center ring at the flea circus by Fi Webster

Cut-paper collage postcard created for Kollage Kit theme: “Circus.”

When I was a little kid (late 1950s, early 1960s) and my family took car trips across the U.S., we would see signs for roadside attractions. First there’d be a cryptic sign next to the side of the road saying just “Alligators.” Then a thousand yards further, there’d be one saying “Cold Pop.” And so on, until the final one told you what road to get off on, to buy stuff and see the show.

These roadside attractions often included a “Flea Circus.” Like all kids, I was fascinated by tiny things, so I really wanted to see what a flea circus was: were the fleas actually trained, or did they just jump around with small toy animals and trapezes and stuff so it looked sort of like a circus? Or were they actually dead, and glued to the little objects? I couldn’t figure out how the fleas could be alive, without a real animal to bite.

Well, I never saw a flea circus, so I have no idea. If you’ve seen one, please tell me!

In the ring is the familiar cat flea, which also lives on dogs and humans. I’m not going to tell you what all the audience members are: they’re just a bunch of beetles, bugs, flies, etc.

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The Victorian Flea Circus

A flea, with legs finer than a human hair, can pull up to 700 times its own weight! A flea can lift up to 60 times its own weight! A flea can jump over 150 times its own height! When we build circuses on Mars, or asteroids one day, then we’ll perhaps witness similar dexterity, but for now - consider a humble flea.

Human fleas are the easiest to train, however, they are also the hardest to find [and] Also consider this: every performance can be their last, so these insects are really on a tight schedule, putting everything into it - see for yourself:

  • the performers live for about one year
  • it takes six months for them to mature enough to be trained
  • it takes three months to train them
  • they perform for the next three months, then they die.

Fleas are trained not to jump by keeping them in a container with a lid. Once trained, they are harnessed by carefully wrapping a thin gold wire around the neck of the flea. Once in the harness the fleas usually stay in it for life. The harnesses are attached to the props and the strong legs of the flea allows them to move objects significantly larger than themselves.

Performing fleas has been around for a long time (some say, since Ancient Egypt), then they achieved notoriety in the 1600s (when some flea trainers were condemned as sorcerers), and finally became really popular in the Victorian Period.

[The images are from Torp’s Flea Circus, which was active in the 1950s and 60s, but captures the essence of the Victorian flea circus, I’m sure. There’s also this British Pathe video, which shows the fleas in action]

Roy Heckler (left) and his flea circus, 1951.  Heckler’s father started the flea circus in 1900, and Roy took over in 1925.   He trained only female fleas since they are twice the size as males.  While fleas normally move by jumping, he trained them to crawl or walk by placing them in a long glass tube.  Every time they jumped, they would bump their heads and were therefore conditioned against it. (sources 1, 2)

The first records of flea performances were from watch makers who were demonstrating their metal working skills. Mark Scaliot in 1578 produced a lock and chain which were attached to a flea. Flea performances were first advertised as early as 1833 in England, and were a main carnival attraction until 1930. Some flea circuses persisted in very small venues in the United States as late as the 1960s. The flea circus at Belle Vue amusement park, Manchester, England, was still operating in 1970. At least one genuine flea circus still performs (at the annual Oktoberfest in Munich, Germany) but most flea circuses are a sideline of magicians and clowns, they use electrical or mechanical effects instead of real fleas.

Prof. William Heckler’s Trained Flea Circus

The fleas in this photo have been enlarged 700 times as compared with the human figure. They are shown in action poses from several of the stunts they perform in the circus.

(via Freezing weather wipes out German flea circus - Yahoo! News)

BERLIN (AP) — An entire troupe of performing fleas has fallen victim to the freezing temperatures currently gripping Germany.

Flea circus director Robert Birk says he was shocked to find all of his 300 fleas dead inside their transport box Wednesday morning.

The circus immediately scrambled to find and train a new batch so it could fulfill its engagements at an open-air fair in the western town of Mechernich-Kommern.

Michael Faber, who organizes the fair, told The Associated Press that an insect expert at a nearby university was able to provide 50fleas in time for the first show Sunday.

Faber says he hopes they’ll “get through this without any more fatalities…”