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1876 Fiske #8 Restoration

12274 Views 91 Replies 24 Participants Last post by  hydrophyte
I bought this ~38 gal. Fiske with "Durant's Patent Dec 76" stamped into the top frame of this Victorian cast iron aquarium in April of 2016 from a Chicago antique dealer. I really like the looks with its roman column corners and over-the-top designs of the bottom and top frames. I also liked the size of the tank, larger than any antique aquarium I had ever restored. I planned on using this as my main tank after restoration. The tank could be ordered with elaborate cast iron stands which I didn't want since there's no place to hide the equipment. Gary Bagnall was kind enough to provide me with photocopies of a Fiske catalog illustrating my tank. This is also where I discovered that Fiske referred to my particular tank as their #8. I have also been told that these tanks are referred to as "Roman Column Tanks" among the few who collect antique aquariums.
First of all, this thing weighs a ton. It takes at least two people to move it. When I acquired this it had already been restored but the restoration was not done properly. The glass had been replaced and a poor job using clear silicone was used to seal it. The corners had thin mirrors set into them with some sort of gray sealant that didn't work. At least one corner had had a leak that caused the tank to corrode. It had been painted gold as well. The iron bottom had glass covering it and the remains of the original plumbing system for a center fountain and corner overflow were still in place but the fountain did not come with the tank and was probably long gone.
I started out by removing all the glass and dismantling the frame. I found the bottom iron plate had not been removed in the restoration as the original gray colored putty was still in place when I removed it and there was no gold paint in the areas that were inaccessible. I also found the original color of the tank in a couple places on the underside of the top frame. It was a green color. Fiske used either black (nearly all of them in this model) and occasionally this green color.
I then had all the gold paint and corrosion blasted off. There was a good bit of corrosion on the top frame and corner threaded rods.
I then had it bronzed before reassembling it. This was the most difficult and frustrating part of the restoration as the frame was too large for my local bronzing company so I had to take it to a plater that specialized in chrome plating car parts to have the initial copper plating done.
This turned out to be much more expensive than anticipated. After waiting several months the vintage car plating company finished the job. I then took it to my bronzing company for the final treatment.
I was very pleased with the results. I then reassembled the tank and had my glazier place Starfire glass in it and seal it with black silicone.
I'm attaching photos showing what the tank looked like when I bought it, what it looked like disassembled, some of the original paint, and what it looked like after being blasted.

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· Aquatilium Plantarum
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More Photos

Here's a photo of the top edge showing the patent date, a couple more photos showing it down to the gray cast iron, another photo showing the original paint on the underside of the top frame, part of a Fiske advertisement showing that they offered their tanks bronzed, a photo of another restored Fiske tank that was bronzed, a couple of Fiske tanks with their fountains which are probably similar to what mine originally had, and finally the Fiske catalog with my tank on the cover and the page showing the model number.
 

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· Aquatilium Plantarum
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Photos of more Fiske tanks

I also had a Fiske #6 that I didn't restore and sold a couple of months ago. I've included a few photos of it to give an idea of the size difference. Also photos of a Fiske in Hemingway's house in Key West, Fl., photos of other Fiskes that were sold or are for sale to give some idea of the rarity of these tanks and to show the different stands that could be ordered with the tanks. The last few screen shots show a Fiske #8 on the same elaborate stand illustrated on the front cover of the Fiske catalog and of the same color that mine originally was. The original asking price was $20K and I was told it eventually sold for $14K.
 

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I love those old aquariums! Thanks for sharing this, and be sure to post the follow-up on getting it going. I see these antique aquariums in online auctions, but they're out of my price range. I keep hoping to find one at a flea market or yard sale that's in rough shape but repairable, and priced accordingly, but I think the odds of that are slim. But, hey! I can enjoy seeing you get yours restored to its original glory and operating again!

Great find, and thanks again for sharing!

Olskule
 

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Man what a find! I too can’t wait to see the finished project! The original fountain was gorgeous. Will you be trying to recreate it?


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· Aquatilium Plantarum
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I love those old aquariums! Thanks for sharing this, and be sure to post the follow-up on getting it going. I see these antique aquariums in online auctions, but they're out of my price range. I keep hoping to find one at a flea market or yard sale that's in rough shape but repairable, and priced accordingly, but I think the odds of that are slim. But, hey! I can enjoy seeing you get yours restored to its original glory and operating again!

