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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.

(Tim Cockerill Collection)

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 19th century journal
Engraving from life of a carriage pulled and driven by fleas, from an 1876 journal of natural history.
(Tim Cockerill Collection)

Four in hand pulled and driven by fleas
A similar image from a
late 19th century journal in which the term 'Flea Circus' was coined.
(Tim Cockerill Collection)

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.

Signature of Louis Bertolotto
 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 Cockerill Collection)

Tim is currently compiling information and collecting ephemera on the history and techniques of the genuine flea circus. To hear more, contact us, or watch out for details of Tim's public talk on flea circuses at the Natural History Museum, London, in autumn 2009.

Flea Circus ticket - Wonderland, Blackpool
Rare ticket from Professor Ronski's Flea Circus at Wonderland, Blackpool. Circa 1930s.
(Tim Cockerill Collection)

Props from Cockerill's Flea Circus
Props from Cockerill's Flea Circus, based upon mid-20th century originals that toured British fairgrounds


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