Facts and History of Flea Circus

Picture Of Fleas In Dresses At Ye Olde Curiosity Shop 1919

Flea circus is a miniature circus where “performers” are fleas. It is usually a circus sideshow attraction and fleas usually 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. Lock and chain were so small and light that they could be pulled by a flea. Another record says that in 1742 Mr Boverick, a watchmaker just of the Strand, have made a small coach made of gold with all the details, and in the harnessed fleas that pulled the coach. Idea of these handicrafts was to show the skill of the craftsman and fleas were there to serve as a “frame of reference” and further show how small something is. There is and information that a John Henry Mauclerc saw on February 29, 1764 an "ivory chaise" with four wheels and with 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 which was also drawn 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 the focus from objects to fleas themselves. The earliest mention of a flea circus is from 1812 and there is mentioned Goldsmith Johann Heinrich Deggeller from Stuttgart who performed with his circus of fleas. Louis Bertolotto, Italian-born impresario, brought his flea circus to London in 1832. His fleas could drag “A first rate Man of War of 120 guns”, fight with swords, and draw two-wheeled carriage. He continued to perform for a very long time and well into 1870s. John C. Ruhl brought the flea circus from Germany to California. There were small flea circuses in the United States up until 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 operates still – 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 very thin, made of gold (because gold can be made into a very thin wire), and left on a flea for the rest of its life. Other 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. Other 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 play instruments. There are also flea circuses that don't use fleas but electrical, magnetic, and mechanical devices that simulate behavior of fleas.