The Ocean at Home

This review was commissioned by the London Review of Books in 2006 – but it got spiked!

Bernd Brunner, The Ocean at Home: An Illustrated History of the Aquarium, Princeton Architectural Press, 143 pp., £16.99, June 2005

In 1850s London, at the height of ‘aquarium mania’, a shop opened near Regents Park selling packets of dried seawater for a shilling a wrap. One dose, diluted, made up to three gallons of brine, just enough to replenish one of the many thousands of domestic fish-tanks that stood in the corners of middle-class drawing rooms, quietly and malodorously stagnating. Commerce has always thrived on crazes, when customers can be relied upon to lose all sense of proportion, but the sale of dried water (just add water) was a threshold in the history of marketing. As Phineas T. Barnum observed at the time, there’s a sucker born every minute — an assertion that turns out to have been literally the case, given that suckers (Castomidae) were among the first commercial fish breeds in the United States, following the founding, by Barnum himself, of America’s first public aquarium in 1856. Barnum, an instinctive showman (and convicted fraudster), had visited London at the height of the craze, and reckoned that there was a fortune to be made in exporting aquariums to the States. He was right. By 1858, according to the New York science writer Henry D. Butler, ‘Aquarium-mania had seized upon the public mind. The Aquarium was on everybody’s lips. The Aquarium rang in everybody’s ear. Morning, noon and night,’ he wrote, ‘it was nothing but the Aquarium.’

Two years later, and the fish-tank fad was already a thing of the past. By the early 1860s, according to Bernd Brunner, ninety percent of indoor aquariums had been ‘either dumped or simply left to their own devices’, the craze having gone the way of all passing parlour fads such as ‘conchyliomanie’: seashell arranging, or ‘cartomania’: the passion for collecting photographic cartes-de-visite that briefly took the place of aquarium mania before it, too, was supplanted in turn by ice skating, then scrapbooks, then spiritualism . . .  But as The Ocean at Home convincingly argues, aquarium mania was not just another Victorian sensation, but a minor scientific and commercial revolution that, however transient it may have been, sheds valuable light on pre-Darwinian attitudes to nature just at the point of their painful collision with the theory of natural selection. Before its brief domestication in the mid-nineteenth century, writes Brunner, ‘the submarine world had been terra incognita, around which wild speculations and fantasies had been woven. The original saltwater aquarium tamed these thoughts and quenched the thirst for this strange world. It compressed them into an easily comprehended menagerie, an oceanic garden in miniature, a submarine chamber of wonders. The mysteries and conundrums of the ocean were projected onto the aquarium, fueling its dynamism and popularity.’

In fact the first aquariums had owed their existence to an earlier indoor nature fad, the neo-gothic fern craze of the 1840s. ‘Pteridomania’, as the fern craze was known, was already on the wane by the early 1850s, although not before it had been discovered that the airtight glass domes in which collectors kept their fronds could support higher (and thus more interesting) forms of life. As early as 1841, an entomologist named Nathaniel Ward had experimented with artificial aquatic environments, while a few years later the naturalist Anna Thynne — the subject of Rebecca Stott’s commendable Theatres of Glass (2003) — had successfully bred sea sponges in a glass container which she exhibited in the sub-dean’s drawing-room at Westminster Abbey. Thynne’s invention had been the toast of London science, until a prominent chemist named Robert Warington published a journal article in 1851 in which he described his own experiments with a self-sustaining marine biotope — an elaborate miniature environment consisting of a pair of goldfish, a handful of pond snails and some eelgrass planted at the bottom of the tank. Unfortunately for Mrs Thynne’s subsequent reputation, it would be Warington’s prototype rather than hers that sparked international aquarium mania, ‘a peculiar mix of business and popular science’, as Brunner rather deftly describes it.

