A Taste of 1960s Aquarium Keeping

Bruce Leyland-Jones

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Unless you've actually and personally experienced it, it's often hard to appreciate just how far the hobby has come, (he says, desperately trying to ignore the small detail that that progress has taken place over half a century and progress is, to be honest, quite expected).
Of course, they do say that if you remembered the 1960s, you weren't really there! For myself, I was young enough not to get stoned/drunk and yet old enough to remember my mother's large community tank. I recently acquired The Pan Book of the Home Aquarium and I thought I might share some nuggets from this fishy bible of the time.

Tanks: These were basic rectangular glass blocks, with iron frames that required regular painting, as they had a tendency to rust. Very expennsive ones might have flashy galvanised frames, but these were pricey. The glass was fixed in place, usually by putty or, if you were 'posh', by something called aquarium cement, which was a very primitive precursor to our silicone cements of today. Because of this construction, sizes were rather limited and the bigger tanks were few and far between.

Tank lid: All tanks needed a lid, to house the lighting, to prevent fish escaping and to prevent dust and household sprays from entering the tank.

Water: Whilst it was acknowledged that chlorine was in the water supply, it was also believed that this had no effect on the fish and, in the process of pouring it about, any chlorine would automatically dissipate. More expert aquarists professed a love of 'aged' water, which was water that had been stored, usually outside somewhere, for a long while, so as to allow any unwanted chemicals to disappear.
NOTE that at this point, there was no mention of the nitrogen cycle, nor of the pros and cons of bacteria in the tank, as an essential part of what we now know to be an essential part of what we call 'cycling'. Thus, any water directly from the tap would likely kill any bacteria present, whilst 'aged' water could and would contain all manner of bacteria...and other bugs and stuff.
Water from the 'Hot Tap' was also to be avoided, as this would invariably contain at least copper and, in some instances, lead! If warm water was needed, then aged water should be heated in a kettle, or in a pan on the stove.
The only tests available for water parameters appear to be pH testing papers.

Heating: Heaters and thermostats were separate and it was clear from the book that electrical 'accidents' were relatively commonplace! It was suggested that, because of this, you involved a qualified electrician to set your tank's electrical kit up. The heater went in the water and the thermostat stayed out of the tank and was set to the desired temperature. Note also that central heating wasn't yet a thing and so heaters were essential items for tropical tanks, at least here in Blighty. (Does anyone else in here remember waking in a morning, to find frost on the inside of the windows and being able to see your breath, before getting the coal from the coal bunker, to get the fire going, etc.?) Some 'fish rooms' were around, with these being insulated rooms, kept at a warm temperature, thus negating the need for individual heaters. Of course, this meant that all fish were kept at the same temperature and Lordy knows what the 'lecky bill would've looked like!
This also clarifies why the Winter of Discontent, with multiple and extended powercuts, killed so many tanks.

Lighting: These were usually tungsten bulbs and were prone to going pop when they got damp. (It was standard practice to have a glass between the lighting and the water). Again, a source of at least minor electrical shocks and don't forget the iron frame holding it together. (Lordy! We knew how to have a good time, back in the day). The new-fangled fluorescent tubes were starting to arrive, but these often flickered, were expensive and also prone to going pop! Oh yes...bulbs and tubes only came in two colours...on or off. Whilst it was accepted that aquarium plants needed light, there was little understanding about light spectrum and associated plant needs.

Aerators: These were one of two types; either the rubber-diaphragm type we are familiar with today, or little mechanical jobbies, using small pistons. The former were cheaper and tended to be quite noisy, whilst the latter were much quieter, but prone to break down on account of all those moving parts. These aerators were considered essential pieces of kit and necessary to drive air through an assortment of airstones. It was believed that the airstones actually injected oxygen into the water and the process of oxygen diffusing through the water surface was not described. Thus, multiple airstones were considered to be A Good Thing.

Filters: These were very basic and tended to be mechanical, usually hanging off the side of the tank and often powered by an aerator pump. Media was usually just some form of 'glass wool' (even fibreglass!) and needing replacing on a regular basis. Agin, note that there was no expressed knowledge about the nitrogen cycle and the concept of undergravel filtration had only got as far as the stones themselves mechanically cleaning the water. Beneficial bacteria are only mentioned in passing.

So that gives us our tank and essential equipment. Now let's fill it up...

