A U.S. government gimmick helped turn a novelty pet into a household item -- and an environmental menace.
It was around 1830 that Captain Henry "Bully" Robinson of Newburgh, New York, returned from Europe with some "pretty little fish" he had bought in France. He used them to stock the pond at his house, where they multiplied, and over the years he gave them to friends. According to local lore, he was the first to import goldfish to the United States.
However, this claim of being the first to bring goldfish to America has been made by (or on behalf) of a range of people. When P. T. Barnum opened the first public aquarium in the USA in 1856, he claimed credit for their introduction. Goldfish, which are native to Asia, were already popular in Europe by the 1600s, so it seems strange that they would have taken so long to reach North America. And they probably didn't.
Webster's dictionary of 1817 mentions goldfish, implying they were something American readers would be likely to encounter. In 1827, author Thomas McKenney included goldfish ponds in his description of the pleasure gardens at Utica, New York. A natural philosophy textbook for schools published in New York in 1838 also mentions them, as part of a physics problem -- the refraction of light makes a goldfish in a glass globe appear to be two fishes. The proliferation of goldfish increased the demand for this particular style of round bowl, which commercial glassworks started producing.
Regardless of how it first ended up in America, how did this little exotic fish become the ultimate affordable pet?
Oddly enough, the government had a lot to do with it. The United States Commission on Fisheries received the first official import of goldfish from Japan in 1878. The Commission was only seven years old then, and as a publicity stunt, it offered free goldfish to D.C. residents. Throughout the 1880s and 1890s, these fish were bred in ponds in Washington and Baltimore, and anyone who sent a request through a member of Congress would receive one, along with a glass globe to keep it in.
At the height of this campaign, the Commission was distributing 20,000 fish annually, and nearly a third of households in the District owned pet fish from the Commission. According to a New York Times article from November 1894, "The business of distributing free goldfish to the people of the District of Columbia has become such a tax on the Fish Commission that it appears they must choose between running a goldfish bureau for Washington exclusively and conducting the legitimate work of the bureau."
In the 20th century, goldfish became a staple as prizes at fun fairs. Many American adults can remember seeing rows of single fish in plastic bags next to the sideshow games. It's a less common sight nowadays, likely due to all the fish that expired in hot plastic bags in the backseats of cars, or in the grip of overexcited children.