International Exposition of Paris 1867

Agriculture, Industry and Fine Arts

April 1, 1867 - November 3, 1867

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Aquariums at the Exhibition Expo Paris 1867

Let's stay in the water, if you don't mind. There are two aquariums in the reserved garden.

Why in the garden rather than in the Park? I believe that the organiser of these beautiful things did not draw up his plan without a touch of philosophy, and that his idea is this:
It is good, it is beautiful to cultivate the land, but the day is fast approaching when it will no longer be enough. All cultivation is a loan from the soil, and it is impossible for the most conscientious borrower to return to it the equivalent of what he has received. Man neither creates nor destroys anything, but transforms into movement, heat, electricity, thought, the bread, meat and wine which the earth has lent him, and none of it returns to the earth. We give back to her day by day a penny of liquid and solid fertiliser, had she lent us twenty francs. This very fertiliser is lost nine times out of ten: instead of using it to fertilise the fields, we infect the rivers with it, through the sewers. Natural and artificial watercourses incessantly carry to the sea the most substantial molecules of the earth. Every drop that flows into the great reservoir of the ocean depletes us of something. The sea gives us little, we give it much. It sends us only distilled water on the clouds' wings; we send back fat water, fattened at the expense of the earth.

The sea, which is twice as large as the mainland, has become over time an immense reservoir of fertiliser. It is rich in all that we lose: the time is approaching when we will feel the need to count on it. We know its inexhaustible fecundity; we can see through its darkest depths the infinite swarming of organisms that swarm in it; we know that it has the means to restore a hundredfold the elements of life that it owes us: we will cultivate it in turn, and we will find in its bosom the solution to a terrible problem.

For it would be pointless to delude ourselves any longer: cultivating the soil, for those who look at it from a slightly higher angle, represents a vicious circle. To cultivate is to exhaust. The English, who are now the world's leading cultivators, maintain the fertility of their soil only by stripping the continents and islands. The more cultivation increases the perfection of its means, the more it costs the earth. Deep ploughing gives us more, because it takes more from the old nurse. The penetrating pivot of the alfalfa is like a vegetable leech that seeks its life in the intimate sources that the roots of the wheat did not reach. The potato is a pig's snout that devours everything in sight; the beetroot does better, and worse, it is an elephant's trunk. Thus the most apparently happy innovations relieve the misery of three or four generations by accelerating the ruin of the land. And one morning one is surprised to see the vine sick, the potato sick, the mulberry sick! There are not so many sick people as you think, there is only one: the soil.

It is therefore a philosophical thought that has placed aquariums in the middle of the miracles of our culture: the remedy is next to the evil.

If we examine them in detail, the two constructions in question are very interesting, but the seawater aquarium leaves something to be desired. The stalactites that decorate it would be much better placed in the freshwater aquarium. The glass that covers it piles up so much heat inside that the fish will cook on the spot, I am afraid; if the event proves me wrong, so much the better! Apart from these two defects, one of which is crucial, the construction is beautiful and ingenious. Visitors will be able to study the fish from every angle: from above, below, in front and in profile. A crypt awaits the mystery-loving lobsters; a small glassed-in rotunda is intended to introduce Parisians to the keeping of oysters. The construction, directed by M. Guérard, engineer, is not yet completed, but it will not be long in coming. The sea water is in the Seine, in two mobile tanks. The maintenance of the aquarium is entrusted to a very competent man, M. de Daix.

In fresh water, the construction is completed, the water flows, some of the fish have moved in. There, the success is not doubtful: you have, from now on, a charming spectacle.

The builder, Mr. Bétencourt, is a fine type of inventor. I discovered him at the bottom of a scabby coat and an old sailor's overcoat: he was up to his elbows in work. Under this Danubian envelope, I saw two eyes shining with intelligence; in five minutes of conversation, I penetrated further, and I discovered a very capable chemist and geometer. Mr. Bétencourt has ideas of his own, a perfectly original system of construction, which proved itself first in Boulogne, and then (you will judge for yourself) in the reserved garden. He builds, in mixed Portland cement, vaults without keys, stronger than if they had one. If I seem incongruous, look over your head when you go to see the fish.

It is Mr. Gassies, a well-known naturalist and a first-rate conchyliologist, who has taken charge of populating these fresh waters. His installations are irreproachable and contribute to a most happy effect.

In the crystal tanks, hermetically sealed by a method peculiar to Mr. Bétencourt, you will be shown or will be shown all the fauna of the rivers of Europe. Not only our carp, our pike, our eels, our cyprins and all the common martyrs, but rarities such as the catfish and improbabilities such as the protoea, the fish from the Carinthian caves which is born without eyes because it does not need them. Alongside the crayfish we all know, you will see crabs, real crabs that have never lived in salt water. This variety abounds in the rice fields of Lombardy. Mr. Gassies has not forgotten either the freshwater turtles or those prodigious axolotls of Mexico, which give such a tablature to the professors of the Museum. I was shown, in the midst of the goldfish, a very curious animal which seems to be a cross between a carp and a tench. Why not? We did obtain in Huningue mixed species of trout and salmon. In any case, this problem posed by Mr. Carbonnier, the excellent fish farmer of the Quai de l'École, deserves a serious examination.

A stream runs through the middle of the freshwater aquarium: trout and salmon will be put in it and climb a ladder to the top of the building. Everyone has heard of salmon ladders, but I imagine that few Parisians have had the opportunity to see one.

One more word, before returning to dry land. One or more silver glass globes have been placed on the two aquariums. Are these grotesque mirrors in good taste? Should we admit them? I think not. But on the other hand I would like to see an earthenware or porcelain manufacturer make a terrestrial sphere to put in the gardens. Maps are unintelligible to most children: a sphere 0.5 metres in diameter would teach them more geography in two hours of recreation than the flat maps and books they are given.

©L'Exposition Universelle de 1867 Illustrée