This book explores the vogue for home aquaria that spread through Great Britain around the middle of the nineteenth century. The marine tank, perfected and commercialised in the early 1850s, was advertised as a marvel of modernity, a source of endless entertainment and a tool providing useful and edifying knowledge; it was meant to surprise, bringing a profoundly unfamiliar experience right to the heart of the home and providing a vista on the submarine world, at the time still largely unknown. Thanks to an interdisciplinary approach, this book offers an example of how the study of a specific object can be used to address a broad spectrum of issues: the Victorian home tank became in fact a site of intersection between scientific, technological, and cultural trends; it engaged with issues of class, gender, nationality and inter-species relations, drawing together home décor and ideals of domesticity, travel and tourism, exciting discoveries in marine biology, and emerging tensions between competing views of science; due to the close connection between tank keeping and seaside studies, it also marked an important moment in the development of a burgeoning environmental awareness. Through the analysis of a wide range of sources, including aquarium manuals, articles in the periodical press and fictional works, The Victorian aquarium unearths the historical significance of a resonant object, arguing that, for Victorians, the home tank was both a mirror and a window: it opened views on the underwater world, while reflecting the knowledge, assumptions, and preoccupations of its owners.
Through the analysis of James Shirley Hibberd’s The Book of the Aquarium, Chapter 3 explores the ornamental functions that Victorian tanks were meant to perform: on the one hand, the aquarium was conceptualised as a mirror of its owner, situating the hobby within a cluster of social, moral, and economic discourses that did much to foster the vogue, endowing it with further resonance and meaning; on the other hand, though, such density of expectations might have contributed to the demise of tank keeping. The second part of the chapter considers the beauty of marine creatures in the tank and the ways in which it was framed, both conceptually and stylistically, through an array of literary strategies, which included emphasis on detail, creative analogies, and the extensive use of poetic language and poetic quotations. Many of these features were common in popular science writing, but aquarium texts strove to adjust their approach to the specificities of tank keeping, while participating in wider debates about the appropriate way to discuss natural phenomena for a broad and non-specialist public.
Aquarium manuals had a huge impact in shaping people’s perception of sea creatures, providing both conceptual frameworks and models for interaction. This chapter considers four kinds of activities performed by Victorian aquarists – watching tank residents, domesticating them, experimenting on them, and eating them – which correspond to alternative ways of construing sea creatures as ornaments, pets, specimens, and food. On the one hand, aquarium authors shared a tendency to humanise marine animals and discuss their behaviour through narratives that reflected current assumptions on gender and class; on the other hand, though, they encouraged readers to treat sea species as objects and perform experiments on them, under the assumption that they could not feel pain. At times, tank residents could also turn into food: while some aquarists adventurously tried to cook animals that were not usually considered edible (like actinias), the possibility to observe the life of species commonly seen as food (such as prawns) stimulated reflections on the distance between the live animal in the tank and the dead one on the plate.
The introduction details the scope and aims of the book, discussing the variety of functions acquired by Victorian home aquaria. In particular, since Victorians tended to conceptualise tank keeping mostly in terms of visual pleasure, it connects the hobby with wider changes in the understanding of attention and vision. It then discusses the literary quality of aquarium texts, explaining why this was so crucial to the fortunes of Victorian tank keeping.
This chapter considers how aquarium texts were used to assert specific views of science, scientists, and their role in society. In order to situate the vogue within the broader context of mid-century discourses on nature, three themes, which often resurfaced in discussions of the tank, are analysed: the relation between the rhetoric of wonder and a specific idea of science, the fight against ‘old errors’ as a way of policing truth and claiming authority, and the view of science as a collective endeavour. Finally, the aquarists’ perception of the tank’s value as a scientific tool is investigated, tracing the shift from the initial glowing expectations to the recognition that such hopes had to be severely downsized
Chapter 2 discusses the marine tank in connection to real and imaginary travel. The first part is centred on how tank keeping merged with seaside tourism, both practically and textually: in fact, aquarium books described – and often prescribed – ways of experiencing the seaside vacation, envisaging the aquarist as a good tourist in terms of the activities pursued, of the closer relationship established with locals, and of an active engagement with the environment, even though tensions soon emerged between an ‘acquisitive’ appreciation of nature and the recognition that seashore collecting might eventually jeopardize delicate and fragile ecosystems. The second part of the chapter outlines how the aquarium vogue also spurred journeys of the mind: in the 1850s, the tank was widely believed to be a perfect replica of the underwater world, and as such stimulated fictitious descriptions of abyssal excursions; even more intriguingly, the aquarium could at times turn into a time-machine and suggest speculations on progress, on geological past, and on a not-so-far future.
After a brief discussion of how marine tanks were perfected in the early 1850s, Chapter 1 considers some of the cultural factors that helped make tank keeping so popular: a new interest in the sea, the expansion of seaside tourism, and the increasing popularity of amateur science and collecting. Then, it examines how tank keeping was materially done, the technical difficulties it entailed, and the market it generated; in particular, it investigates the way in which tank keeping was discussed and conceptualised, providing a survey of the most popular aquarium books published in the 1850s. The final section explores the audiences addressed by these texts: tank keeping was advertised as a remarkably flexible pursuit, which could serve multiple purposes and functions, thus appealing in different ways to different publics in terms of class, gender, education, and levels of scientific expertise.
Starting from ‘Black Tarn’, a novella published in All the Year Round, the conclusion briefly retraces the fortunes of Victorian tank keeping from a widespread craze to a half-forgotten pastime. The reasons for the temporary success of the marine aquarium, as well as those behind its demise a few years later, offer valuable insights into the complexity of Victorian culture, especially as they involved expectations concerning efficiency, control, and durability, or the capacity of humans to recreate, and then manage, miniaturised ecosystems. Moreover, Victorian discussion of the aquarium testify to an important moment in the development of what we would now call environmental awareness.