Substrate is usually river gravel, made up of small, rounded stones. If these stones are too large, then old food, dead fish (!) and other debris will sink beneath. If too small, then plants wouldn't be able to push their roots through. (Sand was also a possibility, but wasn't popular, due to apparent compaction issues). Granite or slate is the preferred rock of choice, as the effect on pH of other stones was recognised. That said, it appears that messing with the water chemistry by adding different sorts of stone, or chemicals, was considered quite normal. There was some mention of strange concoctions of sand and soil and clay and so forth, but much of these seemed to be alchemical and a dark Art, not too well understood.

Plants were of much less variety than we are used to today and it appears not much thought was put into their care, which is strange to me, given that it was widely accepted that real plants were beneficial to tank health, because they apparently provided oxygen. (Whilst this is true, bear in mind that those same plants use up oxygen at night and that the lighting provided was not necessarily beneficial to them). Successfully growing plants appeared to be more luck than good management, although those available were relatively cheap.

Snails: These are accepted as 'inevitable' if you have plants and copper-based treatments are suggested to kill them off. Whilst some, such as the Red Ramshorn and Malaysian Mud Snail, are suggested to be useful and attractive as 'unobtrusive scavengers'. Their habit of digging in the gravel apparently keeps it aerated and they are thought of much as a gardener views his earthworms! However, many snails are supposed to eat any 'tender' plants, although the keeping of snails separately, as a source of infusoria, seemed to be a good idea at the time.

Fish: Now here we sort-of enter more familiar territory, with some vital differences between Then and Now.
The first is that now-despised concept that fish generally grow to the size of the tank.
The second is apparently a complete lack of awareness with regards stocking...not even the 1" per Gallon 'rule'! The book describes relatively accurately that some fish are more aggressive than others and some fish can live in a community setting, whilst others would not, but details are sparse when it comes down to just how breeding changes everything, for example. Of course, at this time, most fish were imported direct from the wild, so breeding was left to diehard experts.
Also, of interest if nothing else, the great range of tetras is described and, get this, you are suggested to get two of each, so that you get a wider variety in your tank. Angels are piled in with Tiger and '******'* Barbs and Black Widows**, Clown Loach are recommended for snail consumption and, of course, the poor old Common Plecostomus is cited as a great algae eater.
Sadly, there is no real acknowledgement of the individual water requirements of individual fish and I shudder to recall the regular visits with my Mum, to buy new fish, after yet another Great Die-Off. :(

Feeding: Thankfully, the effects of over-feeding were well known and a little, often, seemed to be a mantra. Of interest, live foods were apparently readily available in specialist fish shops and pet shops, but it also appears that most aquarists had ready access to healthy ponds and streams, to harvest all manner of insect larvae and small worms. (How times have sadly changed in that regard, it seems :( ).

Fish Health: This chapter opens with ;"The perfect balanced aquarium does not exist in reality, so certain work is necessary to keep a tank looking tidy and to ensure fish and plants remain in a healthy state." A daily check for dead fish is recommended. Algae is inevitable and is to be fought against. Water changes are recommended, although this would be usually to replace water that has evaporated away and this added water should be 'matured'. It was not considered unwise to syphon off a quarter of the tank, once a month and to replace this with, again, mature water.
The first signs of trouble were apparently foul smells, probably due to an undiscovered dead fish, or possibly plants. Regular things to look out for were 'milky' water (bacterial bloom) or/and blue-green algae...not recognised as the bacterial complaint that it is.
All of the diseases we know of today were recognised and all seem to have had some chemical treatment required, usually involved some strong dyes, such as methylene blue. Diseased fish may well have been suitably quarantined, but over-stocking does not appear to have been considered as an issue, nor does inappropriate water parameters. There is no mention of either of these in the book.
To summarise, "avoiding disease is much easier than curing it, and the observance of elementary hygiene in the aquarium does much to ensure healthy fish". Again, no mention of over-crowding, or inappropriate water parameters!

*Barbus nigrofasciatus, now known as Black Ruby Barb.
** Now known as the Black Skirted Tetra

Edit: Some spelling and grammatical errors amended. :oops:
 
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Sgooosh

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Changed a lot in many ways!
Id say mostly positive except for live foods :mad:
Still can’t get em
 

kribensis12

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My Dad kept an aquarium in the late 80s, early 90s and he did seem to at least know that you should do a gravel vacuum for debris etc. and that water changes were helpful. He did not really understand stocking, overcrowding, nitrates etc. He would always put tap water in milk jugs and let it age for 1-2 days to remove chlorine, as well.

