Flea circus

The flea circus of Maxfield Rubbish t San Diego, CA, 2009

A flea circus refers to a circus sideshow attraction in which fleas are attached (or appear to be attached) to miniature carts and other items, and encouraged to perform circus acts within a small housing.


"The Go-As-You-Please Race, as seen through a Magnifying Glass", engraved by J. G. Francis, from an article by C. F. Holder in St. Nicholas Magazine, 1886

The first records of flea performances were from watchmakers who were demonstrating their metalworking skills. In 1578, Mark Scaliot produced a lock and chain that were attached to a flea. The first recorded flea circus dates back to the early 1820s, when an Italian impresario called Louis Bertolotto advertised an “extraordinary exhibition of industrious fleas” on Regent Street, London.[1] Some flea circuses persisted in very small venues in the United States as late as the 1960s. The flea circus at Belle Vue Zoological Gardens, Manchester, England, was still operating in 1970. At least one genuine flea circus still performs (at the annual Oktoberfest in Munich, Germany[2]) and Svensons in the UK occasionally use real fleas but most flea circuses are a sideline of magicians and clowns, and use electrical or mechanical effects instead of real fleas.

Techniques with real fleas

Fleas typically live only for a few months and are not trained. Fleas are observed to see if they have a predisposition for jumping or walking. Once sorted, they are harnessed by carefully wrapping a thin gold wire around their neck.[3] 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 allow them to move objects significantly larger than themselves. Jumping fleas are used for kicking small lightweight balls. They are carefully given a ball; when they try to jump away (which is not possible because of the harness), they shoot the ball instead. Running fleas can pull small carts and vehicles or rotate a Ferris wheel.[4]

There are historical reports of fleas glued to the base of the flea circus enclosure. Miniature musical instruments were then glued to the flea performers and the enclosure was heated. The fleas fought to escape, giving the impression of fleas playing instruments.[5]

Techniques without real fleas

Some flea circuses may appear to use real fleas, but in fact do not. A variety of electrical, magnetic, and mechanical devices have been used to augment exhibits. In some cases, these mechanisms are responsible for all of the "acts", with loose fleas in the exhibit maintaining the illusion. These circuses are known as "Humbug" flea circuses. Michael Bentine gave a mechanical flea circus a regular slot on his television show, Michael Bentine's Potty Time in the 1970s.[6]

In much the same way that viewers know that a woman will not actually be cut in half, the magician's showmanship allows viewers to suspend disbelief in order to enjoy the show.


Fleas in dresses at Ye Olde Curiosity Shop

Current flea circuses:

Svensons Flea Circus still performs in the UK and makes flea circuses and props for other performers.

Famous flea circuses of the past:

Popular culture






  1. Lawton, Graham (22 December 2012). "Fleadom or death: Reviving the glorious flea circus". New Scientist. Reed Business Information Ltd. (2896).
  2. 1 2 "Geschichte". Flohcirkus.de. Retrieved 2013-10-25.
  3. National Geographic, May 1988.
  4. Hund, Katze, Maus. 10 February 2010 VOX
  5. "Flea-Circus.com". Noonco.com. Retrieved 2010-08-26.
  6. "The rise and demise of the flea circus". BBC Radio4. BBC. Retrieved 19 December 2015.
  7. http://www.denvercountyfair.org/#!special-events/c457
  8. Torpey, Jodi (August 8, 2013). "Flea Circus is a Must See at Denver County Fair". Retrieved December 7, 2015.
  9. "Professor B's Flea Circus". Playland-Not-At-The-Beach. Retrieved 2010-08-26.
  10. "Oktoberfest Fun Rides". Munich.mydestinationinfo.com. Retrieved 2011-10-12.
  11. L.Bertolotto The history of the flea
  12. "Thomas Koerfer filmography – The Death of a Flea Circus Director". Koerferfilm.com. Retrieved 2010-09-21.
  13. "Trumpet Warriors: Flea Circus". Barbican. 2011-03-03. Retrieved 2013-10-25.
  14. "Fifi the Flea – The Hollies | Listen, Appearances, Song Review". AllMusic. Retrieved 2013-10-25.
  15. Kast, Marlise. "Calendar – San Diego Magazine – February 2008 – San Diego, California". San Diego Magazine. Retrieved 2010-09-21.

Further Reading

External links

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