Great find, and thanks again for sharing!

Olskule
Thanks, and I too have looked for antique aquariums/terrariums in flea markets etc. but I've never found a single one other than what I've come across online. This one was bought online. They are just so rare because not very many were made in the first place due to them being out of range of everybody but the wealthy. Then you factor in two world wars which called on the public to turn in old metal objects to be melted down for the war effort and it's no wonder they're rarer than Tiffany lamps. Oftentimes they're out of my price range as well. This is the most expensive tank I've ever bought but it was much more reasonable than the two I showed screen shots of due to the fact it didn't come with an original stand. But as I said earlier I didn't need a stand because I planned on using the tank rather than just displaying it and being able to see modern equipment ruins the look for me.
 

· Aquatilium Plantarum
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Man what a find! I too can’t wait to see the finished project! The original fountain was gorgeous. Will you be trying to recreate it?


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Thank you, I'll be posting more photos later today. I think the chance of me finding one of those fountains is less than me finding the tank. The two screen shots of the Fiske tanks with fountains weren't for sale or were already sold as far as I know and I had done a pretty thorough internet search and only came up with those two images. I thought about connecting the original plumbing to modern equipment thereby hiding all the filtration/heating but the fittings were rusted solid. We attempted to unscrew the threaded pipe connection and threaded plug from the cast iron blocks on the tank's underside but they wouldn't budge. The only thing I was able to remove was the cap on the corner overflow. Then there's the problem of the plumbing going through glass and then cast iron, as glass is necessary to protect the bottom from rusting out. I tried using clear marine epoxy on a previous 19th. century aquarium that I had but eventually it began to fail in a couple places after a couple of years. Glass is the best option on these metal tanks if they have a flat bottom. The one I used the epoxy on did not which is the only reason I didn't use glass. So if I got any kind of leakage around where the fittings went through the tank bottom I would get corrosion and one of my goals was to preserve this tank.
 

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But I’m curious if you could recreate the fountain with modern materials. Maybe a 3D printer or something to that effect, and not plumb it through the bottom.
It wouldn’t be “original” but it might work. If not, it is still a gorgeous tank. I’ve not seen anything like it, and the fountain is such a special piece.


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But I’m curious if you could recreate the fountain with modern materials. Maybe a 3D printer or something to that effect, and not plumb it through the bottom.
It wouldn’t be “original” but it might work. If not, it is still a gorgeous tank. I’ve not seen anything like it, and the fountain is such a special piece.


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Thanks again for your kind words and the fountain would have been a plus. As you can see from the images I attached of Fiske models #6 and #8 as well as the Fiske catalog, it was most likely sold without a fountain in most cases. Also you can see in the two photos of the bottom of the #6 that I used to own that it was never plumbed for anything. I've never actually seen an image of a fountain in one of these roman column tanks but nevertheless my tank was plumbed for one when it left the factory so I looked for similar tanks by Fiske with fountains. I don't know what the model numbers are of the two rusted examples with fountains that I included screen shots of.
 

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I looked again at the Fiske #8 on stand in green and I can see the same pair of holes for a fountain in its bottom plate as mine. I also looked at the Fiske #8 on a different stand in black that is currently for sale and it doesn't have the holes in its bottom plate for a fountain. I've attached their images:
 

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The closest I can come to this, right now, is my planned 10 gallon stainless steel framed tank that was my mother's. I have all her 1960's era equipment to set it up with, including a pre-Metaframe Dyna-flo external filter (syphon fed, pumped back to the aquarium), a Silent Giant air pump (two, actually), the stainless steel light and hood combo (now using screw-in, angle adjustable LED "bulbs"), a vacuum-molded, colorfully printed 3D background with a diver and reef, confetti-like gravel, along with various air operated "decorations" (sic) such as a volcano, waterfall, "broken" sailing ship and a bubbling clam complete with a real, genuine faux Pearl inside! Gaudy as all get-out, yeah, but what can I say? That's pretty much what the trend was in the mid-sixties, with some exceptions, I'm sure. But, if I'm not mistaken, the trend for aquariums of the era yours is from was more toward a natural look, a "slice of nature" in your home, much as most of us on this forum prefer today, and much more beautiful. My "restoration" will be much less serious, more "childlike" and strictly for the fun of it. I'm sure my two year old granddaughter will like it, anyway. It's more of a nostalgia thing, kind of a "tribute" to my mother's more fun side and one of the few things we had in common (which needs more focus, since she had the maternal instincts of a guppy!)

