A J.W. Fiske antique cast-iron aquarium

Here we will learn about an antique cast-iron aquarium that was made in New York City by the J. W. Fiske company in about 1880 and is now found in the sun=room of the narrator’s residence. First, some context. Interest in aquariums, and other ways of keeping live animals and plants indoors, first became very popular during the Victorian Era, the last few decades of the 1800s. The popularity of public displays of plants and animals led to the manufacture of smaller versions of terraria and aquaria that were suitable for the home, for people who could afford them. In North America the J. W. Fiske company of New York City had a particularly extensive catalog of ornamental cast-iron aquariums and fountains. $34 for this model would be the equivalent of about $900 in today’s economy. The more conventional style rectangular tank was represented, often with elaborate stands and sometimes incorporating fountains in the upper areas of the tank; in some cases the stands were quite massive, and only a few of these actually survived. Here is an example. But the style that epitomizes the Victorian era is the octagonal tank, which was essentially a fountain turned into an aquarium. In some cases these tanks could be very massive, up to 6 and 7 feet tall. Here is the catalog drawing of the model similar to the one that I bought at auction. It has the triple heron base common to many fountains that were made by Fiske of the same time, and a central rockwork column capped by a little boy with an umbrella that has the fountain at the top of the umbrella. In the state that I bought it, the unit was missing its glass, the pieces were in the central bowl, and The little boy at the top was missing; although I have since seen similar little boys at auction and they fetch a very high price. Many collectors treat these items like museum pieces and never touch them, but I wanted mine to serve its original purpose. After removing the rust and many layers of old paint, I repainted the external surfaces, and then used West Marine two-part Epoxy on all the internal surfaces, including the central rockwork column. The eight upright supports were fitted into the holes in the lower basin, and then silicone sealant used to fix tempered glass panes fitted in the grooves in the basin and in the upper frame. Silicone Sealant is a mid-20th century invention, and these tanks were probably originally put together with asphaltum cement or plaster. So here’s a wide angle shot of the finished product in my sunroom. In addition to natural light during the day, the tank is illuminated by a single 50 watt halogen spotlight that’s suspended above the top of the tank. This combination of lighting supports excellent growth of aquatic plants in a system that really has no other form of filtration. The exquisite detail of Victorian cast-iron work is particularly evident in the base of the aquarium where you can see the feathers in the body of the birds and the plant life at their feet. Around the back side of the aquarium base is a plate that used to cover the hole that once provided access to the pump and plumbing for the fountain this plate has the J. W. Fiske signature and the Barclay Street address definitively dates the piece to the 1880s. The aquarium is kept at 80 degrees Fahrenheit by a single 300 watt titanium submersible heater that is oriented behind a central rockwork column in the center of the tank. Also inside that central rockwork column is the first of two submersible pumps that drive water from below the gravel bed up to the top of the column and part of it jets out and around the circumference of the tank. In the absence of the little boy with the umbrella, light from above supports the growth of plants on the top of the rockwork column Including an orchid that is growing at the very top. The octagonal construction of the aquarium results in the large opening at the top and so a surprising amount of viewing is actually done from above, as well as from the side. To prevent an oily scum from forming on the surface of the water, a critical item for this aquarium is a skimmer which is driven by the second of two submersible pumps needed for this system. Water is pulled through the skimmer down and then across the heating element on the backside of the rockwork column. Growing down into the opening of the tank are the aerial roots of a ficus tree. This does not harm the water quality in the tank and adds an additional interesting visual element. Weekly maintenance of this system is fairly easy and involves replacing about one-third of the fifty gallon volume of the tank with water from a rain barrel. Thank you for watching! I hope you’ve enjoyed learning about the restoration of this antique cast-iron aquarium.

Comments 8

  • Beautiful aquarium! These old aquariums are much more interesting full of fish, than sitting empty.

  • this is truelly beautifull,thank u for sharing!

  • I have a couple aquarium books and guides from my father (they are mostly from the late 70's to early 90's) and one of them started with a bit of history on aquariums as a hobby and exhibit. Added to this history part were two illustrations of antique aquariums and one of them was one of these octagonal ones. Ever since i have wanted one because they just look so striking compared to all of today's square and rectangular aquariums. I don't care if it is an Original antique one or just a good looking reproduction but someday i will have one of these absolute beauties!

  • Absolutely beautiful and so creative. You are a real artist and handyman!

  • With they still made stuff this pretty.

  • Just stunning. I'd love to see this in person. What a treasure.

  • I have a beautiful antique cast iron aquarium that has been in my family for over 100 years. It is very ornate like some of them shown here.

  • Absolutely stunning! Can hardly compare today's common rectangular aquariums with this piece of art.

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