Figure 1 - These two cards show the "front and center"
and "background" approach to goldfish images that may
be seen on trade cards.
Figure 2 - An attractive, embossed Victorian album card,
which provides both an image and information on goldfish.
Figure 3 - Goldfish cigarette cards from three manufacturers.
These were provided as a "premium" on packages of cigarettes.
Figure 4 - Cats and goldfish provide the beautiful image
on this Victorian "Christmas trade card". No advertising
Figure 5 - Victorian Calling Cards depicting goldfish.
Figure 6 - Children and goldfish - The pleasant side of
this relationship may be seen on trade cards.
Figure 7 - Most often with trade card images goldfish
are at great risk when they encounter children...and their other
Figure 8 - A magnificent folding trade card showing yet
another potential enemy of goldfish.
Figure 9 - Actual information regarding goldfish and their
care can be found on trade cards
Goldfish! Without question the goldfish is easily the best and
most widely known of all fishes. They
have long been an everyday part of our culture. In addition
to giving joy, in living form, to just about every child at
one time or another (not to mention vast numbers of
adults also pleased by their presence in their homes), the goldfish
has been incorporated into just about anything you can think of
art, clothes, decorative items, comics and cartoons, movies
and television, and notably advertising. Today we can see goldfish
as an integral part (pitch fish, if you will) of advertisement for
products as diverse as plastic refrigerator bags, wall-to-wall carpet,
crackers (they, of course, even have a popular brand named
after them), and cigarettes (Joe Goldfish?). The use of goldfish
in advertising has a long history, and it is some aspects of this
that I cover in this article.
To set the stage for what is to follow, I think that a very brief
history of goldfish is warranted. This will demonstrate the long
relationship between us and them and will show that these fish were
as commonplace, and as well known, in the 19th century (and even
earlier, actually) as they are today.
The goldfish, as we understand it today, had its origin in China.
The earliest mentions of goldfish in Chinese literature are somewhat
clouded (and a good area for research!), and it is not until the
early part of the Sung Dynasty (circa 960) that it is evident that
goldfish were being kept as pets. From that time on there
are increasing mentions of goldfish sprinkled in both Chinese
poetry and literature. In 1595 what is without doubt the first published
book on goldfish appeared in China.
Goldfish were imported into Japan around 1500 to 1502, but it would
be almost another 100 years before they were introduced into the
western world. Again, specific dates are in question, but there
is good background material indicating that goldfish reached Europe
in the late 1600s or early 1700s.
Most popular sources, when discussing the arrival of the goldfish
in the New World (North America), are woefully inaccurate. Such
sources often vaguely note the mid-1800s, and at least one party
has stated it to be as late as 1876. These later date claims are
easily disproved by a wide variety of supporting literature. But
the establishment of a definite date of introduction is more difficult
to confirm. Based on the writings of the great American naturalist
James DeKay and others, it is now generally considered that goldfish
probably arrived in North America around the same time that they
reached Europe (late 1600s to early 1700s) making them the first
fish to be introduced here.
For the next 100 years or so, there are mostly blank spaces in
the history of the goldfish in the New World. (This is an area that
I am actively researching.) Beginning around the first quarter of
the 19th century, there are increasing references in
literature to goldfish both as pets and wild living fish in the
United States. These references are very matter if fact and discuss
the goldfish as a commonplace object. It is even noted that commercially
made goldfish food was available in the early 1830s and was "sold
in the shops." (Ah, to find such a container.)
Most of the writings on goldfish as pets up until the 1850s appeared
in popular periodical sources. In the 1850s, books touting the then
aquarium craze started to appear, and goldfish figured prominently
in those discussing freshwater, or river, aquaria. The first of
these books was from England, but the New World came on board in
1858 with the publication of the first two U.S. aquarium booksThe
Family Aquarium by Henry D. Butler and Life Beneath the Waters
by Arthur M. Edwards.
As the aquarium hobby grew, items began to be produced that
we now look upon, and define, as ephemera. These were initially
small catalogues, information sheets, price lists, and letter (or
bill) heads produced by dealers in the supportive equipment (aquaria,
fishbowls, or globes, as they were most often called then, etc.)
and fishes for the expanding hobby. Many such items, as were numerous
printed items of the time, were produced on paper not meant to last,
and consequently, these tend to be uncommon now and are highly desirable
to those whose areas of collecting cover these topics. Even those
that were produced much closer to the turn of the century were often
on poor paper and are equally rare. Even the billsheets of such
dealers are highly collectible for their information and graphics
of fish and equipment. Of course, it does not end here. Images in
this area may also be found in a wide variety of non-related paper
items such as checks, general advertising, etc.
