Skip to main content Smithsonian Institution

Catalog Data

Cast iron, plate glass, paint
Overall: 44 in. (111.8 cm)
Pedestal: 27 in. (68.6 cm)
Tank (exterior): 8 1/2 × 30 in. (21.6 × 76.2 cm)
Tank (interior): 22 in. (55.9 cm)
ca. 1860
Victorian (1837-1901)
Cast-iron and glass octagonal aquarium/terarrium with fountain. Four of the eight corner posts have plant cups screwed in, while the other four have decorative bellflower finials. The pedistal is comprised of central post with three feet radiating out from base. There is a drainage hole, 3/4" diameter, near center of glass container, leading into an iron pipe that descends through the pedestal for the fountain pump. The floral and foliate motifs are typical of the Naturalistic style of the nineteenth century. Naturalism, the realistic reproduction of the beauties of nature, was a popular style in the Victorian era. Though it appears as early as the 1840’s in America, naturalistic designs continued to the 1900s. This was in part due to the influence of the natural sciences, and interest in nature and gardening, which spread through the upper and middle classes in the nineteenth century. Naturalistic designs incorporated floral, foliate, fruit, vegetal, and animal forms into furnishings and decorative objects for the home and garden. Popular subjects included grapes, cornstalks, ferns, Solomon seal or laurel leaf, passion flowers, lilies of the valley, morning glories, oak leaves, acorns, vines, and roses.
Label Text:
In the mid-1800s, interest in marine and fresh water life soared, which led to the development and widespread popularity of aquariums for the home. Aquariums served as fish tanks or small ornamental fountains in the Victorian home. They might contain wild plants and creatures combined with ferns and fountain feature. Some aquariums were salt-water, providing a glimpse of ocean life, but the majority were fresh-water aquariums. The large plate-glass windows gave a panoramic view of an underwater world and earned the aquarium a place of prominence in many homes. Books and articles were written with instructions on creating and maintaining parlor aquariums, as well as what forms of plant and animal life to stock in it. Water plants and animals were often transplanted from the wild to the drawing room to recreate an encapsulated living world. Victorians watched the antics, growing cycles, and symbiotic relationships that flourished within their parlor aquarium. Soon every home wanted an aquarium and, with price cutting innovations of the Industrial Revolution, many homes could now afford one. Because of their popularity, aquariums were mass produced in a variety of materials and sizes, and they were frequently combined with a Wardian case, bird cage, or plant stand to form a large showpiece for the parlors or conservatories of the mid-to-late-nineteenth century. Aquariums created an ostentatious display that provided an escape from the city and were evidence of the owner’s social superiority and interests in natural history. The household aquarium was a source of entertainment, but it also afforded Victorians with opportunity to for scientific study of the plants and creatures behind the glass.
aquariums (containers)  Search this
cast iron  Search this
fountains  Search this
plate glass  Search this
Garden ornaments and furniture  Search this
indoor gardening  Search this
Victoriana  Search this
water features  Search this
Credit Line:
Smithsonian Gardens, Horticultural Artifacts Collection.
Accession number:
Restrictions & Rights:
See more items in:
Horticultural Artifacts Collection
Data Source:
Smithsonian Gardens