So for the first majority of my life as an aquarium keeper (roughly 1998 and onward), I probably have killed hundreds of fish due to lack of understanding.
 

ClownLurch

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The early 70s guppy was lucky to have a tank around our way never mind filters etc….and they were still breeding like rabbits. A bucket, a rock and some weeds from the pond was luxury. Monty Pythons “Four Yorkshire Guppies” sketch springs to mind.
A WC from a great height by putting their bucket on the kitchen floor and pouring every 48hrs to inject oxygen into the water was the generally acknowledged secret.
 

Byron

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Ah, this takes me back. I had my first aquarium in the early 1960's, I was in my early teens then. No one told you about cycling, water conditions, etc, and you bought a "pair" of a species as that was best (so said the owner of the hardware store which was the only store other than Woolworth's that carried fish & supplies). Fish never lived long, so more were bought, until you gave up spending money like that (or the parents did).

Ironically we have sort of come full circle. After significant advancements made during the intervening years, the internet has now given us even more misinformation from people who pass themselves off as "experts" but actually know as little as the hardware store owner or the lady in Woolworth's. This is unfortunate.
 

Sgooosh

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Ah, this takes me back. I had my first aquarium in the early 1960's, I was in my early teens then. No one told you about cycling, water conditions, etc, and you bought a "pair" of a species as that was best (so said the owner of the hardware store which was the only store other than Woolworth's that carried fish & supplies). Fish never lived long, so more were bought, until you gave up spending money like that (or the parents did).

Ironically we have sort of come full circle. After significant advancements made during the intervening years, the internet has now given us even more misinformation from people who pass themselves off as "experts" but actually know as little as the hardware store owner or the lady in Woolworth's. This is unfortunate.
I agree. Plus they market products directed to kids with tiny living spaces
 
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Bruce Leyland-Jones

Bruce Leyland-Jones

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My Dad kept an aquarium in the late 80s, early 90s and he did seem to at least know that you should do a gravel vacuum for debris etc. and that water changes were helpful. He did not really understand stocking, overcrowding, nitrates etc. He would always put tap water in milk jugs and let it age for 1-2 days to remove chlorine, as well.

So for the first majority of my life as an aquarium keeper (roughly 1998 and onward), I probably have killed hundreds of fish due to lack of understanding.
The early 70s guppy was lucky to have a tank around our way never mind filters etc….and they were still breeding like rabbits. A bucket, a rock and some weeds from the pond was luxury. Monty Pythons “Four Yorkshire Guppies” sketch springs to mind.
A WC from a great height by putting their bucket on the kitchen floor and pouring every 48hrs to inject oxygen into the water was the generally acknowledged secret.
At the same time I bought the 1961 book, I bought one from 1973.
Watch this space! ;)
 
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Bruce Leyland-Jones

Bruce Leyland-Jones

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Ah, this takes me back. I had my first aquarium in the early 1960's, I was in my early teens then. No one told you about cycling, water conditions, etc, and you bought a "pair" of a species as that was best (so said the owner of the hardware store which was the only store other than Woolworth's that carried fish & supplies). Fish never lived long, so more were bought, until you gave up spending money like that (or the parents did).

Ironically we have sort of come full circle. After significant advancements made during the intervening years, the internet has now given us even more misinformation from people who pass themselves off as "experts" but actually know as little as the hardware store owner or the lady in Woolworth's. This is unfortunate.
My Mum never went with the two-by-two argument, preferring shoals and so we lived with a shoal of Neon Tetras and Harlequins for a while. A bunch of Angels went down to one, who lived a surprisingly long time and survived two power cuts. Throw in assorted Guppies, Platys and a Swordtail, (I kid you not), a bunch of seemingly hard-as -nails Khuli Loach and my own very special Upside-Down Catfish, that I used to sneak down to try and watch by night...and Gawd...I remember those nights being cold, in my jim-jams.
(I suspect the live-bearers kept the Angel fed).
 

Colin_T

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I had a book about keeping aquarium fish and was published back in the 1920s. It described how people kept fish bowls on copper stands and they had adjustable shelves on the stand underneath the bowl. You put candles on the shelves and adjusted the number of candles and the height of the shelf to raise or lower the water temperature in the bowl. They also had black & white drawing of various fish including angelfish, Betta splendens with long fins, paradise fish, some barbs, tetras and a few catfish.

