Fishpond shaped like a fish at the base of the falling terraces at the 1760s William Paca house in Annapolis, Maryland.
Ponds in formal gardens have a long history. Gorgeous hieroglyphics in Egyptian tombs depict water gardening in a fascinating formal fashion. A rectangular formal pond complete with water lilies & fish, with marginal edges adorned with lush aquatic plants was painted by the Egyptians in a Kings Tomb, verifying pond construction & pond designs over 3500 years ago!
More than a thousand years ago the Romans transported water hundreds of miles underground within aqua ducts. Later, Aqua duct style pond designs were eventually emulated in pond construction techniques to create formal water gardens. Canals, fountains & formal water gardens were contrived concepts that were engendered from the necessity to move water from one point to another.
Throughout properties in England built hundreds of years ago, the visitor can see water run across the tops of the walls in an aqua duct style construction fashion. Wherever water was needed on a property, fountains were created to pour out of walls into formal & informal constructed water gardens.
Formal rectangular Reflection Ponds, with other embellishments, came from the Ancient Greeks who engineered all kinds of Romans Water Garden Sculptures like the spectacular Titan Fountain in Rome.
The small, ornamental fish pond appeared in England in the Middle Ages, recorded in the 1250 garden of Henry III. It was designed to be both productive and aesthetic and could be called called a mirror pond if it produced a reflection of the owner's dwelling. In early America, gentlemen often placed a fishpond in a garden or pleasure grounds near their dwelling. A fishpond was an artificial fresh water reservoir stocked with fish meant to be caught and eaten.
Fishponds did not appear in early American gardens just to supply food for the colonial table. Water was a vital element of formal, geometric, symmetrical 17th & 18th century English gardens.
The American colonial gentry hoped that their gardening efforts would reflect their understanding of an informed, civilized manner of elegant living, especially within the wilderness surrounding them. Fishponds appeared at the Governor's Palace in Williamsburg early. A note in the Virginia Council Journal stated, "The fine gardens Fish Ponds & Are not so much regarded as Formerly," and "the governor to call for what money he pleased out of their Treasury, to be spent about his House, Gardens, Fish ponds, &c." Governor Alexander Spotswood (1676-1740) stated "if the Assembly did not care to be at ye Expence of the Fish-Pond & Falling Gardens, to take them to myself; those improvements hapening to be upon the Town Land ."
One of England's earliest garden commentators simply could not stand for messy fishponds to be part of his garden plans. Francis Bacon, (1561-1626), English philosopher, statesman, scientist, lawyer, jurist, & author, wrote in his 1625 Essayes or Counsels, Civill and Morall in the essay entitled Of Gardens. His essay coincided with the new North American settlements along the Atlantic coast. Bacon wrote, "For Fountains, they are a great beauty and refreshment; but Pools mar all, and make the Garden unwholesome, and full of flies and frogs. Fountains I intend to be of two natures; the one that sprinkleth or spouteth water: the other a fair receipt of water, of some thirty or forty foot square, but without fish, or slime, or mud."
But, by the 1650s, fishing was a literate gentry sport, enjoyed by both men and women. Izaak Walton's (1593-1683) widely popular The Compleat Angler was first published in 1653, but Walton continued to add to it for a quarter of a century.
In 1731, in Mercer County, New Jersey, an ad in the Pennsylvania Gazette noted a communal fishpond intended to generate income for its owner, "To be Let, A Plantation Three Miles above Trenton...a share in a Fish-pond either at shares or Rent."
In 1733 Charleston, a house-for-sale ad in the South Carolina Gazette touted, "To be sold...a garden on each side of the House...a fish-pond well stored with pearch, roach, pike, eels, and cat-fish."
Fishpond at Thomas Jefferson's Monticello near Charlottesville, Virginia. Jefferson's small fishpond was just an ornamental holding reservoir. Jefferson's slaves would go fishing in the creeks nearby transplanting the fish they caught to the fishpond, so Jefferson, his family, & guests could enjoy fresh fish regularly.
A similar notice appeared in the June 5, 1736, Charleston's South Carolina Gazette, "To be Sold A Plantation containing 200 Acres...An artificial fish-pond, always supplied by fresh water springs, and well stored with several sorts of fish."
By 1740, Samuel Richardson was writing of the social aspects of the fishpond in his popular novel Pamela, "We then talked of the garden, how large and pleasant it was, and sat down on the tufted slope of a fish-pond, to see the fishes play upon the surface of the water."