There is one area of 19th-century goldfish ephemera that has,
to date, been largely overlooked and understudied. This is the Victorian
trade, or advertising card. Other similar types of cards (calling
cards, album cards, etc.) for my purposes are also included in this
genre. For overall purposes I have not limited myself to cards produced
in the United States and have actively pursued European cards that
address the topic. As part of my work on various aspects dealing
with the early history of goldfish, I became acquainted with these
cards about a year ago. They have opened up a number of new paths
of inquiry, research, and knowledge ... and initially created more
than a degree of frustration.
As I started to search out such cards with images or information
on goldfish, aquaria, fish globes, etc. at paper shows, and by talking
with (and e-mailing) various dealers regarding such cards, I was
often met with comments of "Not that I know of," and "Hmm,
I think I recall one or two." Well, it has been a fruitful
(and often still frustrating) year, and my collection of cards in
this area has grown substantially. While I, without question, have
many "miles to go before I sleep," I have reached a point
that I feel comfortable to make at least some preliminary comments
on such cards.
Initially, I will note that as with a majority of trade cards,
the images of goldfish (and related equipment) most often have nothing
to do with the products being advertised. Often fishbowls are pictured
(as in some advertising today) as just a part of the background
and testify to their popularity in Victorian homes. On other cards
the image may take center stage. Figure 1 shows an example of each
of these card types. As in both of these figures, many such representations
lack heavily in realism in that, while they are without question
"pretty pictures," the bowls represented are obviously
too small for the number and/or size of the fish contained within
them. Artistic license is often rampant in trade card images, and
this is clearly evident with these two cards. Before moving on specifically
to trade cards, I would like to make some brief comments on a few
of the "other" types of cards. As noted above, I must
be considered still relatively new at this. Consequently, I apologize
in advance for any glaring faux pas that might appear and
would greatly (and sincerely) appreciate any comments, or information,
that might make future work in this area more accurate.
Scrap Album Cards
This appears to be an area open for some interpretation. I am
attempting to include only cards that appear to have been made specifically
for this purpose, as opposed to stock trade cards without any added
advertising. To date I have only one card that fits my definition
above. But it is a very interesting embossed card that provides
some history on the goldfish (Figure 2).
There are a number of appropriate images within this subgroup
(I apologize to specialists in this area for classing these as a
subgroup, but again for my purposes and definitions here, they fit
well as such). Three such cards can be seen in Figure 3. The cards
illustrated (top to bottom) were produced by 1) Pinkerton Tobacco
Co., 2) Allen & Ginter, and 3) Win. S. Kimball & Co. (a
branch of American Tobacco Co.). The first card, which is titled
on the back as "Gold Fishing," is of additional interest
to me in that it is the smallest sized card in my collection (1
_" x 2 _"). The third card is part of a series titled
"Household Pets." The second image is also available in
a larger and more fully illustrated size. Both are part of a very
popular series titled "50 Fish From American Waters."
These cards, which were presented by merchants to their customers,
can be seen in both a "plain" (with only greetings message)
and "counterprinted" (with store information added) format.
They are often specific as to holiday (e.g., Christmas) but can
also be seen with a more general message ("With the Compliments
of the Season"). The illustrated example (Figure 4) is of the
specific type. A number of such cards depict goldfish-related images.
One particularly nice set (Christmas and New Years) done by L. Prang
and Co. in 1880 depicts, in addition to flowers and a butterfly,
a recognizable (if somewhat stylized) goldfish.
Ah, the wonderful formality of the times as expressed by calling
cards! While it may just be an artifact of my limited time working
with these cards, I have to admit that I am somewhat surprised by
the lack of appropriate images. The cards pictured in Figure 5
are the only calling cards that I have encountered to date that
contain goldfish-related images. I have seen at least one stock
type card (the card with the larger goldfish seen in Figure 2) adapted
as a calling card with the presenters name being printed in
This area is one, again, open to interpretation. I include in
it cards that often aim at humor, caricature, or in some cases,
just leave one wondering. A classic example, which appears to cover
all three, is a stock card that pictures a fancily dressed girl
reading a book, floating in the ocean in a champagne glass. Accompanying
her are a pug and a cat. The cat, with claws exposed, is attempting
to grab what is obviously a goldfish. I love the card, but have
yet to figure out what is going on. Maybe Im not supposed
to know. Any thoughts on this card would be greatly appreciated.
