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Antique Tropical Fish Tanks

I have kept various species of fish for 50 years (this July) and must say there have been so many changes and improvements that it seems I was there when some of these antique tropical fish tanks were designed.  But really, that is not true.  Keeping captive fish as pets or companions dates back many centuries. It is well known that the Romans kept ornamental fish in urns and tanks for their pleasure.

The Chinese have had many centuries to manipulate the genetics of the common goldfish Carassius auratus.  These cooler water fish may attain very different colours, body shapes, size and finnage.  They are still all, for the most part, known under the same nomenclature as their common goldfish comet cousins.

To be able to do this extensive breeding correctly, they did hold the fish in tanks as well as pools and other outdoor systems.  The art of bringing fish inside and maintaining  them in independent ecological systems is still older than when I first started keeping tropical fish in the early 1960’s.  But before that tropical fish and goldfish of assorted varieties were kept in small tanks and bowls.  Although most were the most common glass globe variety, there are occasions where more fanciful versions were available.

Antique Tropical Fish Tanks and Bowls

Our forefathers kept fish, that is pretty obvious.  The actual materials have changed over time. When I first kept an aquarium, it had a stainless steel frame, used caulk,not silicone and had a slate bottom.

Of course it was made as solid as possible to hold fish and care for them.  It seems that other materials have also been used throughout history.  It seems at least one of them has been auctioned recently for almost 2500.00 for an antique  polar bear fish bowl.

By 1900 there were aquariums and fish bowls made in fanciful shapes, and some were even part of a planter or lamp. It is said that keeping fish is one of America’s most popular hobbies. So when a fishbowl topped by three ceramic polar bears was auctioned at Humler & Nolan in Cincinnati, it’s not surprising that it sold for $2,540. The fish bowl is cleverly designed. A porcelain “basket” holds an ice cave (the bowl). It’s topped by the bears, and openings show the bowl and active fish. It’s about 24 inches high and 15 inches in diameter, big enough to hold a few fish and plants.

Small tanks and bowls are not the best containers for fish.  Goldfish often outgrow their bowl, since they are actually considered some of the larger fish commonly kept.  A comet that is allowed enough space can easily grow over 6″.  In addition most of these small bowls do not provide any filtration to purify the water so the fish can literally poison themselves with their own wastes.

It is a testament to the tenacity and adaptability of life that the hobby of fish keeping has such a long history already, and that antique tropical fish tanks and bowls such as the one so recently auctioned off could successfully keep fish.  I am so glad this hobby has enjoyed enough widespread success to demand regular improvement in the technology used to keep and maintain these underwater pets.

Steve Pond


Steve Pond, of Tropical Fish Aquarist, has kept fish both personally and professionally for over 50 years.  He writes regularly on the wide range of current topics that are important to people who keep tropical fish tanks as a passion and a hobby.

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About blueram

Steve Pond, of Tropical Fish Aquarist, has kept fish both personally and professionally for over 50 years.  He writes regularly on the wide range of current topics that are important to people who keep tropical fish tanks as a passion and a hobby.

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  1. Tropical Fish Aquarist - Antique Tropical Fish Tanks - Roman StyleJuly 3, 2012 at 1:06 pmReply

    […] the docks of Rome as well.  They certainly outdate the recent auctions of what are considered as antique tropical fish tanks for goldfish that date back to the beginning of the last century! Public domain – used under […]

  2. SandyJuly 27, 2012 at 4:30 amReply

    They can live in at least a 1 gallon bowl, but any sllamer is kinda mean. but thats still a lot better than those lil cups at the stores. a 1 gallon bowl would be about 5-10 dollars.i would get a tank with a filter and the fish will be happier and you will have less work as far as maintnence.2.5 gallon kit with lights and filter at walmart is about20 dollars.or a 5 gallon hex tank with light and filter and cool look is about 35 that is what i keep mine in. he is so happy in his own 5 gallon tank too. the light keeps him warm in the is like 1.99-3 dollarsthe fish at walmart is like 2.50 or so. i would get one from walmart just to rescue it. they cannot take care of there fish good at all.the bowl would be fine though and cheaper. i would just change half of his water a week with som water that you let sit out for that long so the chorine evaporates from it.try to also clean his gravel to get rid of his food and poop.he does need some light. my moms has a lamp next to it.feed him once a dayvery small amounts.

  3. tropical fish tanksNovember 22, 2012 at 11:17 amReply

    I f I was ot advise I would always advise a tank or aquarium over a bowl, purely due to the fact that teh more water you for the fish the less likely it is to become polluted,m unless of course you cram the fish in there.

    Also, its much better for the fish themselves, having more room to swim around in etc.

    But still pay attention to water parameters whatever option you go with.

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