Eliza Lucas Pinkney described the amazing fishponds at William Middleton's Crow-Field in 1743 South Carolina, "...a large fish pond with a mount rising out of the middle-- the top of which is level with the dwelling house and upon it is a roman temple. On each side of this are other large fish ponds properly disposed which form a fine prospect of water from the house."
Crim Dell at William and Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia
Near Philadelphia in the same year, Isaac Norris II of Fairhill noted, "...opening my woods into groves, enlarging my fishponds and beautifying my springs."
In 1745, Charleston's South Carolina Gazette noted, "To be sold at publick Vendue...six Acres of Land, with a Dwelling house, Kitchen, two Summer houses, a large Garden and a Fish Pond."
On Peter Kalm's travels through the colonies during November of 1748, he wrote, "Not only people of rank, but even others that had some possessions, commonly had fish ponds in the country near their houses. They always took care that fresh water might run into their ponds, which is very salutary for the fish; for that purpose the ponds were placed below a spring on a hill."
In South Carolina, lots for sale were promoted by their potential for adding a fishpond to the property. The January, 1751, South Carolina Gazette touted, To be Sold, a Lot in Ansonburgh...where with little trouble, there might be a very good fishpond.
Alexander Gordon wrote of the property he was trying to sell in July of 1748, in the Charleston South Carolina Gazette, "TO BE SOLD...a beautiful Pond, supplied with Fish at the End of the Garden." Richard Lake placed a similar ad in the same newspaper 6 months later, "To be sold...a very large garden...with a large fish-pond." Several months later, a similar advertisement appeared in the Charleston newspaper, "...a kitchen garden, at the end of which is a canal supplied with fresh springs of water, about 300 feet long, with fish."
In June of 1753, John Murray Esq of Murraywhaithe, Charleston, South Carolina, received this advise to a friend, "By all means mention the fine Improvements of your garden... You'll certainly dig a Fish pond & another for geese & Ducks & one Swan...William Murray."
In 1758, Thomas Hale in his Compleat Body of Husbandry, was recommending commercial fish ponds for farmers. His book was widely owned throughout the colonies. George Washington owned a copy and referred to it. Although his book is aimed at the farmer, he asserts, "We write here to the gentleman as well as to the farmer; and we may name the supply of the table as a great article. All that is saved in the expence is got: and the addition of good fish in plenty is a consideration of great value."
1803 Charles Fraser (1782-1860). Entrance to Ashley Hall near Charleston, South Carolina with fishpond.
Hale's favorite fresh water pond fish was the carp, especially because of its ability to allude poachers. "It will endure frost better than any; it is so shy, that it preserves itself from common enemies. No fish is more dissicult to be taken out by the common methods of stealing. They will not readily bite at the hook when grown to a size, in rich ponds ; and even the casting net rarely surprizes rhem. They plunge to the bottom upon the first notice of any disturbance in the water, and strike their heads into the mud/ The net draws over their tails, without laying hold of them."
By 1759, Laurence Stern was noting the calming effect of just sitting by a fishing pond in his popular novel Tristam Shandy, "When the misfortune...fell so heavily upon my father's head...he walked composedly out with it to the fish-pond. Had my father leaned his head upon his hand, and reasoned an hour which way to have gone,— reason, with all her force, could not have directed him to any thing like it: there is something, sir, in fish-ponds ;—but what it is, I leave to system-builders and fish-pond-diggers betwixt 'em to find out; —but there is something, under the first disorderly transport of the humours, so unaccountably becalming in an orderly and a sober walk towards one of them."
Even Edmund Burke (1729-1797) in discussing his distrust of certain negotiators wrote, "I would not take one of these as my arbitrator in a dispute for so much as a fish-pond— for if he reserved the mud to me, he would be sure to give the water that fed the pool, to my adversary."
Mr. James Reid 's large house only a mile from Charles-Town, was advertised for sale in the South Carolina Gazette on October 22, 1763. "Near to the house is a large garden, wherein is a fishpond , orange and other fruit trees."
The Governor's Palace from Governor Spotswood's Canal at Colonial Williamsburg.
In 1765, the Pennsylvania Gazette advertised property for sale "in Whiteland Township, Chester County...containing about 150 Acres of good Land...it being the long and well known Tavern called the White Horse, having a good Stone Stable, a Barn...a good Stone Brew house...two good bearing Orchards...good Garden and Fishpond."
