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:
"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) -
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)
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?
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:
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."
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....
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