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Historical Flea Circuses

The history of flea circuses is full of mystery and mis-information as the entrepreneurs who ran these shows often hyped up or invented the missing facts. For this reason it is very difficult to accurately determine some of the early origins.

Aztec Stone Flea

Although the Aztecs had statues of fleas made from stone, there are no records of them training fleas.

Dressed Fleas - pulgas vestidas

Pulgas Vestidas at Phoebe A. Hearst Museum of AnthropologyPerhaps because of the Aztec's curiousity in fleas the Mexican tradition of pulgas vestidas was created. Fleas are dressed and painted to represent little people. One recurrant themes is a wedding party which leads us to speculate as to if these are wedding gifts. There have been reports that these dressed fleas were made by nuns, but whoever did it they would have needed excellent eyesight and a steady hand.

Charles Rothchild once purchased some dressed fleas thinking that they were a scientifc collection only to be surprised when they were delivered..

Some of these dressed fleas can still be seen in Tring Museum. Other possible locations are the London Natural History Museum, The Museum of Childhood in Edinburgh, Scotland, Witte Museum in San Antonio, Henriqueta M. Catharino  Museum of Art in Salvador and Phoebe A. Hearst Museum of Anthropology 

Before the Circus

The first people to harness fleas were watch makers who were trying to demonstrate their skills in fine manipulation. Mark Scaliot is 1578 is credited with locking a flea to a chain with "a lock consisting of eleven different pieces of steel, iron, and brass which, together with the key belonging to it, weighed only one grain"24. The Doctor of Physik / Country Farmer Thomas Moffett who was reported to be the father of "Little Miss Muffett" was a renowm entomologist and wrote of chained fleas in his manuscript "Theatre of Insects"21 and in verse in the poem "The silkwormes and their flies" as early as 1599. In 1742 Mr Boverick, a watchmaker just of the Strand was reported in the London Advertiser to display a flea pulling a chaise and another pulling a landau. A few years later on Feb 29th 1764 John Henry Mauclerc reported seeing an "ivory chaise", wih four wheels, and all the proper apparatus belonging to them, turning readily on their axles together, with a man fitting in the chaise, all drawn along by a flea, without any seeming difficulty the chaise, man and flea, being barely equal to a single grain."7. In 1857 Charles Manby Smith, the social investigator describes a spectacle that could be seen for a penny, "a flea harnessed to a brass cannon on wheels, which it actually drags along"23

Historical Performances

A poster from Professor Likonti Show Mathes Family Floh Circus at the Oktoberfest

Possibly the most famous flea circus performer was L. Bertolotto who I am researching in more details.

England

Although the climate in England is not ideally suited to fleas there have historically been many shows here.

Wannock Gardens

Tivoli Gardens - Copenhagen Denmark

Postcard of the Tivoli Flea Circus contributed by Dan Goodsell William Torp toured the UK in the 1920s. After a period in Egypt in 1952 he went on to setup the Flea Circus in Tivoliwith his wife Else Torp16. The show closed in 1974.

His son John Torp followed in his fathers footsteps and performed with flea circuses in the USA and the Canary Islands as well as appearing on What's my Line and the Johnny Carson Show.

Some postcards of the Tivoli Flea Circus still remain and sometimes appear on Ebay.

When I visited Tivoli in 2005, I found the alley where the flea circus once had been and talked to the printer there. He did remembered the show and pointed me at a large tree behind which the Loppe Cirkus performances used to shown. Sadly, the printer no longer print posters or postcards of the flea circus.

Although I missed it myself, I've captured a few people's memories of their trips to the Flea Circus at Tivoli


Disasters

There have been many problems and disasters plaguing historical flea circuses.

References

There are several reference books with details of flea circuses

  1. East Side, West Side: Tales of New York Sporting Life 1910-1960 - mentions Hubert's Museum and Flea Circus
  2. The Life that Lives on Man has detailed sections about fleas including how the breed, how they jump and a section on circues.
  3. Fleas by Joanna Cole again has details of breeding and some of the best illustrations of the different types of fleas I have seen.
  4. Wild Tigers & Tame Fleas Ballantine, Bill 1958 dedicates a whole chapter to Hubert's Flea Circus
  5. Dr Richard Wiseman's essay is a good general reference and is available on Walt Noon's website.
  6. The Compleat Flea by Brendan Lehane fits the description of the title quite well and has a good section on Flea Circuses.
  7. Jay's Journal of Anomalies is perhaps the most complete description of Flea Circus history and has 2 good sections with many illustrations not found else where.
  8. The Show History web site has some details of flea circuses throughout the ages.
  9. No People like Show People. Muller - Pete Collins 1957
  10. "Fireworks, Bonfires, Ballrooms and More:" New York's Palace Garden by John Frick, Professor, Theatre History, University of Virginia History Department
  11. Cochran, By James Harding   1988, Methuen Publishing Ltd.
  12. Household Words Vol Xiii Page 599
  13. New York Daily Tribune Jan 18 1859 clip supplied by Headlines in History
  14. Annals of the New York Stage. By George C. D. Odell references many performances in New York in the 1800s.
  15. Mimi and Her Fleas by Ward Hall, edited by John Robinson from Sideshow World
  16. She Owns Flea Circus by Bill Russell
  17. Historical Eloge of James Watt By François Arago Published 1839 J.Murray - "Read at the public meeting of the Academy of sciences, on the 8th of December, 1834."
  18. Victorian London By Liza Picard is a good reference to the other activites and entertainments that were happening at the same time as Bertolotto's Flea Circus.
  19. The diary of a surgeon in the year 1751-1752 by John Knyveton. Edited and Transcribed by Earnes Gray. Available from the Wellcome Trust Library.
  20. Lord William Russell and his wife, 1815-1846 by Georgiana Blakiston Page 434. Publisher: London, J. Murray, 1972. ISBN: 0719522420 9780719522420 Also available from the London Library in St James Square.
  21. Moffett, Thomas - Theatre of Insects this can be accessed at the British Library via Early English Books Online, see also Moffett's poem, "The silkwormes and their flies" also to be found there.
  22. Humanism, machinery, and Renaissance literature / Jessica Wolfe.
  23. The Little World of London, by Charles Manby Smith, 1857 - A First Word - Amusements of the Moneyless
  24. The Bookworm. An Illustrated Treasury of Old-Time Literature. Elliot Stock, 62, Parernoster Row. 1893.
  25. The Times, Nov 26, 1833. Issue 15332
  26. Hallisches patriotsches wochenblatt, In commission der buchhandlung des Waisenhauses, 1836





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Flea Circus Research Library by Andy is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 UK: England & Wales License.