By Danielle Czerkaszyn, Librarian and Archivist
In September 2021, the Museum initiated its first “Specimen Showdown” on Twitter and Instagram, where followers could vote on their favourite specimens from our collections. Over the course of the month, followers narrowed down their favourite among 32 specimens from four collections: The Library Legends, The Bygone Beasts, The Rock Stars, and The Birds and The Beetles. The final showdown was between the Connemara Column (found in the Main Court of the Museum) and the Pulgas Vestidas from the Library and Archives. In a nail-biting race, the Pulgas Vestidas narrowly beat the column with 53.9% of the vote.
But what are Pulgas Vestidas? And why are they so popular?
Dressed fleas, you say?
The delicate art of dressing fleas in tiny costumes, known as ‘Pulgas Vestidas’ in Spanish, flourished in Mexico for over two centuries. It is believed that the craft began in Mexican convents where nuns would fashion tiny pieces of clothing onto dead fleas. An important point to note is that the fleas themselves were not actually dressed — instead, they formed the heads of the figures. The individual fleas were set in matchboxes and decorated with elaborate human costumes, hats, shoes, and accessories. Sometimes the fleas were set in whole scenes, often as married couples in miniature dioramas of everyday life. The bride and groom sets were the most popular, with the bride sporting a long veil and the groom in his best suit. The nuns would then sell the fleas for a small amount of money to passing tourists. The trade was later picked up by the local villagers and Pulgas Vestidas were widely sold to tourists visiting Mexico in the early twentieth century.
Dressed fleas were popular with tourists until the 1930s when the art declined in popularity. An increasing awareness of hygiene meant that fleas were rapidly regarded as unhealthy. Many dressed fleas were consigned to the bin, and Pulgas Vestidas became a lost art as tourists’ tastes for memorabilia changed. Examples of these tiny curiosities are now rare collectors’ items.
Pulgas Vestidas at Oxford University Museum of Natural History
The Museum’s dressed fleas were collected in 1911 by American archaeologist and anthropologist Zeila M. M. Nuttall who specialised in Mexican history and culture. She sent the dressed fleas to her brother, bacteriologist George H.F. Nuttall. George formally donated a collection of 50 Ixodidae (ticks) to the Museum, and it is likely he also gifted the dressed fleas at the same time. The dressed fleas would have been considered more of a Victorian novelty, and so were not formally recorded or accessioned into our collections.
Although most of OUMNH’s dressed fleas reside behind-the-scenes, one example is on public display in the Upper Gallery of the Main Court. Sporting tiny clothes and a backpack, the flea is just visible with the help of a magnifying glass. Clearly, this one was born to flea wild.
OUMNH’s Pulgas Vestidas are definitely among the more unusual items in the Museum’s collections, and they were clearly head and shoulders above other specimens in the September Specimen Showdown competition, despite being no more than 5mm tall! Pulgas Vestidas may be small, but they certainly are mighty.
I’ll Flea There
The dressed fleas will be on display, with a flea-tastic craft, for the Museum’s free evening event ‘Late Night: A Buzz in the Air‘ on 27 May from 7-10pm.