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Victorian Flea Circuses: A Lost Art Form


"QUANTUM SHOT" #549
Link - by A. Abrams



If you can make a flea cooperate with you, you're probably good at politics

I have to say, this is probably the strangest subject we ever talked about on Dark Roasted Blend. However, it is such a rich showcase of miniature art and craftmanship, and the "wow" factor is there as well:

A flea, with legs finer than a human hair, can pull up to 700 times its own weight! A flea can lift up to 60 times its own weight! A flea can jump over 150 times its own height! When we build circuses on Mars, or asteroids one day, then we'll perhaps witness similar dexterity, but for now - consider a humble flea:


(art credit: Leah Palmer Preiss)

"Big fleas have little fleas... Upon their backs to bite 'em... And little fleas have lesser fleas... And so ad infinitum."

Andy Clark sends us his latest project - he's been researching this topic for about four years now and regularly publishes new discoveries along with other flea news on the Flea Circus Research Library blog.

"The idea to make a Victorian Flea Chariot came to me when I wondered if it's possible to use simple techniques available in the 1800s to make one today. Although there are no detailed specs of chariots used in the early days of the flea circus, I've seen some of them in videos. So, my design is largely based on those from Elsie Torp's Danish flea circus and those seen on the British Pathe Newsreels"




The chariot is approx 10mm long by 7mm wide and made from brass; the wheels are 5mm in diameter. The wheels and axle were turned on a lathe and the other parts were made by hand with hacksaw and files. Mostly the chariot was made without requiring magnification but I did use a magnifying glass for the filing and fitting (the mounting is an old Victorian era french coin about the size of a 2p). A digital camera was also used to check some of the details.

Making the chariot can be seen here, with video of a final product.


On the right are some modern props, created by Swen Swenson, left image via

A flea-driven hearse... and a flea-driven bicycle (seen on this page devoted to old circus in Copenhagen's Tivoli Gardens, now closed) -


(image credit: John Torp's Flea Circus, via)


Fun fact: a human flea is easiest to train (I wonder why)

So you don't need to look around for stray dogs to put an acting troop together - however, human fleas are also the hardest to find... thank goodness!.. Also consider this: every performance can be their last, so these insects are really on a tight schedule, putting everything into it - see for yourself:

- the performers live for about one year
- it takes six months for them to mature enough to be trained
- it takes three months to train them
- they perform for the next three months, then they die.

"Fleas are trained not to jump by keeping them in a container with a lid. Once trained, they are harnessed by carefully wrapping a thin gold wire around the neck of the flea. Once in the harness the fleas usually stay in it for life. The harnesses are attached to the props and the strong legs of the flea allows them to move objects significantly larger than themselves." (source)


(images credit: Heidi and Hans-Jurgen Koch)

Andy Clark also shares a report about earlier and sophisticated flea carriage from the 1800s: "A few years ago, a Mr. Boverick, an ingenious watchmaker, of London, exhibited to the public, a little ivory chaise, with four wheels, and all its proper apparatus, and a man sitting on the box, all of which were drawn by a single flea. He made a small landau, which opened and shut by springs, with six horses harnessed to it, a coachman sitting on the box, and a dog between his legs : four persons were in the carriage, two footmen behind it, and a postilion riding on one of the fore horses, which was also easily drawn along by a flea. He likewise had a chain of brass, about two inches long, containing 200 links, with a hook at one end, and a padlock and key at the other, which the flea drew very nimbly along" (Jamieson't Modern Voyages and Travels.)


illustrations from 19th century periodical "St. Nicholas Magazine." - via


A humble flea species is going to outlive us all

Performing fleas has been around for a long time (some say, since Ancient Egypt), then they achieved notoriety in the 1600s (when some flea trainers were condemned as sorcerers), and finally became really popular in the Victorian Period. In the late 19th century L. Bertolotto started touring the UK, Europe and America with his "Educated and Learned Fleas" - his fleas pulled chariots, drew water from a well and performed parodies of current affairs.

European watch makers and jewelers long were demonstrating their skills to create tiny ivory sculptures and silver chains. But the art of flea training really took off when one such artisan finally made a chain so small that he could harness a flea to the end of it.

Years later, when Bertolotto created his exhibition, he began to focus more on performance side of the show, rather than on miniature set pieces. Following this, flea circuses were shown all over at fairs and sideshows until the 1960s. It is not known what caused the decline in popularity but perhaps TV is to blame, or possibly the vacuum cleaner?


images via National Fairground Archive

Modern state of the art is not so discouraging as it might seem. Mac Brothers Flea Circus promises some exciting action, and shows an exceptional carriage:


(image credit: Roy Maloy)

They boast the most talented fleas in the world, including:

Samson the Magnificent - with his feats of strength
The Flying Ronaldos - with their death-defying trapeze routines
The Amazing Zippo - the flea who knows no fear on the tightrope a hundred times his body height above the ring

Roy Maloy is the owner of this beautiful flea circus and holder of the world record for tallest stilts ever walked upon at 57 feet. He also runs a wrestling troupe who attend carnivals and offer the public money if they can pin them for 3 seconds.



Walt Noon from Flea-circus.com also creates absolutely gorgeous vintage contraptions for circuses... this have this used, antique look - and we bet, fleas enjoy jumping around there:


(images credit: Walt Noon)

The last flea circus on Earth is probably Hans Mathes' flea circus at Oktoberfest - see video. Update: no, not the last one! They have company - The Acme Miniature Flea Circus is still performing, see the videos here.


The Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Insects condemns flea circuses en masse:

"Seven stick-insects, five spiders, an Asian bumble-bee, an American black cockroach, eight flies, and three dung beetles are among insects that are still kept in three UK flea circuses. Many of these insects are regularly made to perform tricks and manoeuvres unrepresentative of natural behaviour. One flea circus has recently advertised for even more wild insect acts - including scorpions, fly and butterfly larvae, ants and ladybirds - for its 2006 tour. "

Flea circuses must be banned! - "the report shows wild insects in circuses in the UK and Europe apparently displaying repetitive, abnormal behaviour most likely associated with stress and the absence of a suitable physical and social environment necessary for their welfare."


(images via 1, 2)

Read the whole petition here. However, some flea "pits" are still in existence, and the Flea Circus Research Library has a list of locations (mostly in U.K.)


Flea Circus Posters!

These clearly bizarre posters are lovingly created by David Manuel:




See more of them on this page

And for those of us who lack patience, skills and time for three month flea training program, you can entertain yourself with the wonderfully intense life of sea-monkeys (read one such hilarious account here)

BONUS: If you can't attract visitors by minuscule fleas (after all, they are incredibly hard to see - and some so-called flea circus do not contain any fleas at all, with owners making a pretend show), then make something bigger and louder to pull the cart instead:



Such "steam" creations were actually the rag doll acts, where actors would take off the metal armor at the end of the performance....


Also see "Walls of Death in Amusement Parks" ->

Also read:
"The Insect Circus" and the original Fab Four Band! ->

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YOUR COMMENTS::

15 Comments:

Anonymous Anonymous said...

umm...you cant actually train fleas. they are all GLUED to said chariots and such. QI recently covered this topic on BBC one and its torture from the fleas point of view.
so yeah, flea circus = glued fleas

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

OTOH, fleas lack both a central nervous system and sentience, and are thus unable to feel pain or suffer. It's like arguing that a bacteria suffers when we take an antibiotic...

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Blogger Bloggadocious said...

Going through your fascinating post I couldn't help but think of the movie "Jurassic Park" and the scene in which park developer, John Hammond, played by Richard Attenborough, decries the breakdown of the park, dinosaurs running amok, his grandchildren unaccounted for, his incredulity at why things were going so bad, when it was after all only a giant flea circus like the one he had as a boy.

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Blogger Avi Abrams said...

Ahh!.. this made my day )

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Blogger Curious Art said...

I'm honored to be a part of this fascinating article! Thanks, Avi!

p.s. Another glorious filmic flea was Marcello's trained assassin in City of Lost Children.

___  
Blogger human_wreckage said...

Whoa...I thought that all flea circuses were motorized...I didn't realize that some used actual fleas. Or am I right and just gullible?

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

Ah-- and sad to say that you did not include my show in your roundup

The Acme Miniature Flea Circus.

http://www.trainedfleas.com

I perform all around the country, have recently finished a successful run of performances in Chicago. (February 2009)

(Articles linked to on my new flea circus review blog)

http://www.acmefleacircus.blogspot.com including a couple of videos.

___  
Anonymous farmgirl said...

Wonderful article! I was fortunate to see the Flea Circus at the Tivoli Gardens in 1962. The fleas lived in a box and were brought out for the show. They were then attached to the little vehicles during the show. We could not see the fleas, only the little vehicles which magically moved along on the platform.

The wife presented the show to the audience, while the husband would go out to neighboring farms to find the fleas. He would feed them by rolling up his sleeve and give them a meal on his arm!

After they divorced, the wife no longer continued the flea circus. She converted the performing space at the Tivoli to a "Mouse House" which consisted of a small village of buildings such as a school, several stores, homes and police station, etc. which were empty and the mice ran around, in and out of these small buildings.

I brought my family to the Tivoli in 1978 and found the Mouse House after looking for the flea circus which was no more. There was a small set of bleachers where the audience could sit and watch this performance. It was a hilarious show watching the constant scouring around of the little mice., in and out of the buildings. I and my children were rolling with laughter.

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Blogger Avi Abrams said...

Anonymous - updated with your show! Thanks for the tip.

Farmgirl, really enjoyed reading it. From fleas to mice, eh? Well, mice are more visible, I suppose.

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Anonymous wordsncollision said...

"Fleas fleas me, oh yeah, like I fleas you"... by The Beetles.

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Anonymous AJ said...

Is this article an early April Fool's joke? I was always under the impression that flea circuses were faked, and wikipedia seems to agree with me...

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Blogger Avi Abrams said...

AJ - Wikipedia does not seem to agree with you, here is the link

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

I really like the posters. They are modern but have a feel of antiquity.

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Blogger FleaCircusDirector said...

Anonymous: Yes QI did cover the topic but it was a bit biased and I think their main source of research was Wikipedia.

Most fleas were wrapped with wire, not glued.

Bloggadocious: A lot of people like that quote, lots of people use flea circuses in films.

Farmgirl: That's a good insight into the Ellsie Torp and the Flea Circus and then Mouse House.

You can see the Tivoli Gardens Flea Circus from 1956.

___  
Anonymous Dr.Q said...

Thanks for this article.It's good entertainment and the fleas like to work for their food. See my website and see the victorian style circus.
www.fleacircus.nl
Dr.Q
Fleamaster

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