more oxygen than did goldfish, who were, and are, notable for their ability to survive in less-than-ideal conditions.
Aquariums like mine were parlor ornaments, as the trade card for Dr. Morse’s Indian Root Pills suggests. Apart from the elaborate aquarium stand ornamented with chains, what’s interesting about this little picture is the equipment being used by the little girl: the tin scoop with a long handle and small bucket. These kinds of items — essential equipment for the home aquarist — don’t survive in collections today, as far as I know.
On December 18, 1906, Lathrop’s Pet Stock Shop in Rochester, New York, mailed this postcard to a local customer. The message on the back offered “the best appreciated Holiday gifts,” including “Canary Birds of all varieties,” other song birds, gold fish, parrots, dogs, cats, and squirrels. The shop also carried “Medicines for every known pet” and offered free advice to pet owners, who for the most part did their own doctoring.
Here’s a detail of the central part of the image. On the left, fish bowls are stacked all the way to the ceiling, while aquarium ornaments crowd the shelves below. Lathrop’s promised its customers the “Largest assortment of Bird Cages,” and you can see them in the picture, hanging from the ceiling and perched on an improvised shelf on the right side of the long, narrow shop. On the right, an “illusion cage” sits on a round table. These had been available since the late eighteenth century. A double walled fish globe surmounts a bird cage. A perch extends up into the globe, so that the bird will appear to be singing underwater, while fish swim around it. This was not a great environment for a goldfish; I can’t imagine that they survived very long in the narrow confines of the double-walled globe. By the early 1900s, goldfish were cheap enough that they could be given as inexpensive gifts, and they were, as they are now, disposable pets.
To the right of the “illusion cage” hang dog leashes, and the small boxes behind may be the dog medicines sold by the shop. To the left of the illusion cage is a large parrot stand with two cups for food and water. Notice too that the store offers supplies for urban chickens and for pigeons.
Where are the animals? Probably in the back of the store, away from the drafts from the the front door. Or perhaps they were upstairs. This was the time of year when fresh shipments of canaries arrived in pet stores, many shipped all the way from Germany. Notice that Lathrop’s, which sat in the heart of the downtown on prestigious East Avenue, also earned money by using the space right inside the door to sell magazines, newspapers, postcards and cigars, all of which are visible in the full card. But the fact that the animals themselves are invisible suggest one of the fundamental truths of the pet supplies business: buying the animal is just the first step in a long series of purchases of equipment, supplies and services. These are what Lathrop’s highlighted inside the entrance to the store.
Sometimes mid-20th century novelties for pet care and display are….well, sort of bizarre. This is one of those items.
It is a combination television light, intended to sit atop the set and provide a little ambient light in a darkened room, and fishbowl. On the left, a light tbulb shines through the translucent fiberglass “paper” behind the black metal grid. In the top is a shallow pyrex bowl. It’s purpose is unknown; perhaps it just protected the bulb below. I theorized that it held fish food, but I think I’m reaching a bit here. On the right, an open-top glass architectural block has become the fish container, and behind it is a printed scene of a mountain and trees glued to the back of the metal case. (It’s hard to see. I’ll try to take some new photos to show some of the details.) I’m assuming that this dates to the late 1950s or early 1960s, when tv sets came in big cabinets that could hold a lamp like this on the top — along with some other elements of Populuxe decor.
A little research revealed that this item survives in multiple examples out there in collector-land and that it was manufactured by the Bilt-Rite Manufacturing Company of Chicago, Illinois. Apparently they made novelty tv lamps and clocks.
Why a fish bowl? And there are OTHER tv lamp/fish bowl combinations, too. As I thought about it, I realized that there was a strange kind of conceptual continuity in this genre of artifact. The family goldfish in its globe on the parlor center table, a common domestic ornament by the mid-nineteenth century, was replaced by another poor finny soul in a too-small container, this time perched atop the electronic hearth.