September 13, 2019
In today’s foray into fascinating facts, we look into the tiniest circus of them all; the flea circus and its history. What became of this miniature marvel?
A popular circus sideshow attraction for almost four hundred years, the first recorded performance of ‘performing’ fleas was in 1578 when a watchmaker by the name of Mark Scaliot decided to show off his skills and the intricacies of his job by making a tiny golden chain and a tiny lock to accompany it. The items were so small that they could be pulled by a flea. For whatever reason, this sort of entertainment took off with numerous watchmakers making use of fleas to show off their impressive abilities.
Another watchmaker by the name of Boverick created a golden coach that could be pulled by fleas, costumiers have been known to create some miniature wares for their ‘performers’ to wear, whilst in 1857, a small brass cannon on wheel was drawn by fleas. Impressive certainly but not all that entertaining. How could those with an eye for the miniscule make punters marvel even more?
The answer was the flea circus, with street performers somewhat ignoring the hard-to-make objects and instead focusing all their time and attention on the fleas themselves. But how do you train a flea? The answer, of course, is that you can’t. Fleas typically only live for a maximum of six months (though frustrated dog owners with infested pets might believe they last for far longer) so actually training something that small would be a pointless task. Far better then, to be cruel to the fleas and make it appear as though they are well trained.
To hold a successful flea circus, the first thing that the street artists would do was to observe the fleas and see which preferred to walk and which preferred to jump. Splitting them into two groups, the ringmaster (if that is what you can call a person who chooses to do this line of work) then ties a harness around the neck of each and every flea, which stays there for the rest of its life. You then simply attach the harness to a piece of wire, which you then affix to pretty much any object, which the flea ‘pulls’ due to its incredible strong legs. Tiny ‘swords’ could also be affixed to the harness to make it look like fleas were battling one another. The limit was very much the imagination of the owner.
Another popular part of a flea circus was the circus band. How do you make fleas play instruments? Simple. Glue fleas to a metal base, glue instruments to the fleas and then lightly heat the platform on which the fleas are standing. Their struggle to escape would make it seem like the fleas were playing their instruments. If you can get past the cruelty (and many could back in the 19th century), it must be quite a fascinating thing to witness.
So what became of the flea circus? Simply put, time moved on. There were flea circuses about right up until the 1960s but now it is more of a novelty act, quite often created with electrical, magnetic and mechanical devices that simulate the behaviour of fleas. That being said, there is still one flea circus in use in the UK – Svensons. So if you would like to book a flea circus for your corporate event, you’re in luck!
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By Henry Fosdike