Fishponds were not reserved only for the gardens of the gentry. In the fall of 1768, in Trenton, New Jersey, a woman in the business of curing & selling ocean fish but hoping to return to England, advertised that her business property also supported a fresh water fish pond. "The Subscriber, having for many years, made it her business to cure Sturgeon in North America...takes this method of acquainting the public, that she intends...to leave this part of the world, but is desirous and willing to instruct a sober industrious person or family in the whole art, secret and mystery of manufacturing sturgeon in the several branches, consisting of making isinglass, pickling, cavear, glue, and oil...apply to her at Mr. Elijah Bond's fishery near Trenton, where is every thing convenient for carrying on the business, and plenty of fish throughout the whole year furnished by Mr. Bond's fish pond. Margaret Broadfield."
A fishpond was mentioned in an 1769 memoir at Oswego, New York, "A summer house in a tree, a fish-pond, and a gravel-walk were finished before the end of May." In Annapolis, Maryland, during the 1770s, Charles Carroll of Carrollton, a signer of the Declaration of Independence, and his father were improving their property which ran to the rivers edge. There was no need for a fishpond there, but they did build octagonal summerhouses at each end of the 400' walkway along the river. Charles Carroll wrote that between the pavilions, ladies often fished along the walkway.
Fishing in the colonies was a social sport, and the outcome was as unpredictable then as it is nowadays. Mollie Ridout, Director of Horticulture for Historic Annapolis, sent me this poem the Maryland Gazette about preparing a list of items to take on a fishing trip on the Severn River in 1754.
Six bottle of wine, right old, good and clear;
a dozen at least, of English strong Beer:
Six quarts of good Rum, to make Punch and Grogg
(the latter a Drink that’s now much vogue)
some Cyder, if sweet, would not be amiss:
Of Butter Six pounds, we can’t do with less.
A tea Kettle, Tea, and all the Tea Geer,
To treat the Ladies and also small Beer.
Sugar, Lemons, a Strainer, likewise a Spoon;
Two China Bowls to drink out of at Noon:
A large piece of Cheese, a Table Cloth too,
A sauce-pan, two Dishes, and a Corkscrew:
Some Plates, Knives and Forks, Fish Kettle or pot,
And pipes and Tobacco must not be forgot:
A frying pan, Bacon or Lard for to Fry:
a tumbler and Glass to use when we’re dry
A hatchet, some Matches, a Steel and a Flint,
Some touch-wood, or Box with good tinder in’t.
some vinegar, Salt, some Parsley and Bread
or else Loaves of Pone to eat in it’s stead:
and for fear of bad Luck at catching of Fish
Suppose we should carry- A READY DRESSED DISH
Fishing was a fashionable pastime for the ladies, who did not dress down for the sport. Quite to the contrary, they dressed in their finest to spend an afternoon fishing and hoping to be noticed. One Englishman observed,
Silks of all colors must their aid impart,
And ev'ry fur promote the fisher's art.
So the gay lady, with expensive care,
Borrows the pride of the land, of sea, and air;
Furs, pearls, & plumes, the glittering thing displays
Dazels our eyes, and easy hearts betrays.
c. 1796 Charles Fraser (1782-1860) Detail of The Seat of Joseph Winthrop, Esq. on Goose Creek, South Carolina. Gibbes Museum of Art, Charleston, South Carolina.
Josiah Quincy, Jr. visited near Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, in the spring of 1773, "Dined with the celebrated Pennsylvania Farmer, John Dickenson Esqr, at his country seat about two and one-half miles from town...his gardens, green-house, bathing-house, grotto, study, fish pond."
In July of 1773, the Virginia Gazette contained an ad for a tract of land, "on James river, in Amherst county...containing about 600 acres of high and low grounds...including the dwellinghouse...a remarkable natural fishpond, and a fishery for white shads."
Colonel George Braxton in 1776-1781, Frederick County, Virginia, wrote, "I agreed wth Alexander Oliver Gardener...to finish my falling Garden wth a...neat Fish Pond."
Another view of Thomas Jefferson's fishpond in his garden.
Adam Smith in his 1776 Wealth of Nations referred to a fishpond in one of his most convincing passages, "When Vedius Pollio, in the presence of Augustus, ordered one of his slaves, who had committed a slight fault, to be cut into pieces, and thrown into his fish pond, in order to feed his fishes, the emperor commanded him, with indignation, to emancipate immediately, not only that slave, but all the others that belonged to him."
