In 1820, an Italian event organizer by the name of Louis Bertolotto hosted one the first recorded flea circuses in Regent Street, London. Posters circulated advertising Bertolotto’s “extraordinary exhibition of industrious fleas”- and industrious they were!
The fleas could be seen pulling tiny reproduction chariots, operating small fairground attractions, walking tightropes, kicking small balls and playing tiny musical instruments.
The technique used to harness the fleas was first sorting them into types: walking types and jumping types.
Those with a tendency to walk were made to pull things, such as chariots. Those with a tendency to jump were assigned to operate small Ferris wheels or kick lightweight balls.
(Images: darkroastedblend.com, british pathe, fleacircus.co.uk)
They were harnessed by tying a gold wire around their necks. This technique was inspired by watchmakers, who would use it to showcase their skills in metalwork.
In the 1500’s a blacksmith named Mark Scaliot even made a lock and key on chain that was so light, tiny and intricate that it could be locked around the neck of a flea.
Human fleas were the performer of choice, and due to neglect in hygiene at the time, they were readily available. Often times during a performance, the odd performer would escape and jump into the crowd, causing the audience to itch and fidget.
Some circus owners were even known to reward their fleas after a night’s performance by allowing them to suck the floor from their arms. Louis Bertolotto claimed that he even knew each of his fleas by name, and once kept one for almost 2 years.
[ X ] Bertolotto’s book notes “The history of the flea”
[ X ] British pathé video
[ X ] Real flea circus featuring the agitators
[ X ] David Attenborough's national curiosities