Keep us posted!

Olskule
 

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Wonderful job so far, I'm loving the details and pics!!

On a side note, there is a 10 page article in the March/April 2018 issue of Amazonas on antique aquariums and decorations that is nicely done and a blurb on the author's plans to create a website dedicated to these items sometime late this year.
 

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Discussion Starter · #14 · (Edited)
The closest I can come to this, right now, is my planned 10 gallon stainless steel framed tank that was my mother's. I have all her 1960's era equipment to set it up with, including a pre-Metaframe Dyna-flo external filter (syphon fed, pumped back to the aquarium), a Silent Giant air pump (two, actually), the stainless steel light and hood combo (now using screw-in, angle adjustable LED "bulbs"), a vacuum-molded, colorfully printed 3D background with a diver and reef, confetti-like gravel, along with various air operated "decorations" (sic) such as a volcano, waterfall, "broken" sailing ship and a bubbling clam complete with a real, genuine faux Pearl inside! Gaudy as all get-out, yeah, but what can I say? That's pretty much what the trend was in the mid-sixties, with some exceptions, I'm sure. But, if I'm not mistaken, the trend for aquariums of the era yours is from was more toward a natural look, a "slice of nature" in your home, much as most of us on this forum prefer today, and much more beautiful. My "restoration" will be much less serious, more "childlike" and strictly for the fun of it. I'm sure my two year old granddaughter will like it, anyway. It's more of a nostalgia thing, kind of a "tribute" to my mother's more fun side and one of the few things we had in common (which needs more focus, since she had the maternal instincts of a guppy!)

Keep us posted!

Olskule
Neat! It will be a nice tribute to your mother. Do you know if it still holds water? Does it have a slate bottom? You may have already seen this on other posts but if it does leak you'll want to put glass on top of a slate bottom as part of your restoration since silicone doesn't adhere to slate very well. The first tank I used when I was very young was a "splatter paint" tank from the 1940's that was ~5gal. Around 1970 I got a "Living World" stainless steel framed 10gal. tank that was part of a kit for Christmas. It had the SS hood with incandescent light bulb, a corner filter with air pump, and an unusual brown plastic insert for the bottom that was meant to resemble a rocky substrate. I think there were plastic plants that fit into this plastic insert as well.
 

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Wonderful job so far, I'm loving the details and pics!!

On a side note, there is a 10 page article in the March/April 2018 issue of Amazonas on antique aquariums and decorations that is nicely done and a blurb on the author's plans to create a website dedicated to these items sometime late this year.
Thanks! I need to get this issue and the previous one of Amazonas. Gary Bagnall, the subject of this issue and the previous one, told me he was going to be featured in the Jan./Feb. issue about his company's (ZooMed) history and this one.
 

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Neat! It will be a nice tribute to your mother. Do you know if it still holds water? Does it have a slate bottom? You may have already seen this on other posts but if it does leak you'll want to put glass on top of a slate bottom as part of your restoration since silicone doesn't adhere to slate very well. The first tank I used when I was very young was a "splatter paint" tank from the 1940's that was ~5gal. Around 1970 I got a "Living World" stainless steel framed 10gal. tank that was part of a kit for Christmas. It had the SS hood with incandescent light bulb, a corner filter with air pump, and an unusual brown plastic bottom that was meant to resemble a rocky bottom. I think there were plastic plants that fit into this plastic bottom as well.
Yes, it's got the slate bottom, and I wasn't aware of the slate/silicone issue, so thanks for that information. I used to have several stainless steel framed tanks, mostly small ones, a 4' long 10 gallon and a ~25 gallon, but I lost many of those and several other modern tanks (including some I'd made) when my house was burned. I still have the ~25, the 10 and the frame and slate from the 4' 10 gallon, which I hope to rebuild one day.

I remember the "Living World" brand of aquarium products, and I think I even have some in my mom's stuff, but that plastic bottomed tank sounds interesting; I've never known of anything like that. I wanted an aquarium when I was just into my teens, so my mother set me up with one of her smaller tanks (5 gallon, maybe?) complete with an internal box filter (I hated that thing!). Why she didn't let me use one of the syphon fed, air operated HOB filters she had, I don't know. Those were in the same chest as the box filter, and she never used any of that stuff again, anyway, but she made me use that crappy box filter. Those things were such a wet, messy pain to clean! I guess I was lucky she let me use any of it, because when I was out of college and wanted to use some of her old aquariums and equipment, she wouldn't let go of any of it, so it all just sat and collected dust in the storage building for thirty more years.

