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Issue: March 2007

Cast-Iron Beauty: An Antique J.W. Fiske Aquarium

Author: Joseph R. Pawlik

PAWL 0307
Photographer: Joseph R. Pawlik
The author details his finding, purchase, and restoration of an impressive antique cast-iron aquarium built more than 100 years ago.

Can you imagine an aquarium and stand that is more eye-catching than the tank’s inhabitants? Leave it to Victorians to come up with something so remarkable, and to make it out of a material that has lasted for over 100 years: cast-iron. And I thought my first aquarium—a 1967 Metaframe 10-gallon tank with a slate bottom—was an antique!

In fact, aquarium-keeping was all the rage a century ago. The last quarter of the Nineteenth Century was a period marked by intense interest in the natural world, with the well-to-do of Britain and America avidly collecting butterflies, seashells, exotic plants, and fish. Coincidentally, this was also the golden age of cast-iron, and enterprising iron works companies were soon producing ornate aquaria, which they offered in catalogs alongside fountains, urns, and garden furniture.

Among the best of the time was the J.W. Fiske Iron works of New York City. Fiske produced a line of aquariums that incorporated parts that were also used for fountains; the result was something like a birdbath with an octagonal aquarium built on top of the basin and with a fountain in the center. The panes of glass were fitted in groves cast into the basin and top frame, with asphaltum (tar-like roofing cement) used as sealant. This was 100 years before silicone, and with such an inadequate sealing material and over 15 linear feet of submerged joints, these tanks must have leaked constantly, and were likely more common in the garden than in the home.

Something I Had to Have

Until a few years ago, I had no idea these amazing aquaria existed, but an interest in antiques and the expanding universe of the Internet brought my ignorance to an end. I saw a picture of one listed at a live online auction in Pennsylvania, and I drove up to check it out. I had never seen anything like it—the casting of the three herons and plants on the base were remarkably detailed. The octagonal tank on top clearly needed work, but I was up to that task. What I wasn’t up to was the final sale price of over $10,000!

Nevertheless, I was hooked—I had to get one of these things at a more affordable price, and began searching the Internet on a regular basis. I discovered that Fiske aquariums were the rarest and most elaborate, but also the most expensive, with “retail” prices of the few I found ranging from three to five times the price at auction. There were other period octagonal aquaria produced by the J.L. Mott or W. Adams Iron Works Companies, but these were much simpler versions, and yet they also fetched $3000 to $8000 at auction.

Quite a Bargain

Finally, after two years of searching, I got my prize. A J.W. Fiske aquarium fountain was offered through the Internet catalog of a well-known auction house near Boston. The online photos showed a rusted base, with no glass panes and the remaining pieces—including the signature plate reading “JW FISKE 21&23 BARCLAY ST NY PATD JULY 16 1875”—heaped in the basin. Despite past experience, and an auction house estimate of $3000 to $5000, I registered for the auction, logged on from my home computer, and prepared to lose once again. But to my amazement, I was the only online bidder, and after only 13 bids, won the lot at a price below the low-end estimate! And what a score, because only nine months later, a smaller version of the same aquarium sold at an auction in Mt. Morris, New York for nearly $13,000 (the auction house estimate for that one was only $1500 to $2500).

A Lengthy Restoration Process

After a grueling 35-hour trip, my rusty treasure was safely in its new home, ready for restoration. This process took several weeks. The rust was not a problem; rust on cast iron is usually very thin and can be easily removed, and the iron surface smoothed with fine sandpaper. More difficult were the layers of old paint that obscured much of the detail of the casting. For this I used a solvent-based stripping agent, which required multiple applications and removals with a brass brush before I was down to bare iron. Some of the grooves in the pedestal had accumulated paint ½ inch thick. To the iron surfaces that would not be submerged, I applied a coat of spray primer, followed by a coat of low-gloss black spray paint. To the surfaces that would be submerged, I applied a coat of spray primer followed by a two-part black epoxy that was made for swimming pools.

