Among fashionable Victorians, there was no parlor ornament so elegant—nor so diverting—as a clear glass globe filled with glittering goldfish. It was considered to be educational for children who, according to author Charles Nash Page in his 1898 book Aquaria, could learn more in a few hours of observing the goldfish than in “many days spent with books.” It was also believed to be beneficial for invalids since watching the goldfish swim was “health restoring” and “restful to the mind.” By the middle of the 19th century, goldfish globes had become so popular that an entire class of street-sellers had risen up to fill the demand. Operating in both London and the English countryside, these “goldfish-hawkers” were a common sight—especially in the vicinity of the homes of the wealthy and the well-to-do, where they preferred to ply their trade.
In his 1851 book on Labour and the London Poor, social researcher Henry Mayhew calls goldfish-hawkers the “very best class” of street-sellers. They enjoyed a good deal of success owing to the fact that goldfish were one of the things people tended to buy when they were brought to their doors, but not when they must seek them out for themselves. Much of this had to do with the goldfish-hawker’s ability to dazzle children with his wares. As Mayhew explains:
“The importunity of children when a man unexpectedly tempts them with a display of such brilliant creatures as gold fish, is another great promotive of the street-trade.”
Goldfish-hawking was primarily seasonal work, with many street-sellers spending summers peddling goldfish globes and winters peddling fruits, poultry and game, or —as in the case of one goldfish-hawker—cough drops and “medicinal confectionaries.” As Mayhew writes in his July 1851 report:
“This is the season when the gold and silver fish-sellers, who are altogether a distinct class from the bird-sellers of the streets, resort to the country, to vend their glass globes, with the glittering fish swimming ceaselessly round and round.”
The goldfish-hawkers in London purchased their stock from wholesalers, generally preferring the heartier English-bred goldfish raised in Essex. They displayed them in glass globes which, as Mayhew reports, were about twelve inches in diameter and contained “about a dozen occupants.” They did not feed them, believing that “animalcules” or “minute insects” in the water would suffice for their sustenance. To this end, the goldfish-hawker changed the water in the globe twice each day, using rain or “Thames water.”
The Victorian era belief that goldfish did not need to be fed was actually quite common. An article in the 1859 edition of the Wellington Journal addresses this misconception in severe tones, stating:
“Whenever 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 most 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!”
By the late 19th century, books on goldfish were advising that owners feed their pets a diet of dried ant eggs. Fortunately these were available commercially. As an 1899 article in Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper reports:
“The best food for the fish is dried ants eggs, procurable in penny packets at any corn dealers.”
Starving and dying goldfish notwithstanding, goldfish-hawkers of 1851 did a steady business in selling a pair of goldfish—also called “globe fish” because of their smaller size—for two shillings. The accompanying glass globe could be bought from the goldfish-hawker for anywhere from two shillings to two shillings and six pence.
After procuring the goldfish and the globe, the rest of the expenses were quite minimal. Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper suggests a root of water lily and “some well-washed river sand, about half an inch in depth.” While Page recommends the addition of some scavengers, such as tadpoles, water snails, or newts, to “consume decaying vegetable matter and keep down as much as possible the growth of confervae.”
Goldfish globes remained favorite parlor ornaments throughout the Victorian era and into the 20th century. I will not claim that goldfish as pets ever reached the heights of popularity achieved by Victorian Dogs or Victorian cats, but as an elegant fixture in the 19th century home, the goldfish globe cannot be overlooked.
Thus concludes another of my Friday features on Animals in Literature and History. If you would like to learn more about goldfish, the following links may be useful as resources:
Marine Aquarium Societies of North America (United States)
The Bristol Aquarists’ Society (United Kingdom)
“Death Among the Gold-Fish.” Wellington Journal. September 17, 1859.
“Goldfish.” Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper. December 10, 1899.
Mayhew, Henry. London Labour and the London Poor. London: 1851.