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Did you know that flea circuses used to be the real thing? Nowadays most people think they were fake - read on and see for yourself!

There are 100's of different species of fleas; however the most common flea used by circus performers was the human flea (pulex irritans).

In the early days of circus performing fleas, human fleas were readily available because people were not fussy about personal hygiene. Of latter years they have been increasingly harder to get.

Human fleas (seen here) are ideal performing insects. They can jump up to 10 inches into the air - the human equivalent would be leaping over the Statue of Liberty.

And they can repeat this feat over and over again. Plus they can live up to two years, unlike most other flea types which have relatively short life spans.

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Before Flea Circuses

Left: Flea in harness

The first people to attach harnesses to fleas were watch makers, who were trying to demonstrate their prowess in fine metal work.

In 1578, Mark Scaliot was credited with locking a flea to a chain. The lock was made up of eleven different pieces of metal, which together with the key belonging to it, weighed only one grain.

In 1742, the London Advertiser reported that Mr Boverick, a watchmaker in The Strand had made history with a display of two performing fleas; one pulled a chaise and the other pulled a landau.

A few years later in 1764 a reporter called John Henry Mauclerc reported seeing an "ivory chaise" being pulled by a flea, seeming without any difficulty. The chaise was a faultless miniature of the real thing, with four wheels all working perfectly and a seated driver. It was an incredible feat and had to be seen to be believed because the chaise, the man and the flea, were barely equal in size to a single grain.

In 1857 Charles Manby Smith, a social investigator described a display that could be seen for a penny. The event in question showed a "flea harnessed to and dragging a brass cannon on wheels".

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Historical Flea Circuses

The term "flea circuses" refers to circus sideshow attractions in which fleas are attached (or appear to be attached) to miniature carts and other items and encouraged to perform circus acts.

Flea circuses have existed in some shape or form since the 16th century, and became embedded in popular culture during Victorian times.

However, it is difficult to establish their precise origins because the people who ran them very often made up or invented missing facts.

Performing Fleas

Flea performances were first advertised as early as 1833 in England, and were a main carnival attraction until 1930. During the 19th century traveling fairs would always include a tent with a flea circus as part of the collection of side and freak shows.

In the 1830s, L Bertolotto came to fame with his extraordinary exhibition of the "Industrious Fleas". He wowed audiences in London, New York and Canada and Victorian society was in awe as his little fleas danced here and there clothed in tiny outfits.

It is true to say that Bertolotto was responsible for shifting the focus of attention from the builders of the tiny chariots and props attached to fleas, to the performer and the creation of flea circuses in earnest.

Bertolotto (here's one of his posters) created flea pit orchestras that fiddled away on tiny violins, along with fleas which could play cards or pull miniature coaches.

His signature acts were themed to reflect the political events of the time and often referenced various Members of Parliament, the Duke of Wellington and even Napoleon.

At that time it was common place to see flyers/posters and other less know performers advertising their individual "flea circuses" and venues.

The demise of traveling carnivals and flea circuses came about by the advent of different kinds of entertainment for the masses, e.g. TV in the 1960's and then much later, videos, computer games, DVD and the Internet.

Spurred on by hobbyists and enthusiasts, some flea circuses persisted in very small venues in the United States as late as the 1960s. And the flea circuses at Belle Vue amusement park, Manchester, England, were still operating in 1970.

At least one genuine flea circus still performs at the annual Oktoberfest in Munich, Germany, but most flea circuses now are a sideline of clowns and magicians who use electrical or mechanical effects instead of real fleas.

In 1997, a magician in California called Walt Noon, built his first flea circus. He trains live fleas as participants of his show, but freely admits that part of his act is based on humbug and make-believe. Walt's circus is cruelty-free.

His fleas are trained to walk a high wire, kick small balls and with help from Walt they can climb a small ladder, dance, swing on a trapeze bar and bounce on a dive board.

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Today there are three kinds of flea circuses

Flea taxidermy circuses

Flea taxidermy circuses this is where a miniature circus is made up of dead fleas dressed in minuscule, but with perfect costumes/outfits, dressed to represent popular figures of the day.

Mechanised circuses

Mechanised flea circuses are miniature spinning roundabouts whereby tiny carts are mechanically powered. These circuses depend upon the performer's skill and the public's readiness to suspend their disbelief, and "see" fleas where there are none.

Real flea circuses

Real circuses are where live fleas are trained to do tricks as with Walt Noon in California and the Oktoberfest in Munich.

The video below taken at the Oktoberfest in Munich, Germany is the last remaining real flea circus left in the world today, and is well worth watching for the skeptics out there.

Flea facts - just in case you are "itching" to know more

  • Human fleas can jump over 150 times their own size.
  • When jumping, human fleas accelerate 50 times faster than the space shuttle.
  • Human fleas can pull up to 160,000 times their own weight.
  • Human fleas can jump up to 30,000 times without a break.
  • Human fleas alternate the direction of their jumps.
  • The first human flea circus was performed in Europe during the 1820's.
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