Next, I loosely attached the vertical supports for the glass to the basin with bolts, and then carefully fitted eight panes of 3/8-inch-thick glass into the grooves of the basin and the upper frame after first filling the grooves with black silicone sealant. Once the panes were all installed, silicone was applied to each of the eight corners to seal the glass to the vertical supports.

The central column in the basin is a hollow, truncated cone of faux rockwork that I recently discovered was an alternative fountain design available from Fiske—it once supported a foot-tall cast-iron boy holding an umbrella. At some point since 1875, the boy and umbrella had been removed from the column and lost or sold. I took advantage of the hollow cavity in the column to house the pump and stainless-steel submersible heater, running the electrical cords to each up from the pedestal through holes in a glass plate sealed into the central bottom of the basin. To the top of the column, I attached a replica of one of the shallow dish-like fern stands that sit on each of the eight corners of the octagonal tank. Water from the pump inside the column was plumbed through a “T,” with a small trickle diverted to a hole in the dish at the top of the column, and the bulk of the flow plumbed out a hole in the side of the column into a length of flexible ball-socket tubing directed to generate a circular flow around the perimeter of the octagonal tank.

Setting Up

Using the old-fashioned concept of an undergravel filter, I filled the bottom of the basin with a 3-inch black gravel bed and covered it with shallow black trays filled with sand suited for aquatic plants. To illuminate the tank, I installed a single 50-watt flood halogen bulb in an unobtrusive conical fixture about 2 feet above the top of the central column. I collected some dead, waterlogged cypress knees from a local swamp for additional submerged structure. Then, after discovering that the tank holds about 45 gallons, I stocked it with a collection of planted and floating aquatic plants, followed by a (mostly) peaceful community of discus, angelfish, flame gouramis, tetras, danios, rainbow sharks, plecos, and snails.

A Rust Problem

Cast-iron is a reactive metal, and one problem I have had since setting up the tank 10 months ago is rust. The original epoxy coating on the submerged basin and column began developing blisters of rust within a few months of filling the tank. While this did not seem to harm the fish or plants, the ruptured blisters were unsightly. I emptied the tank, removed the epoxy coating on the basin and column, and replaced it with coatings of primer and black paint, followed by a thick coating of flowable silicone sealant. I thought this was the ultimate solution, until I recently noticed that even this surface was beginning to blister, although none had yet ruptured.

Concerned about continued problems with rust, I contacted Mr. J. Scott Howell, VP and General Manager of Robinson Iron, Alexander City, Alabama, one of the few iron works left in the United States to manufacture cast-iron fountains. He recommended a three-part coating system that I will try within the next year: a pre-primer of zinc-rich urethane, followed by a primer of epoxiline, then a final coat of acrylic polyurethane. While this system may work for freshwater setups, I would never recommend a saltwater system for one of these tanks.

An Advantageous Setup

There are many advantages of this octagonal tank design. The shallow depth and broad top invite viewing from above as much as from the side, so that floating aquatic plants are more apparent. The annular arrangement formed by the central column results in a “racetrack,” and water flow can be directed to follow this path, producing a stream to which fish and plants naturally orient themselves. With these advantages combined with the striking beauty of the aquarium itself, why are these so rare? In my correspondence with Mr. Howell, he indicated that Robinson Iron has the Fiske patterns required to reproduce these aquariums, and that they would be significantly less expensive than the antiques recently sold at auction.

Maybe it’s time for a cast-iron revival?

References

Brunner, B. 2005. The Ocean at Home: An Illustrated History of the Aquarium. Princeton Architectural Press, New York, NY.

Israel, B. 2000. “The Metalwork of J.W. Fiske and Company.” Magazine Antiques 157: pp. 474483.

J.W. Fiske Iron Works. 1874. Supplement. Illustrated catalogue of iron & zinc fountains, aquariums, manufactured by J.W. Fiske. Tower, Gildersleeve and Company, New York, NY.

J.W. Fiske Iron Works. 1931. Aquaria. J.W. Fiske Iron Works, 78 and 80 Park Place, New York, NY.

 

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