How Did Goldfish become Our Pets?

Goldfish (Carassius auratus auratus) were first domesticated around 960–1279 A.D in China’s Song (Sung) dynasty, and are part of the Carp fish family (Cyprinidae). 

Many of us are introduced to the fish-keeping hobby due to the popularity of goldfish. I’m sure the vast majority of my readers started off with a goldfish. And why not? They are cute, and hardy and so can live in almost any water condition also each fish tends to develop a character of its own. Maybe this is why many people prefer it and also recommend it.

This led to me wonder when did we humans start to domesticate Goldfish? And from where do they originate? And so on.

There are so many blogs and videos on how we humans domesticated dogs, cats, pigs, cows, and so on. But very little on how we domesticated Goldfish. So I took the pain and read several scientific papers and studies, and this is basically what I understood from them in simple words. So, if you’re interested, keep reading!

Introduction to Goldfish Species Family

Goldfish ( scientifically known as Carassius auratus auratus) is a subspecies of the Carpe Fish (scientifically known as Cyprinidae). 

Carp fish are freshwater fish found throughout Asia and Europe. They are famous freshwater fish that are consumed as food on both continents. 

Carp fish is an umbrella term used for several subspecies, and early on there was raging debate whether the Goldfish had originated from the Chinese Crucian carp (Carassius auratus gibelio) or Japanese Capre fish.

Early History (China)

Jin Dynasty

Goldfish were first domesticated in China. During the Jin Dynasty (AD 265 to 420) in China, people started to take notice that Occasionally creation carp fish used to have red scales mixed in with their usual grayscale.

At this time, these carp fish were already being used as food in china. It is believed that these carp fish with ‘red spots’ used to stand out from the rest of the school of fish and so became an easy target for predators such as birds and larger fish. 

Tang Dynasty

It was during the reign of the Tang Dynasty (AD 618 to 907), that these naturally mutated Carp fish with red spots were captured and kept in ponds and other man-made water bodies for the ruling class. It was during this time that they start to receive breed these fish for specific physical traits known as ‘phenotypes’. 

Song/Sung Dynasty (970-1278 CE)

Under the Song (Sung) Dynasty, the fish started taking on a proper yellowish-gold color. It is this fish that most people agree to be the start of the goldfish. During this era, the Goldfish was synonymous with royalty and was known as the ‘Royal Fiah’. Hence it was forbidden for common people to keep Goldfish, and only Royalty was allowed to keep these yellow goldfish.

These fish were often used in ponds as ornamental fish in China and were selectively bred for probably several hundred generations before they were introduced to other cultures.

Thorough generations of inbreeding of these fish and not allowing them to mix with the Carp, effectively made an evolution by natural selection creating a subspecies now known as the Goldfish ( Carassius auratus auratus) but they still share a lot in common with the Chinese crucian carp.

Middle Age ( How it reached Japan & Europe, & America)

The Goldfish Arrives in Japan & Europe

The Goldfish was then brought to Japan in the late 1500s mostly due to trade between the two cultures. And then it spread to Europe mostly through the Province of Macao.

The earliest record of Goldfish in Europe is of a drawing by James Petiver in 1711 who was a Botanist from London, England. In Europe, they were mainly kept as ornamental pets in artificial ponds and fountains. 

During the Victorian era in England Goldfish became popular as it was believed that having Goldfish would restore health and be beneficial for the mind.

The book Aquaria published in 1898 by Charles Nash Page, says that a clear glass globe (basically a goldfish bowl) with ‘glittering goldfish’  was considered educational for children who could learn more from staring for a few hours at the goldfish than “many days spent with books.” 

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By the mid-1850s the goldfish had become such a popular phenomenon in England that there were streets full of sellers just to meet the growing demand for goldfish. These goldfish sellers came to be known as ‘goldfish hawkers’ as they were seen in large cities as well as in the countryside generally trying to sell their goldfish to well-to-do and wealthy neighborhoods.

However, this trade was seasonal; they mostly sold the goldfish during the summer and indulged in other trades during the winter. 

Goldfish hawkers in London usually brought their goldfish wholesale from breeders who generally bred them in Essex. They would keep these goldfish in 12-inch glass globes (bowls) and have about a dozen fish in them.

