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A Victorian Flea Circus: The Smallest Show on Earth – Mimi Matthews

The Go-As-You-Please Race, as seen through a Magnifying Glass. St. Nicholas Magazine, 1886.

During the 19th century, the flea circus was a popular sideshow attraction. Often billed as the smallest circus in the world, it took place in a ring the size of a common dinner plate and consisted of fleas performing various circus stunts, such as juggling and tightrope walking. Circus fleas were alleged to be of remarkable intelligence. In fact, many a Victorian era magazine and newspaper article marveled over the discovery that fleas were susceptible to education and kind treatment. But not every flea was smart enough to join the circus. As an 1886 article by C. F. Holder explains:

Some are exceedingly apt scholars, while others never can learn, and so it is that great numbers of fleas are experimented with before a troupe is accepted.

Circus Flea Training

After selecting the most intelligent fleas, the proprietor of the flea circuswho was often also the trainersubjected the fleas to a period of rigorous training. The first step in this regime was to harness the flea by attaching a thin piece of gold wire or cord round its midsection. In a 1911 article on flea circuses, author Willard Howe states:

A delicate operation in flea training is to put on the gold wire collarto make it sufficiently secure and yet not to choke the insect.

Professor Nokes Putting a Gold Collar on a Flea. Motography Magazine, 1911.

Oncethe flea was secured in its harness, the next stage of training could begin. This phase of training generally focused on jumping. Excessive jumping was undesirable in a circus flea for several reasons, not the least of which was that an unruly flea might leap straight out of the ring, thus prematurely ending the show. Most 19th century flea trainers used the same method to curb a fleas desire to jump. As Holder relates:

the student flea is first placed in a glass phial, and encouraged to jump as much as possible. Every leap here made brings the polished head of the flea against the glass, hurling the insect back, and throwing it this way and that, until, after a long and sorry experience, and perhaps many head-aches, it makes up its mind never to unfold its legs suddenly again.

With this lesson learned,the fleawas ready to join the troupe. From then on, Holder reports that the flea was harnessed and trained daily until it was finally ready to perform in the ring.

The Performance

Typically, the audience at a flea circus consisted of one human being with a magnifying glass. When they approached, the proprietor placed the circus ring on a table in front of them. The ring was bordered by a series of small boxes, which Holder describes as:

the houses of the performers, and the stables for their carriages.

At a word from the proprietor, the tiny door of the first box would spring open and a number of fleas would file out. Meanwhile, the proprietor stood at the ready, armed with a pair of pincers, in case any of his performers should misbehave. In the flea circus described by Holder, after the fleas had made a dignified circuit around the ring, they retired back to their box. It was then that the performance proper commenced. The first attraction was a flea race. As Holder relates:

Five fleas, each adorned with a different color, stepped from another house and after running about here and there, and being admonished by the director, ranged themselves in a line, and at the word go! started on a rush around the circle; running into each other, rolling over and over, and making frantic leaps over one another.

When two disobedient fleas leapt past the winning-post, the race was deemed over. The proprietor promptly collected the fleas with his pincers and placed them in solitary confinement in a glass phial. This punishment was believed to remind them not to jump. But there were other, harsher punishments for unruly fleas. In his 1911 article, Howe describes the punishment methods employed by American flea trainer Prof. R. A. Nokes. When confronted with misbehavior, Nokes was known to hang or suspend the recalcitrant flea by a wire!

The Dance.St. Nicholas Magazine, 1886.

After the rather chaotic flea race was concluded, the proprietor announced a flea dance. The tiny door of a third house opened and, according to Holder, out poured the most ludicrous band of performers ever witnessed. The fleas were clothed in dresses made of colored tissue paper of purple, gold, and red. They begandancing in a style described as a mixture of the Highland-fling and the sailors hornpipe. Holder states:

The little creatures bobbed up and down, now on one claw, now on all six, hopping, leaping, bowing, and scraping, moving forward and back, bumping into one another, now up, now down, until they seemed utterly exhausted, and several that had fallen down, and were kept by their voluminous skirts from getting up, had to be carried off by the aid of the ever-ready pincers.

A hurdle race followed in which the proprietor of the flea circus arranged hurdles made with thin, silver wire which the circus fleas were meant to leap over. Unfortunately, this particular race was won by a flea that crawled under the wire as a result of being either very lazy or very cunning.

The Hurdle-Race.St. Nicholas Magazine, 1886.