I do find it very interesting to see what all they did and didn't have to work with back then. Some things they thought were great new technological breakthroughs (undergravel filters) we now look at as archaic, but they did solve certain problems they had at the time. Some things (like the Dynaflo power filter) were the beginnings of our more improved modern versions, but others (the "Silent Giant" air pumps) were even better than anything available today. Either way, it's fascinating to see how much has changed and how much is still the same. I believe that heating an aquarium at the time yours was made involved candles or other open flame placed beneath the tank!

Lots of things have changed since your aquarium was made, but one thing is sure, and that is that they definitely put in the effort to make them gorgeous back then. They were things of beauty even before anything was put inside them!

Olskule
 

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Discussion Starter · #18 · (Edited)
Bronzed

Here's what the frame looked like after I got it back from the bronzer. I used slotted brass screws (since phillips weren't invented when this tank was made), washers, and nuts to reassemble the tank. The last photos show the tank at the glazier's getting ready for starfire glass. The corners and bottom presented a problem. In the corners the threaded rods that hold the top, sides, and bottom together were in the way of the glass. I had the glazier put thin strips of glass in front of the rods at a 45 degree angle so that there would be glass to glass for the black silicone. Also, the bottom had to be built up using a couple different thicknesses of glass, otherwise a metal lip on the bottom frame was in the way to again having glass to glass contact. This tank turned out to be the most difficult tank to reglaze of any that I've ever restored.
Sorry for the last three photos, they're correct when I upload them, if there's anyway to rotate them in editing please let me know.
 

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Yes, it's got the slate bottom, and I wasn't aware of the slate/silicone issue, so thanks for that information. I used to have several stainless steel framed tanks, mostly small ones, a 4' long 10 gallon and a ~25 gallon, but I lost many of those and several other modern tanks (including some I'd made) when my house was burned. I still have the ~25, the 10 and the frame and slate from the 4' 10 gallon, which I hope to rebuild one day.

I remember the "Living World" brand of aquarium products, and I think I even have some in my mom's stuff, but that plastic bottomed tank sounds interesting; I've never known of anything like that. I wanted an aquarium when I was just into my teens, so my mother set me up with one of her smaller tanks (5 gallon, maybe?) complete with an internal box filter (I hated that thing!). Why she didn't let me use one of the syphon fed, air operated HOB filters she had, I don't know. Those were in the same chest as the box filter, and she never used any of that stuff again, anyway, but she made me use that crappy box filter. Those things were such a wet, messy pain to clean! I guess I was lucky she let me use any of it, because when I was out of college and wanted to use some of her old aquariums and equipment, she wouldn't let go of any of it, so it all just sat and collected dust in the storage building for thirty more years.

I do find it very interesting to see what all they did and didn't have to work with back then. Some things they thought were great new technological breakthroughs (undergravel filters) we now look at as archaic, but they did solve certain problems they had at the time. Some things (like the Dynaflo power filter) were the beginnings of our more improved modern versions, but others (the "Silent Giant" air pumps) were even better than anything available today. Either way, it's fascinating to see how much has changed and how much is still the same. I believe that heating an aquarium at the time yours was made involved candles or other open flame placed beneath the tank!

Lots of things have changed since your aquarium was made, but one thing is sure, and that is that they definitely put in the effort to make them gorgeous back then. They were things of beauty even before anything was put inside them!

Olskule
I've got a 1937 Jewel catalog that shows the heater and filter they sold (only one of each!). It was an outside filter and looked like a tall, narrow metaframe tank with layers of filter materials in it with plumbing entering and exiting through the open top. It was made by some other company and sold in the Jewel catalog. I'll have to see if I can find the catalog to see who the manufacturer was. I'm pretty sure I saw one of these filters (just the tank) on Ebay within the last couple of years. I didn't know what it was at the time but I remember how surprised I was at how much it went for, probably because someone knew what it was and its rarity. I've not seen another since.
I agree with you on the beauty of these antique aquariums, they're attractive in their own right.
 
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