Keeping fish indoors, of course, was hardly a novel idea — Pepys’s diary for 1665 reports ‘a fine rarity, of fishes kept in a glass of water’ — but as Brunner is at pains to point out, Warington’s biotope (which was soon renamed the ‘aqua vivarium’, or aquarium for short) was a world away from the humble goldfish bowl, a device that had first arrived in Europe from Japan in the early seventeenth century. Unlike the aquarium, the goldfish bowl was not a self-sufficient mechanism, just a temporary prison for some lonely Cyprinidae whose water needed changing every day. Along with the gilded birdcage, it had long been a symbol of domestic captivity, and Brunner reproduces a Japanese woodcut featuring a geisha gazing into a small glass bowl in which a pair of goldfish swim in circles, mimicking the folds of her dress. The aquarium, by contrast, supported a free and functional community of underwater citizens, who thrived over time in a naturalistic environment, needing little in the way of supervision. In fact (or so its promoters claimed), if the balance in the aquarium was exactly right, the water would never have to be replaced, due to the recently discovered biochemical principle that all animals, including fish, inhale oxygen and exhale carbon dioxide, while all plants perform the opposite function, even under water. Putting the two together in a tank, along with the snails whose eggs supplied the nutrients, yielded what the Victorian nature writer Shirley Hibberd described as ‘a complete circle of compensating processes’, and it wasn’t long before Warington’s biotope had been appropriated by the popular scientific press as a symbol of nature’s benevolent design, in contrast to the despotism of the goldfish bowl. Peering through the glass ‘while we sip our coffee, or converse with our friends’, as Hibberd recommended, afforded nothing less that a glimpse into a well governed underwater Empire:

“The plants grew and increased by offsets, and at the same time exhaled sufficient oxygen to preserve the health and beauty of the fishes. The snails ate up the mucus, and bred rapidly: their eggs and young supplied the fishes with food. Thus the three tenants of the globe maintained each other as in any well-ordered human community.”

Hibberd’s sentiments echoed those of many other aquarium promoters, such as Philip Henry Gosse of the Plymouth Brethren, author of the first popular book on the subject, for whom the new invention not only ‘brings us, in some sense, into the presence of God’, but offered trouble-free pleasure to its owners, being ‘a perfect equilibrium, an aquatic perpetuum mobile!’, as Brunner describes the workings of this ‘living museum, an inversion of Noah’s Ark’.

Well, that was the idea, but it soon became apparent that this underwater Gaia was rather less harmonious than its apologists had implied. For most new owners, the problems began with the unpleasant smell that quickly filled the room in which an aquarium had been installed, before slowly seeping out through the rest of the house, ‘turning everybody’s stomach’, in the words of Gabriel Betteredge, the long suffering servant-narrator of Wilkie Collins’s Moonstone (1868), a man at odds with his employers’ fondness for dragging bits of nature indoors. ‘They firmly believe they are improving their minds’, he famously complained, ‘when the plain truth is, they are only making a mess in the house.’ Meanwhile, the de-oxygenated water in the new aquarium would be silently stagnating, and layers of slime would be forming on the insides of the glass. Everything would then have to be removed from the tank so that the foul-smelling water could be drained and replaced, a tedious and disruptive procedure that also turned out to require an array of costly equipment: nets, syphons, syringes, holding tanks, dipping tubes, sponge-sticks, thermometers and hydrometers, not to mention the sachets of dried seawater, all of which were available for purchase in the specialist London shops that had sprung up to meet demand.

Of course, all this unwanted effort and expense came as a big disappointment to those who had bought themselves a self-sustaining parlour toy, but who had ended up instead with a foul-smelling box full of unappealing fishy sludge that needed endless cleaning and attention. ‘Its very difficulties enhances its power of interesting, and adds zest to the enjoyment of success’, claimed Hibberd, but the public disagreed, and, hardly surprisingly, aquarium mania died a quick and largely unlamented death. By 1860, according to a newspaper report cited by Brunner, ‘the thousands who set up aquaria, without the least idea that to be successful they must be managed on philosophical principles, have long ago given them up as “troublesome”’.