The next act featured a clown flea garbed in a white clowns cap. A moment later, a large number of fleas were released into the ring, harnessed with gold wire trappings to the vehicles from the flea stables. There was a tally-ho coach that was smaller than a pea, an Eskimo sled less than a quarter inch long, and a trotting sulky that appeared to be made out of hair or bristles of some sort. Holder reports:

The tally-ho team of four frantic fleas, evidently fiery steeds, was harnessed to the coach, and on the top were placed four phlegmatic fleas that had probably been booked as outsiders, while the insides were two others fleas, which, we are sorry to say, were obliged to get in through the window, and acted very much as if they wished to get out again. The other vehicles were each provided with a steed and rider, and then all were drawn up in a row. At the word of command, off they started pell-mell!

What followed was another episode of flea chaos. The tally-ho leaders jumped their traces and ran over the flea clown. The Eskimo sled threw its driver. And the flea pulling the sulky leapt into the air, its sulky flying behind it. For several moments, there was a dreadful panic, but the canny proprietor, with the aid of his pincers, soon had the fleas back in order. The track was rearranged and a race around the ring was commenced. According to Holder:

In two minutes the circuit was completed, the tally-ho coming in ahead, without, however, its outside passengers, who were thrown off as the coach was rounding the curve, and at once crawled into the nearest place of refuge.

Signor Pulex Irritanci on the Tight-Rope. St. Nicholas Magazine, 1886.

The last, and most anticipated, act of the flea circus featured Signor Pulex Irritanci, a flea touted as a world renowned tight-rope performer. The proprietor placed two fine pins on the stage four inches apart, connecting them with a silver wire. With much fanfare, Signor Irritanci was brought out in a cut glass bottle, his only ornament a little jacket of tissue-paper. As Holder describes:

When fished out and placed upon the pin-head, he boldly started out upon the wire over which his little clawed toes seemed to fit. In the middle, and over the terrific abyss, he balanced up and down for a second, stood upon his longest legs, and then moved on, crossing in safety, and thus ending the circus, at least for that occasion.

Circus Flea Psychology

ManyVictorians believed that circus fleas had personalities that mirrored those of human beings. This is most evident in historical descriptions ofsmart fleas that could be taught and naughty fleas that needed to be punished in order to learn their lessons. These sorts of beliefs were not uncommon. Thosein the 19th century frequently interpreted the behavior of animals in terms of human thought and emotion. That Victoriansshould apply this same rationale to insects is humorous, but not surprising.

Could fleas really be trained to perform circus tricks? Personally, I tend to doubt it. I suspect that most of the entertainment value of the 19th century flea circus accrued from the novelty of seeing insects in costumes, pulling carriages, or racing each other. In addition, more recent reports have suggested that the variety of flea used in Victorian flea circuses was likely the mole flea, a less energetic variety of insect. According to the Handbook of Agricultural Entomology, this type of flea was harnessed and then, when the show was about to start, stimulated into movement with a heat lamp.

A Few Final Words…

The first flea circus on record was opened in 1812 by Heinrich Degeller in Stuttgart. From then until the 1930s, flea circuses remained a popular sideshow attraction. Most continued to employ live fleas, but as time wore onand hygiene methods improvedthere were not as many flea performers available. Eventually, some flea circuses began to use other methods, such as electricity or magnets, to move the little vehicles about the ring. This is the main reason that so many today believe that 19th century flea circuses were nothing but a hoax.

Thus concludes another of my Friday features on Animals in Literature and History. Just to clarify, this article is NOTan April Fool’s Day joke. There really were flea circuses in the Victorian era. They even performed for the Queen! Alas, I have no rescue links for insects, but if you would like to learn more about fleas in general, the following websites might be helpful:

Entomological Society of America(United States)

Royal Entomological Society(United Kingdom)

Works Referenced or Cited in this Article

Banham, Martin. The Cambridge Guide to Theatre. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995.

Blume, Leslie. Lets Bring Back. San Francisco: Chronicle Books, 2010.

Holder, C. F. The Smallest Circus in the World. St. Nicolas Illustrated Magazine. Vol. XIII. New York: Century Co., 1886.

Howe, Willard. Trained FleasA New Picture Subject. Motography. Vol. 5. Issue 6. Chicago: Electricity Magazine Corporation, 1911.

“Intelligent Fleas.” Daily Gazette for Middlesbrough . May 8, 1890.

Van Emden, Helmut. Handbook of Agricultural Entomology. Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, 2013.

2016 Mimi Matthews

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