Flea Circus

The singularly eccentric diversion known as a flea circus is an entertainment form long-established in Western popular culture. In recent years, the popular concept of a flea circus has generally constituted an audacious showman attempting to engage credulous audience members via deception. Cleverly engineered mechanical props create the illusion of minute siphonapterous stars walking the tightrope or being shot from miniature cannons, but rely almost entirely upon the showmanship of the ‘ringmaster’ in order to be convincing or entertaining.

Poster of William Fricke's Flea Circus, early 20th century.

Poster of William Fricke’s Flea Circus, early 20th century.

In fact the flea circus, in various guises, has a history reaching back at least several hundred years, and has until recently consisted of a collection of engaging feats genuinely performed by real live fleas, under the welcome and proximate scrutiny of captivated onlookers.

Engraving from life of a carriage pulled and driven by fleas, from an 1876 journal of natural history.

Engraving from life of a carriage pulled and driven by fleas, from an 1876 journal of natural history.

A similar image from a late 19th century journal in which the term 'Flea Circus' was coined.

A similar image from a late 19th century journal in which the term ‘Flea Circus’ was coined.

Louis Bertolotto was arguably the man who started it all. In the early 1830s he opened his Exhibition of the Industrious Fleas. Whilst Bertolotto was not the first to show performing fleas, he was the most famous flea entrepreneur of his time and spawned a plethora of imitators. The trend of performing-flea exhibitions lasted nearly 150 years after Bertolotto’s first showing.

 Inscription by Signor Louis Bertolotto in a book from his personal library.  One of only a handful of known examples of Bertolotto's signature.

Inscription by Signor Louis Bertolotto in a book from his personal library.
One of only a handful of known examples of Bertolotto’s signature.

Tim is currently compiling information and collecting ephemera on the history and techniques of the genuine flea circus. He is one of the only people in the world who can successfully train fleas to perform circus stunts! See below for a moving image of a flea trained by Tim to jump through a hoop on command. This is the first time this has been performed in over 50 years.

A flea jumping through a hoop on command.

A flea trained to jump through a hoop on command.

Tim has trained fleas for BBC television and radio. The photos on this page represent a small sample of Tim’s collection of flea circus ephemera, some of which has appeared in museum exhibitions along with Tim’s flea circus props. To find out more about flea training and the history of flea circuses, get in touch, or click here for details of Tim’s talk on flea circuses.

Rare ticket from Professor Ronski's Flea Circus at Wonderland, Blackpool. Circa 1930s.

Rare ticket from Professor Ronski’s Flea Circus at Wonderland, Blackpool. Circa 1930s.

Would you like to know about the strange curiosity of Mexican Dressed Fleas, also known as Pulgas Vestidas? Then click on the photo below or on this link.

Early pulgas vestidas from Mexico

Early pulgas vestidas from Mexico