They used to do a water change twice a day with either rainwater or water from the river Themes. The fish was almost never fed in these bowls as the hawkers believed that there were Tiny insects in the water that the goldfish could it.

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There was a common belief in the era that goldfish did not need to be fed. This is why the Wellington Journal – 1859 published this article to create awareness among the public.

“Whenever you meet with folks who keep goldfishes in the old-fashioned glass globes, you will be sure to hear the melancholy complaint that they will die in spite of every care taken to preserve them.  The water is changed most regularly, the glass kept beautifully clean, the vessel shaded from the sunshine; yet, alas! alas! death is always busy amongst them.  Is it internal disease?  Is it external fungi?  No; the cause is starvation.  Every other pet is expected to eat, but these gold-carp are expected to subsist on—nothing!”

Wellington Journal – 1859

By the end of the 19th century, it was common to find advertisements of owners who should feed their Goldfish, and a diet of dried ant eggs was recommended which was easily commercially available at the time.

As there were usually kept in glass globes, they came to be known as ‘globe fish’.

The misconception of not feeding the goldfish would often be beneficial to the Goldfish-hawkers who could sell more goldfish. The goldfish would cost around two shillings for small goldfish and a glass globe could cost anywhere from two shillings to sixpence.

China – 19th Century 

During the 19th century, fishermen caught goldfish mutants that got released into the wild along with other fish. They would not eat them, Instead, they would release these goldfish into Buddhist ponds of Mercy.

The Buddhist monks would then take care of them by feeding them and keeping them protected from open waters where they would be easy prey due to their attractive colors.

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Such an act of kindness of releasing a goldfish into a ‘mercy pond’ is considered a good deed in Buddhism and a way of ‘self-purification’.  The level of purification and how good the deed was depended on how rare the fish was, so a goldfish was more valuable than a common carp this way.

Goldfish reaches the United States of America

The Goldfish was then introduced in the Americas in the 1850s which saw it gain popularity rather quickly. The earliest record of Goldfish in the United States was in the 1817 edition of the Webster’s Dictionary.

Between 1884 and 1894 the netizens of Baltimore and Washington, D.C. could write to the U.S. Commission of Fish and Fisheries (now known as the National Marine Fisheries Service) and they would ship you a goldfish. This was mainly done as a publicity stunt and nearly 20,000 goldfish were given away every year before the stunt ended.

“The Goldfish Capital of the World.” (Courtesy Ozark Fisheries)

By the beginning of the 20th century, there were several huge goldfish farms in the Midwest of the United States. These farms would produce  2 million goldfish a year. One such farm was the Grassyfork Fishery in the state of Indiana, the US which become a popular tourist spot.

Modern History (20th Century)

Weird History

In April 1939 at Harvard University, a freshman swallowed a whole goldfish as a dare. This gained popularity and came to be known as the ‘Goldfish-swallowing fad’ This fad died out due to the second world war, as there were more important things to do. 

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The Study of the Origin of the Goldfish by Scientists

Before 2009 there was a raging debate between different scientists about whether or not the goldfish was a descendant of the Chinese carp did Japanese carp fish. It was eventually settled by a well-documented experiment by Tomoyoshi Komiyamaa, Hiroyuki Kobayashia, Yoshio Tatenob, Hidetoshi Inokoa, Takashi Gojoboribc, Kazuho Ikeobc had put an end to this debate. In their paper ‘An evolutionary origin and selection process of Goldfish’, they debunked and proved that the Modern Goldfish and its variations are a subspecies of the Chinese Crucial Carp and have little to no relation relative to the Japanese Crucial Carp.

A simplified Tree of the Evolution of different types of Goldfish from the study- An evolutionary origin and selection process of goldfish -2009

They also stated the ‘unsystematic’ artificial selection by humans over the centuries brought about the different variations in the modern goldfish. They concluded that it was this artificial selection that could have caused confusion about the evolution and origin of the goldfish. 


The Goldfish today is the result of more than a thousand years of artificial selective breeding and domestication. These Goldfish are still considered the same specie as the Chinese Crucian carp “Gibelio” but as a subspecies within it. They were domesticated in China and Brought to Japan in the 1500s and Europe in the 1700s. The Goldfish was brought to the United States of America in the 19th century. 

To learn more about the different types of Goldfish, read my article – A Simple Overview On The Different Types Of Goldfish.

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