Before goldfish became a popular dime-store pet in America, they were considered the mark of Chinese royalty. Those little orange fish that you can buy in many stores for about 12 for a dollar used to be considered a royal pet.
The Emperor’s Pets
Gold color differences were first noticed in crucian carp during China’s Chun Dynasty (265-419 A.D.). The carp, a small, predominantly dark fish, sometimes had yellow on its fins and the central part of its body. The carp is naturally olive drab and the golden colorations was originally a natural mutation.
By 900 A.D., the Chinese were breeding the carp to encourage the gold color. The gold carp were bred in ponds and then displayed in containers on special occasions to display for guests, according to goldfish farmer Ernest Tresselt in an interview with the author.
“In China at that time, anything that was yellow in color was considered valuable by the nobility, because gold is yellow. So the nobles kept all these yellow fish themselves, showing them off in decorative pools and elaborate containers,” wrote Ernest Tresselt in his memoirs called, Autobiography of a Goldfish Farmer (Emmitsburg: Chronicle Press, 2005, pg. 84). Tresselt was raised on a goldfish farm, Hunting Creek Fisheries in Thurmont, Maryland. He also ran it after his father retired in 1962. Read more about Frederick County Goldfish Farms here.
Other colors gradually appeared. In 1162 A.D. the Chinese Emperor banned anyone outside of the royal family from keeping the yellow carp because yellow was considered the color of royalty. Orange carp could still be cultivated by commoners, though.
Oriental Goldfish Breeding
Once new colors began to appear, then the Chinese began breeding them for different body shapes, such as larger tails or eyes. The fancy tailed goldfish is believed to have originated during the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644 A.D.).
Tresselt said selective breeding also led to different varieties with unusual shapes like the bubble-eye goldfish whose eyes are nearly as big as its body and bulge out to the sides of its head. A variety called the “telescope” has huge eyeballs. Others have fancy tails.
At the beginning of the 16th Century, the Japanese began cultivating goldfish and creating their own variations. They developed many new types and colors to include yellow-gold, red-gold, red, white and black. Tosakin and Ryukin are two examples of Japanese goldfish.
Scientists estimate that there may be 300 different varieties of goldfish today.
“I have never actually seen that many, but I have seen a lot of strange and unusual ones, generally from the Orient,” Tresselt wrote.
European Goldfish Breeding
By 1611, goldfish had made their way to Portugal along with shipments of edible carp. From there, the goldfish spread to all of Europe. The Dutch were the first reported Europeans to breed them in 1728.
With the opening of the world’s first public aquarium in London in 1853, interest in fish grew. People started keeping different species in their home ponds and bowls to varying degrees of success. Goldfish were easy to keep and breed and proved popular and affordable.