Another good example is a New Home Sewing Machine Co. card that
depicts a "Childs Dream." In addition to many other
dancing and playing animals, there is a nice image of two dressed
goldfish (with legs, none-the-less) dancing on some lily pads.
"Business" Trade Cards
These are the day-to-day cards of those selling goldfish (or
"gold fish" as they were more commonly known in Victorian
times), and other pets and the supportive equipment (fish globes,
etc.). Interestingly, I have found to date little in this area that
actually pictures the fishes or equipment. Most often stock cards,
which may be seen used in other trade card advertisements for a
variety of non-related products, appear to be used for these cards.
There is one image that predominates in Victorian trade cards
depicting goldfish. And that is children. Granted, an adult shows
up now and then (Figures 1 and 3), and one cannot deny the images
of goldfish and their "friend" the cat that often may
be seen (Figure 4).
Dave Cheadle, in his wonderful book Victorian Trade CardsHistorical
reference and Value Guide (Collector Books, 1998 edition) has noted
that "advertisers discovered the power of these images (children)
to capture attention and sell merchandise." So it is here also
with our topic that we see numerous images of children.
While some cards of children and goldfish show the wonder, pleasure,
and amazement that can still be seen today when a young child stares
upon a goldfish in a bowl or aquarium (Figure 6), the majority of
such cards show a darker side of children (Figure 7). Images of
children grabbing (sometimes with help of the family cats) goldfish
by hand (Figure 3) or with fireplace tongs. Children "fishing"
in goldfish bowls or aquaria is another oft-repeated image. Images
of a child shoveling hot coals into a goldfish bowl (with the interesting
caption "Fast Food") or two children dumping goldfish
into a boiling pot of water may also be seen. For whatever reason,
the artists of a majority of these cards chose to illustrate what
appears to be a dark side of children. Could this have possibly
been envisioned as just humor as opposed to darkness? This is an
area needing more research and thought.
Cats, as noted above, are another image that often intersects with
goldfish. Their intentions are generally quite obvious. If they
are not going to be eating the hapless fish (Figure 7), their presence
will at least be giving them some anxious moments (Figure 4). This
cat/goldfish relationship is no doubt as old as the goldfish (both
animals existed as pets in the Chinese Sung Dynasty) and
it continues to be popular in images to this day via advertisements, postcards, and cartoons.
Goldfish also had other potential enemies as envisioned by trade
card artists. One of my favorites is a folding trade card (when
folded it looks like a loaf of bread) produced by Church
and Co. for its Arm & Hammer Baking Soda (Figure 8). Not only
does it provide a monkey as another challenge for goldfish
(and additionally offer a cute poem), but it offers a great
image of a very recognizable piece of Victorian fishkeeping equipment.
Trade Card Education
The history of goldfish and their role as pets is a main area
of my research. Consequently, Victorian trade cards that actually
provide information on the maintenance of goldfish are of particular
interest to me. I will note that to date, these appear to be quite
rare, but they do exist. Figure 9 shows two such cards. The
top card, which was printed in 1893, is a foldout card for Dr. Richters
Remedies, and it offers a nice little primer on goldfish
care on the last sheet. The lower cards are two variants from a
series of Lion Coffee Educational Cards. The card size and printing
differ slightly, but the pictures and information are the same.
(Note the use of brandy as an early fish "medication.")
These cards appear to be from around the turn of the century, although
I have no specific date available as of yet.
This brings to a close an admittedly brief look at one Victorian
view of goldfish. I hope that this different view has
offered to you a bit more appreciation, or at least an opened perspective,
for that most well known, and widely kept, of ornamental
fishes ... the not so lowly goldfish. Note: More people than I can
name here have been extremely helpful over the last year or so in
my pursuit of trade cards dealing with goldfish related images and
information. Dave Cheadle has been unbelievably helpful with thoughts,
comments, and card acquisition. Bob Colbran has helped to
open up the "European Theater" for me. Wayne Leibel who,
even when he doesnt know it, is a full-time mentor.
And a special thanks to Gary Bagnall, a "fish friend"
from whom I obtained my first trade card.