In South Carolina, John Champney’s purchased property from William Williamson’s estate in 1786. Williamson’s plantation, known as “The Garden”, was on the Stono River near Wallace’s Ferry. He died in November 1783, and his property was advertised for sale in the State Gazette of South Carolina (Charleston) for February 23, 1786. Twenty acres were set aside as a pleasure garden and seven or eight acres, including three canals of fishponds, were “laid out and improved in a taste no where excelled in this State…. The most curious Botanists may here be entertained…In short, nature and art are happily united: nature is improved but no where violated in this delightful spot. " (A plat was made by Joseph Purcell in 1786 and appears in John McCrudy Plat Book No. 4- p. 48 showing the layout of the garden.)
The image of the civilized fishpond springing from the wild swampland was used in a political essay in the 1787 Pennsylvania Gazette promoting federal sentiments in the new nation, "He leads the murmuring brook in pleasing mazes through the meadow, and sprinkles the borders with lillies of the valley; by lopping and brushing his woods he gets plenty of fuel, and makes them beautiful parks; he drains an ugly, unwholesome swamp, by forming an agreeable fishpond . He makes his little farm the seat of plenty, liberty, domestic bliss."
Jedidiah Morse admired 1789, Elizabethtown, New Jersey, writing, "Its fine situation...the arrangement and variety of forest-trees - the gardens - the artificial fish-ponds...discover a refined and judicious taste."
1800. Charles Fraser (1782-1860). Brabants on French Quarter Creek, The Seat of the Late Bishop Smith. South Carolina. The Carolina Art Association, Charleston, South Carolina.
In French Quarter Creek near Charleston, South Carolina, at the seat of the late Bishop Smith, Brabant, or Brabaks, was described as having a fine garden, shrubbery, and ornamental lake...long known as "the Bishops Fish Pond."
By 1793, John Aikin and his sister Anna Laetitia Aikin Barbauld in London were using a garden setting in their popular juvenile fiction, "There was a garden enclosed with high brick walls, and laid out somewhat in the old fashion. Under the walls were wide beds planted with flowers, garden stuff, and fruit trees. Next to them was a broad gravel walk running round the garden; and the middle was laid out in grass plots, and beds of flowers and shrubs, with a fishpond in the centre."
Thomas Wilson wrote in his Biography of the Principal American Military and Naval Heros that in December of 1799, George Washington was planning improvements for Mount Vernon. "A gentleman, who was present at Mount Vernon, has furnished the following particulars...A little before his death, he had begun several improvements on his farm. Attending to some of these, he probably caught his fatal disease. He had contemplation of a gravel walk on the banks of the Potomack; between the walk and the river there was to be a fish pond. Some trees were to be cut down, and others preserved. On Friday the day before he died, he spent some time by the side of the river marking the former. There came a fall of snow, which did not deter him from his pursuit, and he continued till his neck and hair were quite covered with snow."
In Baltimore's 1800 Federal Gazette, the country seat of Willow Brook was noted to have, "In the garden is...a fish pond well stocked with fish."
c. 1799 Charles Fraser (1782-1860) View of a South Carolina Plantation Barn with probable fishpond before it.
Eliza Clitherall described in 1801, The Hermitage plantation near Wilmington, North Carolina, "The Gardens were large, and laid out in the English style--a Creek wound thro' the largest, upon its banks grew native shrubbery...a fishpond, communicating with the Creek, both producing abundance of fish."
John Beale Bordley in 1803, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, described the possibilities of a fishpond,
1. Carp...will not thrive in a cold hungry water, but require a pond with a fat rich soil at bottom...
2. Tench...The pond should have a muddy bottom with weeds
3. Perch...like a clear and moderately deep water, with a pebbly, gravelly, or a sandy clay bottom...
4. Crucian...brought from Germany...
5. Gold and Silver Fish...possessing a finer flavor...calculated for the table...
6. Pike...pond...should be of good depth, with weeds growing in it...
7. Eels...never breed in perfect standing water...
8. Bream...Roach...Dace...Minnows...kept in ponds with Pike and Perch, as food for them...
Ruff or Pope, which is much like the Perch, but esteemed better eating: and the Gudgeon...equal in goodness to the delicate Smelt...delights in a gravelly bottom...
