Perhaps due to its turbulent history, the significance of the first aquarium in Boston, the Boston Aquarial Gardens, has been overlooked. It can however lay claim to being the first public aquarium in the world that was exclusively dedicated to the exhibition of marine life — even though this period was short-lived.
In the early part of the 19th century, it was discovered that plants sealed in containers reabsorbed the oxygen they produced and could thus flourish in glass containers. It was also determined that aquatic plants could give off enough oxygen to the water for fishes to survive. Given a balance of aquatic scavengers such as snails to assure the filtering process, one could maintain a tank of fishes without any need to change the water. In addition, salt could be added to maintain the correct level of salinity. By the middle of the 19th century this process had been sufficiently refined to permit the appearance of the first great public aquariums.
What characterized the birth of modern aquariums was a newfound appreciation of the natural environment. With this interest in the aquatic world and the means to contain and display it, the first great public aquariums began to appear in Europe in the early 1850s, at Regents Park in London, at the Dublin Zoological Gardens and elsewhere. In these cases, the marine life exhibits were included as an added attraction within zoological or horticultural museums.
In 1855, the original American showman, Phineas T. Barnum, traveled to England to give a series of lectures despite the fact that he had just declared bankrupty. He had paid off a portion of his debts by selling the contents of his American Museum in New York to a man named Henry D. Butler and another investor. The new owners paid him a modest stipend to find new curiosities for the museum. Barnum quickly realized that the English aquatic exhibits could be a success in the United States.
Henry D. Butler was the author of “The Family Aquarium,” a popular book that gave instructions for creating a household fish tank. With Butler's help, Barnum bought back the contents of the American Museum in 1860. It is also likely that Henry Butler provided the capital for the Boston Boston Aquarial Gardens, which opened in early 1859 on Bromfield Street. He certainly contributed some of the technical knowledge he had acquired from the sea-life exhibits in the American Museum. However, the person more immediately responsible for the launching of the Boston Aquarial Gardens was James Ambrose Cutting.
James Cutting was born in Worcester, Massachusetts, in 1814. He came from Vermont to Boston where he tried his hand at making daguerreotypes. He is credited with the discovery of a process for making pictures on glass called ambrotypes, after his middle name. As early as 1854, Cutting had developed two small but functional fish tanks, which gave him the distinction of being one of the very first American aquarists.
The Aquarium that Cutting and Butler founded was the first recorded aquarium that was not part of something else. The Boston Aquarial Gardens were exclusively dedicated to the appreciation of marine life and the education of the public and in this lies their uniqueness. For the year and a half that the Boston Aquarial Gardens resided on Bromfield Street under the direction of Cutting, it maintained this focus.
The first advertisements for the grand aquariums at the Boston Aquarial Gardens appeared in the April 12th, 1859 edition of the Boston Post: "This magnificent display of one of the most fascinating phenomena of nature is now open for public exhibition. These Ocean Conservatories are filled with rare marine animals imported and collected exclusively for this Establishment. They present us with a perfect and striking illustration of life beneath the waters." A handbill dated July 4th, 1859 proclaimed: "The scene is at once wonderful and intensely beautiful. Hours of delight may be spent watching the habitats of the animals, seizing and devouring their prey and disporting as freely as if they were still enjoying their full freedom in the ocean or river. To the student of Natural History, the aquariums present rare facilities for studying the habitats of the dwellers beneath the waters…”
Admission to the Aquarial Gardens was twenty-five cents, fifteen cents for children under ten. A liberal discount was made to schools. Later ads announced the addition of a pair of "learned seals" captured in 1859 and a "den of serpents" featuring a family of boa constrictors.
Two lithographs of the interior of the main hall of the aquarium show forty tanks of twenty to thirty gallons arranged in a circle surrounding a larger octagonal tank containing a pair of sturgeons and a family of perch. Although the water in the tanks was never changed, a series of aerators, designed and patented by James Cutting, kept the water well oxygenated. Underwater scenery included arrangements of rocks, sand, and seaweed to create groves and beaches. At the far end of the hall there were microscopes where one might observe such intriguing articles as a drop of water, sour yeast, a fly's eye, a spider's foot, and a diamond beetle. In addition, musicians provided background music.
The specimens exhibited were not as exotic as those we see today. There were perch, crabs, starfish, sea anemones, snails, periwinkles, sunfish, carp, sea ravens, flounders, rays, jellyfish, clams, pickerel, sticklebacks, horned pout, bass and turtles. A "man-eating grey shark" was also advertised but only for a short while; it apparently did not survive long in the tank.
The addition of two seals, Ned and Fanny, was a great success. Captured when they were three months old, they were trained by James Cutting, and their repertoire included Ned playing a handsaw. An article written at the time describing the performance made much of the very special relationship between the seals and their trainer.
Louis Agassiz, the Swiss born founder of the Harvard Museum of Comparative Zoology, was a consultant for the Aquarial Gardens. His cooperation lasted throughout the succession of changes in the Gardens and he occasionally gave lectures there.
By the spring of 1860 the orientation of the Boston Aquarial Gardens had begun to change. Henry Butler had assumed the position of manager. The owners decided to move to more spacious quarters and to expand the scope to zoological exhibits as well. Butler's idea was to imitate the success of the American Museum by introducing a variety of constantly changing attractions.
Shortly before it left Bromfield Street, the Boston Aquarial Gardens copied the idea of a similar exhibit at the American Museum and acquired an opossum, a raccoon, a muskrat, a guinea pig, a crow, monkeys, cats, bats, an alligator and a kangaroo. There was also a collection of birds — a horned owl, a pelican, and a golden eagle.