The Book of the Aquarium/Part 3/Chapter 1

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Distinctions between the Cabinet and the Aquarium.—The Aquarium has not only spread abroad a love for Natural History, it has also increased the facilities for the study of nature by removing the difficulties which have hitherto attended the presentation, for any length of time, of living specimens of aquatic life. The tank had scarcely taken its place among the resources for pleasureable recreation, and scientific study, when the field of culture extended itself, and every variety of minute life found in the waters, came to have its share of attention for the general profit and delight of the studious. The ordinary tank was found insufficient for the wants of the aquarian, and wherever a large vessel was to be seen stocked with fresh water fishes or marine objects, a collection of small jars, phials, or show glasses, was pretty sure to be found also. In an aquarium, we may group together many dissimilar objects; but it must be evident to the most superficial observer, that when immersed in a large body of water with other creatures, many objects are ill-placed for examination, especially if we use the microscope. Hence, where the study is pursued with any degree of ardour, some special arrangements are necessary to enable us to keep in a healthy state, and in a way that admits of close scrutiny at any moment, such of the smaller aquatic objects as most commend themselves for beauty or scientific interest. Many beginners, unable to resist the temptation of a jar of beetles, or a collection of larva, and having no other means of keeping them, have placed them in the tank to mingle with the stock of finny creatures, and have thereby either lost the better part of the collection or have been compelled to break up the stock and begin anew. I have already suggested that a few species of water beetles, and aquatic larva, may be safely preserved in an aquarium; but an aquarium is by no means the best place for them, if we wish to study their habits closely, or investigate their mechanism and economy by the aid of lenses: all insects, many mollusks, larva, and other small objects should be kept apart, and a collection of such objects is what we mean by a Water Cabinet.

To the genuine student, there is really more for remunerative study in such a collection than can be found in the Aquarium, though the tank, whether river or marine, will always prove most attractive as an ornament, and because it requires less care and study, will be pretty sure to retain the greatest number of admirers. But the Aquarium and the Cabinet are distinct things; they cannot be combined in the same vessel, and, though a Water Cabinet is but another form, or rather a series of separate and smaller aquaria, the uses and economies of each are in a great measure distinct. It is possible to cultivate either without the other, though we should generally expect to find them in company, the Cabinet being a growth or extension of the Aquarium.

Construction of a Cabinet.—Ingenuity, under the control of circumstances, will devise many modes of preserving the smaller specimens of aquatic life, and I shall here describe a plan which I think will be found most generally useful, particularly as it may have a very simple form, and be produced for a very trifling outlay; or may be elaborated into a noble piece of furniture for the adornment of an elegantly furnished room.

The frontispiece represents a series of shelves fitted into a carved frame-work, the lower portion of which forms a table with drawers. My own cabinet, which is a simple affair of stained deal, is made after the model of the one here represented, but without ornament of any kind; and if I describe its measurements, it may serve as a guide to any who may desire to have one constructed of a similar pattern, though, as a matter of course, the plan admits of endless modifications to suit the means of the student, or the position in which such a cabinet is to be placed.

The table measures nineteen inches from back to front across the centre drawer; and from back to front across the two side drawers, twelve inches. On this is placed a row of seven-inch cylindrical glasses of clear flint glass, and in the centre, behind the jars, stands a twelve-inch bell glass aquarium, to be stocked with choice fishes or superfluous cabinet specimens. The first shelf has a breadth of eight inches to receive a row of six inch glasses; the second shelf a breadth of five inches, and the jars upon it measure four inches in diameter. The top shelf is only three-and-a-half inches wide, and the glasses on it measure three inches across the top, and, two-and-a-half at the base; the jars of this size, in my own collection, are of a tapering form, half an inch narrower at the bottom than at the top, though I am not aware whether such is the usual form of the small vessels. The entire framework has a breadth of about thirty-two inches, and a height, from the floor of the room to the level of the top shelf, of about sixty-six inches.

The breadth and height of the window, in which the cabinet is to be placed, must have the first consideration, with any one who may intend to construct such a piece of furniture; the respective sizes of the vessels must be an after consideration, because, unless the whole be so adapted, as that it shall enjoy a full share of uninterrupted daylight, very little progress can be effected, especially if the growth of the more delicate forms of aquatic vegetation be attempted.

In the absence of a properly constructed set of shelves, a few plain ones may be fitted up in a window. A single strip of deal, on brackets, would afford room for a dozen jars, and in these by judicious grouping, specimens of from fifty to a hundred kinds could be kept, whether for observation by the naked eye, or the microscope.

Glasses.—In common with many aquarians I used phials and confectioners’ show-glasses for a considerable length of time; but to preserve the uniformity of the collection, I should recommend cylindrical glasses of flint glass of the form represented in the engraving. Chancing to unearth a number of such glasses, at the warehouse of the Messrs. Phillips, of Bishopsgate Street, I have since abolished the olla podrida of acid bottles and phials, with which I had previously been content, and now use no other kinds, and I think their strength and clearness of colour must commend them to the student, as the best that can be had for the purpose. The cost of them is a shilling a pound, though common show-glasses may be had at ninepence a pound. If there is much dust in the room where the cabinet stands, a strip of green gauze might be stretched on light cane frames over each row of glasses.

The jars are intended for the reception of separate or grouped species, and the bell glass may be an ordinary aquarium or a receptacle for the omnium gatherum of general collecting. My jars are now (July, 1856,) stocked with minute aquatic plants, beetles of several species, diving spiders, water worms, and mites, larva of beetles and flies, tadpoles in progress of transformation, mollusks of choice kinds, and spawn of all kinds, removed from the tanks. The bell glass contains a miscellaneous assemblage of duplicates of all kinds, such as water weeds for renewal of tanks, tadpoles, leeches, whirlwigs, mollusks, crustacea, and infusoria for the microscope. Species that do not agree, may be introduced to the bell glass for the sake of teaching us the nature and incidents of the strife maintained in the great world out of doors; the battle may there have its way, and we may study destruction with as much profit as we may the momentary creation by which the system of nature is maintained in its completeness. In fact, the bell glass is a reservoir into which we may dip for almost anything we want to fill up vacancies in the jars, and in the proper tanks, and to which we may consign the superfluities of a day’s collecting; having first assorted, and set apart such as are wanted for separate observation and study.