Yet public interest in the oceans remained high, and even while domestic fish-tanks were being thrown out in their thousands, dozens of newly-opened public aquariums were competing with one another to stage increasingly elaborate displays. Brunner really gets into his stride when describing the extraordinary underwater spectacles that sprang up in cities all over the world, such as the spookily-lit arcade aquarium that was constructed in a Paris park in 1860, or the enormous two-storey grotto aquarium that opened in Berlin in 1869, and which, like Tim Smit’s later Eden Project, set out to ‘recreate a trek from the desert, through the jungle, culminating in the ocean.’ The designers of these second-generation public aquariums sought to overcome the aeration problem by piping their water through circulation systems — in Berlin, for example, 27,000 gallons of seawater was pumped between the grotto’s fifty show-tanks, passing through a series of pebble-bottomed reservoirs — but such technology was expensive to maintain, and by the 1880s, most of the bigger public aquariums were in serious financial trouble. In Berlin, the aquarium managers resorted to leasing half their tanks to the city’s fish restaurants — surely the world’s first municipal zoo where the exhibits could be eaten — while in New York, P. T. Barnum’s Broadway aquarium ended up playing host to his famous ‘FeeJee Mermaid’, a gruesome confection of monkey and fish that was briefly one of the city’s most profitable attractions.

But Barnum’s mermaid — the ‘Wonder of the World!!’ — symptomised the growing separation between professional and non-professional forms of science. While entertainment had always been a key component of the aquarium experience, there had also been a serious research dimension, and the whiff of the sideshow grew increasingly discomfiting for [a new generation of] dedicated aquarists, dismayed by the falsification of underwater nature. It wasn’t just the mermaids and the model shipwrecks: creatures from entirely unconnected habitats consorted together, free from the ceaseless chain of predation that characterises ocean life. Considered as an educational tool, the public aquarium left a lot to be desired, and marine scientists such as the German biologist Anton Dohrn, one of Darwin’s keenest supporters, lobbied for state funds to establish a new generation of coastal research aquariums that could dispense with the need to sell tickets. In 1874, the purpose-built Stazione Zoologica opened in Naples, its collection of aquarium tanks staffed by scientists from all over the world; ten years later, the marine research station at Woods Hole, Massachusetts, was founded on similar lines, its teaching aquariums open to the public for resolutely pedagogical purposes.

Yet in spite of all this, as Brunner concedes, the saltwater aquarium remains ‘a game of naturalness against artificiality, a materialized but unavoidably incomplete dream of the ocean.’ Even the most serious-minded twenty-first century oceanarium, such as Lisbon’s superb Oceanário, built on the site of Expo 98, and comprising a virtual journey through all the world’s oceans, offers an ultimately sanitized vision of life beneath the waters, not all that different from Hibberd’s fantasy of a ‘well-ordered human community.’ It seems we cannot help but make these miniature worlds in our own image, and, compounded by the postwar appropriation of the domestic aquarium as ‘a naïve-ironical accessory in an apartment decorated with lava lamps and hardoy chairs’, it is evidently something that preys on Brunner’s mind. Rather disconcertingly, he ends his account of the dawning of the age of aquariums with the suggestion that mankind may one day be compelled to move into the ever-rising ocean. ‘If this were to happen’, he writes, ‘the last phase of the aquarium’s design history would bring about a complete reversal of the relationship between humans and the ocean: no longer would the swimming pool be the only aquarium for humans, but the ocean itself would perform this role.’ Surprisingly, this now familiar image of a drowned world was invoked by a number of Brunner’s nineteenth-century pioneers, ‘the scientists, inventors, and obsessive enthusiasts who recreated the ocean in their homes’, and its reappearance serves as a fitting conclusion to this brief but spirited excursion into the utopian eradication of the shoreline.

Richard Hamblyn


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