The sluices for emptying the ponds should have vent holes guarded with boxes, perforated so as water but not fish may pass...Small ponds of standing water should be cleansed once in seven or eight years, and left dry one summer--Large ponds every two or three years, in October, when the bottom may be ploughed and sown with Oats, and the water returned...no trees, except...willows, should grow near the pond, as the fallen leaves and rotten wood, are pernicious to the fish; as is water running from hemp, dunghills, stables, and wash houses.
Turtle in Colonial Williamsburg's Governor's Palace Pond
Also in the same year, the popular Domestic Encyclopaedia: Or, A Dictionary of Facts and Useful Knowledge from London, instructed, "FISH-PONDS, are those reservoirs made for the breeding and rearing of fish. They are considered to be no small improvement of watery and boggy, lands, many of which can be appropriated to no other purpose. In making a pond, its head should be at the lowest part of the ground, that the trench of the flood-gate, or sluice, having a good fall, may, when necessary, speedily discharge the water...Ponds should be drained every three or four years, and the fish sorted. In those which are kept for breeding fish, the smaller kind should be taken out, for storing other ponds; but a good stock of females, at least eight or nine years old, ought to remain, as they never breed before that age."
In 1808, Washington Irving wrote in his New York satire Salmagundi, "Another odd notion of the old gentleman, was to blow up a large bed of rocks, for the purpose of having a fish-pond, although the river ran at about one hundred yards distance from the house, and was well stored with fish ;—but there was nothing, he said, like having things to one's-self. So at it he went with all the ardour of a projector, who has just hit upon some splendid and useless whim-wham. As he proceeded, his views enlarged; he would have a summer-house built on the margin of the fishpond ; he would have it surrounded with elms and willows..." In a few years," he observed, " it would be a delightful piece of wood and water, where he might ramble on a summer's noon, smoke his pipe, and enjoy himself in his old days."
Fishing in 18th century North Carolina.
The Boston Repertory, March 24, 1809, promoted a fishpond lottery with a woodcut & a poem. While the lottery itself was a gamble, the poem implies that gentlemen wagered on their fishpond catches, as well.
In the fish pond of fortune men angle always,
Some angle for titles, some angle for praise,
Some angle for favor, some angle for wives,
And some angle for nought all the days of their lives:
(Chorus) Ye who'd angle for Wealth, and would Fortunes obtain, Get your hooks baited by Kidder, Gilbert & Dean.
Some angle for pleasure, some angle for pain,
Some angle for trifles, some angle for gain,
Some angle for glory, some angle for strife,
Some angle to make themselves happy for life:(Chorus)Ye who'd angle...
Some angle for wit, and some angle for fame,
Some angle for nonsense, and some e'en for shame,
Some angle for horses, some angle for hounds,
For angling's infinite, it never new bounds:
(Chorus)Ye who'd angle...
Persons at a distance may be assured, that the most punctual and strict attention will be given their orders for tickets, (post paid) enclosing cash or prize tickets, addressed to Gilbert & Dean, 79, State street, or W. & T. Kidder, 9, Market-square, and the earliest information sent them respecting the fate of their numbers.
Jefferson's Home Reflected in His Fishpond.
By the 19th century, some American home owners, famililar with the English movement toward more natural grounds, advocated the addition of artificial lakes instead of smaller fishponds. One of these was Rosalie Stier Calvert (1778–1821) of Riversdale in Prince Georg'e County, Maryland, just outside of Washington, D.C. In the winter of 1808, she wrote to her brother, "A lake just finished which looks like a large river before the house on the southern side gives a very beautiful effect, and furnishes us at the same time with fish and ice for our ice house." In the new republic, it was a virtue to counterbalance ornament with usefulness.
The ever-practical and commercially-minded English agriculturalist Richard Parkinson had spent three years in the United States farming and visiting the plantations of others, such as George Washington, at the turn of the century. When he returned to London, Parkinson, who was always sure that he knew best, wrote of fishponds in 1810. "Gentlemen often have fish-ponds made on hills, by way of ornament...if a gentleman put more value on his land looking well, and being profitable, than on a mere exhibition of water, he should pay regard to situation in forming his fish-ponds; as making a pond on a hill is like having a leaky cistern at the top of a house, which will infallibly rot or injure some part of the building: thus a fish-pond, if only one acre of water, will often damage, or perhaps half destroy, from ten to twenty acres of land, should care not be taken to cut drains where it first makes its appearance."
Ladies still fishing in 19th-century America & still dressed-up..