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Educated Fleas, Health-Giving Beer, and Sweet-Smelling Elephants: Highlights from American Pamphlets, 1820-1922

Posted on 12/23/2015

The December release of the New-York Historical Society’s American Pamphlets includes a publication by the inventor of the flea circus (with descriptions of more than 15 individual acts), a glossy promotional pamphlet from a 19th-century beer brewery, which offers a room-by-room tour of their Manhattan plant, and a brief book about elephants with striking engravings.

The history of the flea; with notes, observations and amusing anecdotes. By L. Bertolotto, the original inventor of the exhibition of educated fleas (1876)


Legs have I, and never walk,

I backbite all, but never talk.

Mr. Bertolotto lived in London where he claims he was the first to exhibit what came to be known as a flea circus. This is his account of how he manipulated the fleas into unusual behavior and developed that “invention” into his exhibition of their performances for many of the crowned heads of Europe. Apparently, it was a sensation. He begins with a scientific examination of the insect:

Pulex, the Flea, in Zoology, a genus of insects belonging to the order of Aptera. It has two eyes, and six feet, fitted for leaping, the feelers are like threads, the rostrum is inflected, setaceous, armed with a sting, and the belly is compressed.

He notes that: 

The supporters of the women’s rights movement will be delighted to know, that my performing troupe all consists of females, as I have found the males utterly worthless, excessively mulish, and altogether disinclined to work.

Bertolotto expounds much further on the flea’s life. He reveals the process by which he “trained” them, and shares what he finds to be amusing anecdotes about his tiny performers, notably one named Wellington, who would escape and subsequently be located on the body of some aristocratic lady. He notes that some of the most elevated women in Europe have fed his fleas. He brushes off accusations of cruelty to his performers by asking what other man has shed nearly so much blood for his employees.

The most entertaining part of the pamphlet is a copy of the exhibition program that describes the individual acts (which are changed “occasionally to suit the public taste for variety”):

1st. A coach, drawn by two Fleas; the coachman, with whip, ladies and gentlemen inside, with parasols, pullbacks, &., are all Fleas dressed up and alive.

5th. A lady and gentleman driving out in a gig, two very spirited colts, all Fleas.

15th. A very elegant Ball Room, in which there are twenty-four Fleas all dressed up and alive, fifteen musicians in the orchestra with their several instruments, two ladies and gentlemen are enjoying themselves in the giddy mazes of a waltz, while four inveterate gamesters are indulging in euchre, old sledge, and other games in a corner; in another a lovely brunette is desperately engaged flirting with a fashionable beau, while her staid mamma sits close by, to all intent deeply interested in the politics of a newspaper.

16th. The Performance will conclude by Mademoiselle Le Normand, a weird looking old Flea, telling the visitor’s fortune, just as true as any other fortune-teller.



Colored illustrated hand-book showing the main departments of our large brewery plant… (1890)

OUR REAL GERMAN BEER is recommended by the best physicians as a health-giving beverage, and also recommended very highly for family use.

This interesting claim is made in the introduction to this richly illustrated publication from George Ringler & Co. brewery located on 92nd Street in Manhattan.

The brewery was established in 1872 and flourished for 48 years. However, it could not survive prohibition. This pamphlet, published when the company was obviously prospering, contains very little text. Rather, there are pages of tinted photographs that are quite lovely and may be more persuasive than prose in selling the company’s brews to the public.

Real German Beer is listed as the most expensive of their products. They highlight their glass bottles with ceramic stoppers as the best choice for family use. The price? $1.35 for a case which equals “two dozen pints.” 












History and anecdotes of the elephant with beautiful engravings (1830)

The Elephant is the largest, the most intelligent, and most powerful of all land animals….In shape this animal can not be compared to any other.

The anonymous author evinces a deep affection and real respect for elephants which is heard in his description of the animal’s unique shape:

His back is high and arched.; his body is very large and remarkably round; his neck short and thick; his ears broad; his eyes small, but brilliant, and full of expression…

His hearing is remarkably fine, and he delights in music. His smell is very delicate, and he takes great pleasure in the scent of sweet flowers and herbs. The sense of touch is equally nice, in the end of his trunk, for he can feel the smallest thing, and can pick up a piece of money, or a straw from the floor.

The writer tells tales that demonstrate the elephant’s gentle nature, sagacity, and ability to avenge insult. Throughout are striking woodcuts which handsomely illustrate the text.




For more information about American Pamphlets, 1820-1922, or to request a trial for your institution, please contact

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