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goldfish

26 december 2019

I don't remember any, but I must have had a goldfish at some point. Most people do, and I don't even mean most middle-class suburban people. "Goldfish ownership among children eventually became universal" in the West, among all classes and income levels, as Anna Marie Roos notes in Goldfish (137). Goldfish cost just cents apiece and were often given away at fairs, as prizes or just to get kids attracted to a given booth. Mortality among such giveaways was probably fairly high. But goldfish, as Roos demonstrates, are a curious combination of ephemerality and toughness. "The oldest known goldfish," she reports, "was a funfair prize for Peter Hand in Yorkshire in 1956. 'Tish' died in 1999, aged 43" (146).

Goldfish were first domesticated neither in the West nor as democratic pets. They are native to China. Chinese aristocrats domesticated goldfish over a thousand years ago – or, it occurs to me, maybe the domestication of the fish was broader-based, but nobody bothered to record its more plebeian reaches. In any case, goldfish mark one of the early masteries of aquaculture. And it seems likely that they've always been primarily decorative. Goldfish are certainly edible (though Roos stops short of mentioning the goldfish-swallowing craze of the American 20th century). But they aren't widely raised for food. They're "fancy" and somewhat gratuitous: one of the few species we've bred just to look nice (distantly analogous to peacocks and pigeons, though the latter have their working applications and are also delicious).

The Dutch brought goldfish to Japan, where they became the jealously-guarded property of powerful samurai. When the samurai were stripped of their power in the 19th century, not a few of them turned to goldfish-breeding as a livelihood. Talk about beating your swords into … something else, at any rate. Japanese breeders developed exquisite goldfish, though the ancestors of western goldfish, Roos says, are likelier to have arrived via Portuguese Macao in the late 17th and early 18th centuries.

Goldfish soon caught on in Europe and America, invading many an exotic waterway, becoming an enormous industry in, of all places, 19th-century Indiana, where vast estates were given over to goldfish ponds. For such delicate-looking creatures, they are surprisingly frost-hardy, and became favorites in such forbidding climate zones as Sweden. Linnaeus, it seems, was a bit obsessed with goldfish and of course gave them their scientific name, Carassius auratus.

Far and away the most famous goldfish poem, Thomas Gray's "Ode on the Death of a Favourite Cat Drowned in a Tub of Goldfishes," is contemporary with Linnaeus (18th century) and merits several pages in Roos' book. Gray's fish are supporting players, of course, but well-developed:

Two angel forms were seen to glide,
The genii of the stream;
Their scaly armour's Tyrian hue
Through richest purple to the view
Betrayed a golden gleam.
Other goldfish appear in later poetry, but I will not try to convince you that I knew any of them before googling. And I can only think of one line in any songbook standard that mentions goldfish. Some wannabe wordsmith must have thought of rhyming "goldfish" and "cold fish," but if they did, their song never caught on. Cole Porter's did:
In shallow shoals English soles do it,
Goldfish in the privacy of bowls do it –
Let's do it,
Let's fall in love.

Roos, Anna Marie. Goldfish. London: Reaktion, 2019.

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