The bowls often had live plants and candles were put around the bowl to help the plants grow. Some people used oil lamps near the bowls but lost fish due to an oily film that developed on the water surface.

--------------------
Jumping forward to the 1980s when I started working in the pet industry. I was told to clean the tanks and that entailed moving any fish and plants out, wiping the glass down with a sponge, squeezing the sponge filter out, stirring the gravel up and undoing a plug in the bottom of the tank. The water drained out through some pvc pipes. I then used a garden hose and flushed the gravel out. When it was clean I put the plug back in and filled the tank before adding a couple of tablespoons of "water conditioner", which turned out to be salt (sodium chloride) that was stained with Methylene Blue.

A day later we got in a shipment of fish and they were put into the tanks. We sold some but over the course of the next week we lost a lot of them.

This process of cleaning tanks, getting in fish and selling some before the rest die went on for a couple of weeks before I asked one of the other workers why we did it. I said aren't we killing the filter bacteria? He said yes. I said why do we do this then? He responded by saying the boss told us to. I said this is dumb and I was going to have a chat to the boss about it. My co-worker tagged along and we discussed the way we cleaned tanks with the boss and eventually were given the go ahead to treat 4 tanks separately from the rest of the shop tanks (about 100 tanks in total).

Instead of flushing these 4 tanks out and making them nice and clean, we did 50% water changes and left the filter to develop good bacteria. Basically we did fish in cycles in these tanks while the rest of the tanks continued to be flushed and made spotless.

The first few weeks there was no difference between the number of fish dying in any of the tanks. This was due to the small tanks (2 foot long x 16 inches wide x 12 inches high) getting 100 neon tetras, or 30 dwarf gouramis, or ridiculous numbers of fish in each week.

Eventually these tanks cycled and the fish stopped dying in them. We went from losing about 50-90% of the fish after one week, to losing less than 5% and in some cases we lost none.

The boss wasn't convinced but did allow us to expand the experiment to include 1 bank of tanks (about 20 tanks). We stopped flushing these tanks and let them cycle and the number of dead fish dropped to less than 5% over the course of a week. After that we were allowed to do the rest of the shop.

In the course of a few months, we reduced the number of fish lost from about 50-90% down to 5-10%. The 10% figures were usually from neons or guppies that came in with neon disease or Columnaris. When these sick fish came in, we usually lost the entire tank and that pushed the average death rate up.

--------------------
At the same time we were cycling the tanks, I had been looking and learning about the different items on the shelves. I found something called a gravel cleaner and asked the boss about it. There were 2 basic model gravel cleaners on the shelf and they were covered in dust. The boss said they were rubbish and someone had bought them in years ago. I asked how we used them and nobody knew. I looked at the diagram on the packaging and could barely make out anything due to the faded print.

Eventually my co-worker came into the shop and asked how the fish were doing and checked them over, they were fine. I showed him the gravel cleaner and asked if he know how to use it. He said yeah, sure, just do this.

We tried the gravel cleaner in the tanks we were cycling and it was magic. We could clean the gunk out of the gravel while the fish were in the tank. It was the best thing since sliced bread.

A couple of customers saw me using the gravel cleaner and asked what it was. I told them and showed them how to use it. They bought the remaining one on the shelf. A couple of more customers saw me using it over the next few days and we ordered some in for them to buy.

Over the next month we started ordering in gravel cleaners and they sold as soon as people saw us using them. There was literally nothing like it and you could leave a tank set up and clean the gravel while the fish stayed put. This made cleaning the tank so much easier because previously people would empty the tank each month, carry it outside and hose it out. Wash the gravel and set it all back up. When you have a big tank this was just awful to do. Even small tanks were a pain in the butt to clean like this, but that is how we did it back then.

Within 3 months of using gravel cleaners in the shop, we were selling hundreds every week. It got to a point where the boss was buying in a box of gravel cleaners every week. Each box was about 4ft square and contained 500 gravel cleaners. We usually sold out of them on the weekend. We simply had the box on a pallet and wheeled the entire box into the shop and customers were snapping them up like toilet paper at the start of the pandemic. It was crazy but made fish keeping so much easier.

While selling gravel cleaners we also started telling customers about the cycling process and people started keeping fish alive for a lot longer than before. That's when fish keeping in Western Australia (and Australia) changed and went from a hobby for the rich who didn't mind replacing fish, to a hobby for anyone and whose fish would live for many years.
 

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