The United States is experiencing a new wave of aquarium enthusiasm. Over the past few years, groups in Detroit; St. Louis; Scranton, Pennsylvania; Memphis; Cape Canaveral, Florida; and New York City have proposed or started construction on large aquariums. Springfield, Missouri, and Shreveport, Louisiana, have recently opened aquariums. Boosters for these spaces are selling them as conservation initiatives that will create jobs and bring in revenue—alternatives to sports stadiums and shopping districts meant to revitalize downtrodden downtowns.
But the history of aquariums tells a different story. In the earliest public aquariums, tanks were sparsely populated with somewhat mundane species. These institutions started as traveling fishery exhibits: The 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair contained some of the first tank displays. The state of Pennsylvania fashioned a grotto with glass jewel boxes lining a dark hallway that was illuminated from above. The residents—trout, catfish, and others—had been sent via specialty train.
Enthusiasm for Pennsylvania’s exhibit was high, with many visitors returning several days in a row to walk through the grotto. Even after the fish started dropping dead because of excess lime, aluminum, and heat, the vacant tanks attracted crowds that came to marvel at the new technology.
These early exhibitions were successful enough that seven years later, the city of Philadelphia converted the traveling tanks into a stationary aquarium at Fairmount Park. One of the stars was a giant snapping turtle.
Philadelphia’s aquarium was part of a small but rapidly growing community of large public aquariums in the United States, including the Woods Hole Science Aquarium in Massachusetts (opened in 1885), the New York Aquarium (1896), and Detroit’s Belle Isle Aquarium (1904). Visitors were more concerned with wonder than education, and tanks usually contained local species, the occasional rescued family goldfish or donated lobster, and tropical fish. The aquarium keepers themselves had little interest in conservation. As aquarists developed the craft of holding aquatic organisms captive, many of the fish under their care died. In 1917, the Philadelphia aquarium received 663 fish for exhibition; by the end of the year, 454 had died.
Samantha Muka is an assistant professor of science and technology studies at the Stevens Institute of Technology in New Jersey. She is currently working on a book about the history of aquarium technology.