Origins of Fishkeeping

Dear brothers and sisters in Christ, my family and those whom God loves:

There are 69 references to fish in the Bible beginning with God giving man dominion over the fish of the sea (Genesis 1:26) and ending with St. Paul’s comment about humans, animals, birds and fish having been given different bodies by God (1 Corinthians 15:39). At the very beginning of Jesus’ ministry he called some fishermen to become fishers of men. After Jesus’ death and resurrection, the early Christian Church would use the ichthys, from the Greek ikhthýs for “fish,” as the secret symbol for their places of meeting.

Fish have played a role within Christianity and also within the larger history of humankind in terms of both food and pleasure. From this point on I will be considering the roots of fish keeping mostly in terms of pleasure.

Archeological evidence of fish-keeping dates back to the Sumerians (2500 BC) and the Babylonians (500 BC).

Aristotle (384-322 B.C.) started documenting the science of fish (Ichthyology) by writing about their habits and defining local fish species. Wealthy Romans kept lampreys and other fish in salt water pools. Cicero referred to these ancient fishkeepers as the Piscinarii, the “fish-pond owners” or “fish breeders.”

The Chinese kept carp and started breeding them selectively during the Sung Dynasty (960-1279). Records show these fish were kept for purely decorative purposes and people were forbidden to eat them. By 1510 Goldfish were no longer a luxury for the privileged, but common among all people. Many houses and dwellings had ponds with Goldfish and breeding them flourished. It was very common to keep successful breeding techniques a secret. The very first formal writing on fish was an “Essay about the Goldfish,” written in China in 1596.

In 1616 the Goldfish arrived in Japan. The Japanese mastered the breeding of this fish over time. They are one of the largest exporters of Goldfish worldwide.

Ornamental goldfish made their way into Europe via Portugal by 1691 and then to England by 1728. According to Tullock, the 17th century diarist, Samuel Pepys referred to seeing fish being kept in a bowl and this set up was “exceedingly fine.”

Holland was the first country to breed the goldfish in Europe in 1780.

While excited about the prospects of keeping fish indoors, fish enthusiasts did not understand how the water needed to be “cycled” in order for fish to remain alive indoors for a lengthy time. In 1805, Robert Warrington is credited with studying the tank’s cycling requirements in order to keep fish alive for longer.

Prior to the middle of the 19th century, the term aquarium was applied in botany to describe a container used for growing aquatic plants. French-born naturalist Jeanne Villepreux-Power invented the first recognizable glass aquarium in 1832. In the early 1830s, she carried out research on Argonauta argo, also known as the paper nautilus, in Messina, Sicily. She used wooden boxes into which saltwater was pumped via rubber hoses, thus creating a circulation system.

It was in the works of British naturalist Philip Gosse which popularized the term “aquarium” in its current sense, as a vessel in which aquatic animals, as well as plants, can be held. He wrote, “Let the word AQUARIUM be the one selected to indicate these interesting collections of aquatic animals and plants, distinguishing it as a freshwater Aquarium, if the contents be fluviatile, or a Marine Aquarium if it be such as I have made the subject of the present volume.” The enthusiasm he had for his “collection,” which he saw as an extension of the countryside, is palpable on every page of his still-captivating book The Aquarium: An Unveiling of the Wonders of the Deep Sea (1854), which includes a beautiful set of colour lithographs.

Later on, Robert Warrington, based on the work of chemist Joseph Priestley would build one of the first sustainable aquariums. His theory was, by building a glass structure filled with sand on the bottom, snails, and plants that can provide oxygen, fish can live forever. The plants would provide oxygen to the fish, snails eat decaying plants and lay eggs, and the fish feed off of the snail eggs. The perfect contained cycle.

The first person to breed a tropical fish in Europe was Pierre Carbonnier, who founded one of the oldest public aquaria in Paris in 1850 and bred the first imported Macropodus (Paradise fish) in 1869.

With the opening of the Public Aquaria at the London Zoological Gardens at Regents Park in 1853, fish keeping as a hobby reached a new level of interest.

In 1856, German Emil Adolf Roßmäßler wrote an essay, “Sea in a Glass,” introducing fish keeping as a hobby to the public. However, this hobby required specialized equipment and this limited it to the wealthy.

1850 was the year when Goldfish reached the New World and was an attraction of New York in 1865. Upon this success, the first goldfish breeder of the US took shop in Maryland in 1888. In 1876 William C. Coup opened the New York Public Aquarium on the corner of East 35th and Broadway. This aquarium held not only display tanks but a library and reading room as well as a fully stocked lab of sorts with microscopes, experimental tanks and dissecting tables. It also had a room of hatcheries, an unheard of concept at that time.

Up until the 1920s, except for highly developed goldfish and carp keeping in Asia, most fish kept in tanks were captured in the wild. However, in Florida in the 1920s, entrepreneurs began the first commercial fish breeding businesses.

In 1938 the first oceanarium, or large marine aquarium, Marineland, opened near St. Augustine, Florida, as a private enterprise. It featured a giant community fish tank and trained dolphins.

It took many years to understand filtration. One of the first, the undergravel filter, was introduced in the 1950’s. As for food, up until 1952 all fish kept in captivity where fed live food. Dr. Baensch (Baensch Atlas) revolutionized the hobby by inventing flake foods.

Until the 1950s, most commercial fish breeders needed to situate themselves close to their demands. After WWII, commercial fish breeders began to use ex-combat pilots to transport their fish around the world.

It is at this time that ubiquitous gold fish bowl is introduced and made fish keeping immediately accessible to the masses. The independently wealthy were no longer the only ones enjoying fish keeping as an indoor hobby.

In the 1960s, fish keeping as a hobby improved as the industry went from glass framed tanks to glass sealed tanks allowing for better waterproofing of the tank. Further innovations include the advent of the acrylic tank, which is more lightweight, more crack resistant and lends itself to different shapes besides the basic rectangle glass tank.

The 1960s through the 1980s saw many developments in maintaining aquariums and even expanded the possibility of having saltwater aquariums.

To keep fish in aquariums that are naturally found in rivers, lakes and oceans has had a dark side to its history even though much has been learned and experienced. Many fish have died at the hands of fishermen, transporters, businesses and private owners. Although all life eventually ends hobbyists must continue to be good stewards of these living creatures God has made.

Enjoy the beauty of God’s creation in moderation, support efforts to protect the habitats of native fish around the world and organizations like CARES who are seeking to preserve endangered species, and be a good steward of the plants and creatures living in those aquarium you may have.

Grace be with you,

History of Fish keeping Videos:
🐟 History of Aquariums & Fish Keeping -From Ancient 6500BCE Until 1939 (Part 1)
🐟 The History of Fishkeeping & Aquariums 1853-1939– Empire, Trade, Colonialism & Home Aquariums (Part 2)

🐟 Rate My Fish Tank
🐟 Wikipedia
🐟 Algone
🐟 Encyclopedia Britannica
🐟 Aeon

By PT Graff

A baptized child of God's, called to be a son, husband, father, citizen of Canada and heaven and a pastor.