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Goldfish Bowls in History: Fascinating Historical Articles

Lindsey Stanton Profile Picture

By Lindsey Stanton

goldfish in bowl

In my research on goldfish bowls throughout history, I came across a few fascinating articles recovered from historical newspaper archives briefly cited from this website. Some of the insights they had were surprisingly accurate for their time!

I’ve bolded some of the statements I found interesting. I hope you enjoy them.

First up is this interesting article on a leading cause of goldfish death back in the day. People had a myth that goldfish only ate microscopic organisms (they called these “animalcules”) and that they never needed to give them any food.

This is something the author of the following article refutes:

Death Among the Gold-fish

Wherever you meet with folks who keep goldfishes in the old-fashioned glass globes, you will be sure to hear the melancholy complaint that they will die in spite of every care taken to preserve them. The water is changed more regularly, the glass kept beautifully clean, the vessel shaded from the sunshine; yet, alas! Alas! Death is always busy amongst them. Is it internal disease? Is it external fungi? No; the cause is “starvation.” Every other pet is expected to eat, but these gold-carp are expected to subsist on – nothing! “But don’t they eat the animalcules?” nonsense! Give them a few small earth-worms, or anglers’ gentles, twice a week, and to prevent the necessity of frequently changing the water, throw in a handful of Anacharis (water-weed); and instead of floating in succession, “on the watery bier.” They will get plump and healthy, and grow as rapidly as in their native waters. Some of our gold-fishes have been in our possession seven years, and have increased in size three times more than what they were originally. – “Recreative Science.”

(Wellington Journal – Saturday 17 September 1859)

I thought this next article brought up some interesting points about setting up a goldfish bowl and other livestock.

It gives quite a few details that are surprisingly insightful.

Especially pointing out that bread is not good.

goldfish in a bowl
Image credit: Unsplash


A very inexpensive and ornamental object for the home is a glass bowl containing gold-fish and a few water plants. Those who do not aspire to the more elaborate aquarium may derive a good deal of interest from watching the habits and movements of the fish. Goldfish were introduced into this country from China about the year 1690. In an old Chinese work it is stated that fish with vermillion scales were first reared in confinement during the Sung dynasty, which commenced A.D. 950. And in another Chinese work it says, “There is not a household where the goldfish is not cultivated as a source of profit.” At the present time it is completely naturalised in Europe. It breeds freely in the open rivers in Portugal, and many of these fish that are sold in London are brought from Lisbon. There are numerous varieties of goldfish, differing both in colour and structure. In some the eyes are large and protruding, the anal fins are occasionally double, and the tail triple, while some specimens even have as many as six tails. One variety has a hump on its back near the head, and another has no dorsal fin. These variations are often not inherited. Goldfish breed more readily in warm than in cold water. A great many are batched and reared at mills in the manufacturing districts of England, in the ponds into which the waste hot water flows. The fish reared in warm water are delicate and short-lived, so it is advisable, when purchasing, to endeavor to procure those that come out of cold water. It is important that the globe containing the fish should not have too many occupants, and that the fish should be small. A couple of gold fish, not more than three inches in length, will be found quite enough for an ordinary shilling glass bowl. A minnow, being a tiny little fish, takes up but little space, and makes a pleasing contrast to the others.

The globe should not be placed where the sun can reach it, or near the [fire]. Some well-washed river sand, about half an inch in depth, should lie on the bottom, and on this some small shingle [pebbles] that has been first boiled, to kill any decaying animal or vegetable life, should be placed. This much improves the appearance of the globe, and is a great delight to the fish.  A small root of water lily, or of Valisnaria, or other water-plant, should be embedded in the sand. One or two small water-snails will help to keep the tank clean. A pretty and useful snail is the Plauorbis corneus, [Great Ramshorn Snail] obtainable from most dealers in aquarium stock.

The best food for the fish is dried ants’ eggs, procurable in penny packets at any corndealers. A few can be given daily. Bread is not good, for it frequently contains alum and other ingredients that are hurtful to the fish. A small piece of crushed biscuit by way of a change sometimes will do no harm. When the fish come to the top of the water and remain there opening their mouths, it is a sure sign that they require more oxygen. This must be supplied either by removing some of the water by the aid of a syphon, or with a tumbler or cup, and replacing it with fresh. Or the water can be aerated by taking a syringe, filling it with some of the water drawn from the globe, and squirting it back again. But it is as well to give fresh water every day. Pond water is best. If not procurable, either spring water or that laid in pipes will have to do. Any fish that dies should be at once removed, as also all decaying portions of the plants.

(Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper, 10th Dec 1899)

Now, technology and filtration powered by it are pretty modern inventions.

If you are torn on whether goldfish bowls are safe for your favorite fish and want more detailed information on the truth when it comes to proper goldfish housing, you should check out our best-selling book, The Truth About Goldfish, on Amazon. It covers everything about creating the most ideal tank setup and more!

If you wanted to keep a goldfish bowl in the old days, you needed to use plants.

There was no way to agitate the water with an air stone or filter!

This author explains the importance and how plants work with goldfish:

small goldfish in goldfish bowl
Image By: New Africa, Shutterstock


The carbonic acid held in solution in water performs a very important part, with regard to the growth of aquatic plants; and you will find afterwards, that from carbonic acid taken up from the air, and decomposed by plants, a great deal of charcoal is accumulated. Now, when atmospheric air is held in solution in water, its oxygen is converted slowly into carbonic acid by the respiration of the fish and animals existing in the water, and the carbonic acid so produced is decomposed by the vegetables growing in the water; charcoal is taken up, and oxygen given off. Hence the reason why we can not keep fish any length of time in an ornamental basin or in any piece of water where there are not vegetables growing. You may keep gold-fish in water exposed to the air, but although the air has free access to it, you are obliged to frequently change the water, for it soon becomes so far charged with carbonic acid as to be unfit for the respiration of the fish. And in regard to streams and natural sources of water, the fish will soon die, in consequence of there being nothing to take up the carbonic acid which they throw off, and which ultimately poisons them. It is a very curious fact, that the whole value of vegetables in water consists in their extraordinary power of taking up the charcoal and setting the oxygen free; a power, however, which only belongs to the green parts of vegetables, and which they only exert under the influence of solar light. – Professor Brand’s Lectures at the Royal Institution

(Leicester Journal – Friday 21 July 1843)

I found the whole text for these articles at https://www.britishnewspaperarchive.co.uk.

Just something I thought I’d share!

Featured Image Credit: DJ Srki, Shutterstock

Lindsey Stanton Profile Picture

Authored by

Lindsey discovered her passion for fish keeping after a junior high school field trip to the Shedd Aquarium in Chicago. Prior to becoming Editor-in-Chief of It's a Fish Thing, Lindsey studied marine biology at the University of California-Santa Cruz. She loves goldfish, tetras, and mystery snails, and recently began experimenting with a saltwater aquarium.

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