Goldfish: An Initial Victorian Trade Card Perspective

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February 13, 2013 by Ephemera Society

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by Lee Finley

[Lee Finley owns and operates Finley Aquatic Books, which specializes in aquarium and fish-based literature. He lives in Pascoag, RI with his wife Aline, numerous cats, and about 35 aquariums full of fish. His main personal interest is in the history of the aquarium and/or pet fishes. This article originally appeared in Ephemera News, vol. 18, no. 2, Winter 2000]



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 was included.


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 pets.


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…albeit rarely.

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 books–The 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).

Cigarette Cards
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.”

Holiday Cards
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.

Calling Cards
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 presenter’s name being printed in the box.

“Whimsy” Cards
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 I’m 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 “Child’s 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.

Trade 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 Cards–Historical 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 itlooks 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. Richter’s Remedies, and itoffers 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 cardacquisition. Bob Colbran has helped to open up the “European Theater” for me. Wayne Leibel who, even when he doesn’t 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.


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