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The History of Goldfish – From Ancestors to Modern Day

Lindsey Stanton Profile Picture

By Lindsey Stanton

Goldfish in aquarium with green plants_Skumer_shutterstock

The goldfish is one of the most iconic aquarium fish in existence today. When most people think of keeping fish, a goldfish is the first thing that pops to mind. It’s likely more people have kept them than any other aquatic creature, and often—sadly—in terrible conditions.

While they were once considered highly valuable and even sacred animals, now they are so common they are almost treated as disposable. But where did these beautiful golden fish come from? They are certainly one of the oldest fish ever to be kept in an aquarium.

They’ve had a long and eventful trip to get from the wild waters to our tanks, and in this article on the history of goldfish, we’re going to take a look at this journey.

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The Genesis of Goldfish History – They Originated in Ancient China

Goldfish were originally kept and bred in China over a thousand years ago, the most likely ancestor being the Prussian carp (Carassius gibelio). Some have argued they were actually bred from the Crucian carp, but recent research has disproved this theory.

The original habitat of the carp which became goldfish is the eastern area of China, stretching from just below Beijing in the North to Macau in the South.

The first solid mention we have of goldfish in a historical record comes from the Jin Dynasty (265-420 AD) in China. There were likely much older examples, but the records before the Jin Dynasty are unreliable.

Carp Kept For Food Occasionally Showed Yellow and Gold Coloring

Carassius gibelio, prussian carp or gibel carp, wide-spread and very common wild freshwater fish facing the camera in moderate coldwater biotope aquarium
Image Credit: Aleron Val, Shutterstock

Chinese people were keeping and breeding carp as a food source and these fish were generally a dull grey or greenish color. However, occasionally mutations would produce a yellow or gold-colored fish. Then people began to selectively breed for this lovely color and eventually began to display the fish in clay pots or small containers in the home.

The goldfish wouldn’t have been kept inside permanently. Rather, they would live most of their lives outdoors in a pond. For a special event, the owner would net out a prize fish and bring it inside for his guests to admire.

Orange Became Common Because Yellow Was Reserved For Royalty

In the year 1162, during the Song Dynasty, the empress ordered the construction of a pond to keep the red and gold variety of the fish. At the time, yellow was the color of royalty, so commoners weren’t allowed to display anything yellow. This led to breeders more selectively targeting orange fish, rather than yellow gold varieties.

Average citizens were allowed to keep the orange fish without fear of the government. It’s thought this is the reason why orange goldfish are much more common than actual “golden” colored fish.

The First Recorded Occurrence of Other Colors

The first recorded occurrence of other colors was in 1276. A Chinese publication mentions snow-white fish as well as gold, silver, and other colors being bred and sold at Hangchow in China.

The First Recorded Fancy Tailed Goldfish in the 1360s

Shubunkins
Image Credit: Darko Cvetanoski, Shutterstock

The Ming Dynasty (1368–1644) gives us the first record of fancy-tailed goldfish, though the true date of their first appearance cannot be verified.

By this point, people were breeding fish that could no longer survive outdoors in a pond. Their selectively bred deformities and mutation meant they needed to be kept inside, and the first truly domesticated goldfish were created. The selective breeding of a millennium has yielded a variety of shapes, sizes, and color variations available today.

Goldfish Spread Across The World Starting in the 1600s

ryukin goldfish
Image Credit: JuanCarlosPalauDiaz, Shutterstock

Goldfish first spread from China to Japan somewhere between 1650 and 1700, where the Tosakin and Ryukin breeds were created, marking the start of the modern history of goldfish. In the early 1800s, the Japanese would begin to breed Koi for their vibrant colors and this is perhaps what they’re most known for. However, many also kept goldfish.

This is because Koi were developed to be viewed from above, while goldfish were developed to be viewed from the side, with each fish showing their form and coloration best when viewed from these respective angles. This allowed keepers to have different fish to admire in both sunken ponds from above and raised tanks from the side.

It’s said that in ancient Japan a family’s position in society was known by the quality and beauty of their fish.

Europe Got Their Hands on Goldfish During The 1600s.

Writers disagree as to the actual date, although many claim 1691 as the proper introduction of goldfish to Europe. History shows that Madame du Pompadour, a mistress of France’s King Louis X, was gifted one as a present around the year 1750.

For a time it became a tradition for newly married men to give their brides a goldfish on their first wedding anniversary. Their metallic-looking scales were thought to bring good luck, and they became a symbol of prosperity to come.

This tradition quickly died out though as they became more and more readily available.

wakin goldfish
Image Credit: JuanCarlosPalauDiaz, Shutterstock

Goldfish Come to America in 1872

Goldfish first came to the United States in 1872 by way of the U.S. Navy’s Rear Admiral Ammen. He presented them to the Bureau of Fisheries in Washington, D.C. They were placed into hatchery ponds and began to reproduce, eventually being given away to anyone who asked for one.

By 1889 a goldfish farm had been established in Maryland, and by the turn of the century most fancy breeds were known to American hobbyists. In the 1920s there were many goldfish societies in major cities. Aquarists had imported rare and exotic specimens from Asia, and the societies would hold exhibitions with prizes and trophies. By 1925 there were nearly 40 small commercial hatcheries in America, producing around 5 million fish between them annually.

Of all the varieties now in existence, the only one America was able to contribute was the Comet. It was developed from imported Japanese stock during the 1880s.

goldfish-aquarium-pixabay2
Image Credit: kaori, Pixabay

There Are Now Hundreds of Varieties Worldwide

Today there are several hundred different types and variations of goldfish recognized with more being developed all the time. Many dedicated societies and clubs exist all over the world, with thousands of members exhibiting their fish and competing for prizes, cementing their permanent place in our hearts and aquariums.

If you're new to the world of goldfish or are an experienced goldfish keeper that loves to learn more, we recommend you check out our best-selling book, The Truth About Goldfish, on Amazon.

From diagnosing illnesses and providing correct treatments to ensuring your goldies are happy with their setup and your maintenance, this book brings our blog to life in color and will help you to be the best goldfishkeeper you can be. 

Goldfish are Now So Common They’re Sadly Given Away As Prizes

goldfish in plastic bag
Image Credit: TRAN THI HAI YEN, Shutterstock

Unfortunately, the practice of giving away young goldfish at carnivals is extremely common, particularly in the US and UK. Also, Japan has a national game called ‘Goldfish Scooping’, which is so popular they have a national championship. Some bars too are known to race them, which involves sliding them down a wet chute into a small pool.

All the fish in these pursuits are usually poorly bred “feeder” fish, which are not well cared for before or after being won as a prize. This has led to many people considering the species to be delicate and hard to keep. “They just die” is a common refrain, when nothing could be further from the truth.

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Properly Cared For, Goldfish Are a Wonderful Fish

With proper care, goldfish can live for decades. They are intelligent animals with unique personalities and owners have often reported their fish can recognize individual faces and know which ones are most likely to feed them. Hopefully, this article has given you a little more appreciation for the history of our golden friends.

Next time you are gazing into your aquarium, think back on the amazing thousand-year journey these fish have taken to get from the rivers of ancient China to our living rooms.

Happy fish keeping!

Sources and Further Reading:


Featured Image Credit: Skumer, Shutterstock

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