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Parlor Ponds

The Cultural Work of the American Home Aquarium, 1850 - 1970

Judith Hamera

Publication Year: 2011

Parlor Ponds: The Cultural Work of the American Home Aquarium, 1850–1970 examines the myriad cultural meanings of the American home aquarium during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries and argues that the home aquarium provided its enthusiasts with a potent tool for managing the challenges of historical change, from urbanization to globalization. The tank could be a window to an alien world, a theater for domestic melodrama, or a vehicle in a fantastical undersea journey. Its residents were seen as inscrutable and wholly disposable “its,” as deeply loved and charismatic individuals, and as alter egos by aquarists themselves. Parlor Ponds fills a gap in the growing field of animal studies by showing that the tank is an emblematic product of modernity, one using elements of exploration, technology, science, and a commitment to rigorous observation to contain anxieties spawned by industrialization, urbanization, changing gender roles, and imperial entanglements. Judith Hamera engages advertisements, images, memoirs, public aquarium programs, and enthusiast publications to show how the history of the aquarium illuminates complex cultural attitudes toward nature and domestication, science and religion, gender and alterity, and national conquest and environmental stewardship with an emphasis on the ways it illuminates American public discourse on colonial and postcolonial expansion.

Published by: University of Michigan Press


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pp. 1-14

My interest in the home aquarium was spawned by deprivation. My parents would not let me have one, and the reason for this deprivation was excess. The aquarium was too much: too much mess, money, space, and time. It was too watery, too chemically, too much a potential replication of too many flushy good-byes to bleached...

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Chapter 1: Promiscuous Vision: The Visual Affinities of the Home Aquarium

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pp. 15-49

H. Noel Humphreys assured his English and American readers that, to engage the full potential of the aquarium, “it is the seeing that is everything.”1 But when it came to the home tank, seeing was not simple. As the preceding epigraph attests, this was not a matter for “vulgar eyes.” It was not enough to merely look. The allure of...

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Chapter 2: Rural Rambles and Rustic Adornments: Early British Aquarium Writing

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pp. 50-83

The home aquarium functions rhetorically as landscape painting does in Barbara Novak’s landmark study Nature and Culture, the source of the preceding epigraph. The aquarium contains and harmonizes a wide range of issues and anxieties associated with imperial modernity. But whereas Novak describes a genre of painting...

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Chapter 3: The Toy of the Day: American Aquarium Writing, 1850–1915

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pp. 84-124

The American home aquarium predates the Civil War. News of the Ward Case and its watery relative appeared in an eclectic range of American periodicals in the early to middle 1850s, nurturing a “domestic” aquarium practice in multiple senses of the term. These writings, along with the first commercial public aquariums in Boston...

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Chapter 4: Toy Fish

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pp. 125-158

The gulf between Ida’s and Paula’s views of home aquarium fish is, in one sense, historical. Mellen, one of the few female public figures in the early American hobby and professional aquarist at the New York Aquarium from 1916 to 1929, is, in many ways, heir to a Gossean strategy of representing one’s personal specimens through...

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Chapter 5: The Domestic Aquarium

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pp. 159-192

The aquarium’s effectiveness as a surrogate for managing modern dilemmas comes not only from its multiple visual affinities, the expansive rhetoric of early practitioners, and the representational fungibility of toy fish but also from its function as a home and the ways “home,” in this context, operates as a set of nested, mutually reinforcing...

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Chapter 6: “Foreign in the Domestic Sense”: Tropical Fish and the Transnational Aquarium

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pp. 193-218

With the introduction of so-called tropical fish in the 1910s, the American home aquarium gained the potential to contain the global south and a whole new set of relationships, tropes, and visual affinities. Its prior associations were not abandoned. On the contrary, the garden, the window, the stage, the home, the seeming immutability...

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Conclusion: Reefer Madness

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pp. 219-226

The faithful assembled at the halfway point of the 2006 International Marine Aquarium Conference (IMAC) to hear featured speaker Mike Paletta describe “setting up a LARGE aquarium.”1 How large? So large he could actually submerge in it; so large that it required consultation with a structural engineer and the sides had...


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pp. 227-263


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pp. 265-268

E-ISBN-13: 9780472028108
E-ISBN-10: 0472028103
Print-ISBN-13: 9780472051663
Print-ISBN-10: 0472071661

Page Count: 312
Illustrations: 5 line art, 10 halftones
Publication Year: 2011

OCLC Number: 779881333
MUSE Marc Record: Download for Parlor Ponds

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Subject Headings

  • Aquariums -- Great Britain -- Historiography.
  • Home -- United States -- History.
  • Aquariums -- United States -- Historiography.
  • United States -- Social life and customs -- 20th century.
  • United States -- Social life and customs -- 19th century.
  • Aquariums -- United States -- History.
  • Aquariums -- Social aspects -- United States -- History.
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