A flea circus is a miniature circus where “performers” are fleas. It is usually a circus sideshow attraction, and fleas typically perform on a small model of a circus.
The first recorded performance of fleas was in 1578 when Mark Scaliot, a watchmaker, made a tiny golden chain along with a tiny lock. The lock and chain were so small and light that a flea could pull them. Another record says that in 1742 Mr. Boverick, a watchmaker of the Strand, made a small coach made of gold with all the details and in the harnessed fleas that pulled the coach. The idea of these handicrafts was to show the craftsman's skill, and fleas were there to serve as a “frame of reference” and further show how small something is. There is information that John Henry Mauclerc saw on February 29, 1764, an "ivory chaise" with four wheels and a figure of a man fitting in the chaise and drawn by a flea. Charles Manby Smith said that he saw in 1857 a small brass cannon on wheels pulled by a flea and that this show cost him a penny.
In time this type of craft started to wane. By the 1830s, street performers shifted their focus from objects to fleas. The earliest mention of a flea circus is from 1812, and Goldsmith Johann Heinrich Deggeller from Stuttgart performed with his circus of fleas. Louis Bertolotto, the Italian-born impresario, brought his flea circus to London in 1832. His fleas could drag “The first-rate Man of War of 120 guns”, fight with swords, and draw a two-wheeled carriage. He continued to perform for a long time and well into the 1870s. John C. Ruhl brought the flea circus from Germany to California. There were small flea circuses in the United States up until the 1960s. There was a flea circus at “Belle Vue Zoological Gardens” in Manchester, England, and it worked until 1970. Some say that one flea circus still operates – at Oktoberfest in Munich, Germany.
Fleas live very short – a few months only, and cannot be trained. “Trainers” observe fleas to see which jump and which walk and, according to that, use them for acts. Then they tie a harness around the neck of a flea. These harnesses are thin, made of gold (because gold can be made into a skinny wire), and left on a flea for the rest of its life. Another side of the wire is tied to a prop like a carriage or other small objects. Fleas are so strong that they can pull them. Another common act in flea circuses was a “flea music band”. Fleas are glued to the base of a flea circus, and small musical instruments are glued to fleas. When the base was heated, fleas tried to escape, but because they were glued, they looked like they were playing instruments. There are also flea circuses that don't use fleas but electrical, magnetic, and mechanical devices that simulate the behavior of fleas.