Forgotten Juggling Props – Hand Bells And Cup Sticks

In my continual research into juggling history, I sometimes notice small, odd details in photographs, drawings, and paintings of jugglers. I store these away in my mind and sometimes never think about them again. However, when these same little oddities keep appearing, a pattern develops. Today I’d like to point out two types of juggling props that I’ve seen in old depictions of jugglers that completely disappeared from use by jugglers.

Hand Bells

The first forgotten juggling props are hand bells. When I look at any old photos of jugglers, I always try to look at the props in the background or on the performer’s prop stand. In four of these photos, which you can see below, you can see hand bells among the props used by the juggler that was photographed. The first of these jugglers is White Eagle, a Native American performer shown below in a photograph taken by famous photographer Charles Eisenmann around 1880.


As you can see, in addition to the balls, knives, and bottles on his prop stand, he clearly has three hand bells that he uses in his act.

Below is a photo of another juggler, Niardon, in Native American attire, who also has three hand bells on his prop stand. His hand is on one of them with two others nearby.

The next photo, taken by Barenblatt, shows an early tramp juggler. If you look in the bottom right corner of the photo, you’ll see three long-handled hand bells. They appear to have some stuffing in them. This might have been to prevent them from ringing when being moved.


Here’s a close up of these bells.


Finally, we have an old photo of an unidentified female juggler who appears to have hand bells on her prop stand. If they are not hand bells, they are likely the other forgotten prop discussed below.


We do know that Edward Van Wyck, the first retail juggling club manufacturer, made “musical clubs” and “bell clubs,” but we don’t know anything more about these props. Likewise, we don’t know what exactly the performers in the above photos did with the hand bells. It may have been to simply cascade them and ring them while doing so, but perhaps they did something more interesting.

Cup Sticks

The other forgotten juggling prop that I want to discuss here actually resembles hand bells. They’re what I will refer to as “cup sticks.” Resembling a short handled toilet plunger, these props appear to have been held in the juggler’s hand and used to catch and toss balls in place of the hand. The use of these props appears to have been common in the 1800s. Let’s take a look at several old depictions of jugglers that show these props.


The image above is of a woodcut from 1820 showing a French juggler dressed as an Indian juggler. As you can see, he has two cup sticks by his left knee.



The above image from 1850 shows a Spanish juggler using the cup sticks to juggle balls.



This image shows a juggler using just one cup stick to juggle balls. The poster is dated from 1870.


The above image shows Juggler John Irvin with his props. You can see two cup sticks (or possibly hand bells) at head level on his prop stand. It is unknown what year this is from.


The photo above shows the props of juggler Roberto Alfonso. You can see among the props in the center of the photo what appears to be two cup sticks. They are the third item in from the edge of the rectangular prop stand, on each side of a triangle of three large balls. Again the year of this photo’s origin is unknown.

The last of the jugglers that I’m aware of to use the traditional cup sticks was Zarmo, a turn of the century performer who will be the subject of a future article.  He performed in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Below you can see a photo of him with some cup sticks at his feet and a modern photo of his props, which includes two sets of cup sticks and the metal balls that he juggled them with.



The use of these props to juggle balls seems to suddenly cease in the very early 1900s. Around the same time, the Breen Family started using Breenos, which oriented the cup on the same plane as the handle rather than perpendicular to it. You can click here to learn more about the Breens and Breenos. Below are two newly discovered (with great help from Michael Karas) pictures of the Breens with their unique props.



The cup stick props have made a modern comeback in a couple of ways. In 1991, Russian juggler Andrei Popov performed an act that featured juggling up to five large balls using cup sticks. Click here to see this portion of his act. Currently, Finnish juggler Jani Suihkonen juggles large balls using large cup sticks and juggles them in the pattern as well, as you can see in the following video.

The better known modern take on the cup stick is the RDL Cuphead club. It was created in 2010 and is sold by Renegade Juggling. Below is a video of Jackson Ford using Cuphead clubs to juggle balls in various ways.
Below is a video of Jay Gilligan doing an extremely cool trick using three cuphead clubs and two balls.
There is a trend of modern jugglers looking to the past for inspiration, so it comes as little surprise that the cup stick has resurfaced after being absent in the juggler’s prop case for 140 years. Perhaps other forgotten juggling props will make a comeback as well.

David Cain is a professional juggler, juggling historian, and the owner of the world's only juggling museum, the Museum of Juggling History. He is a Guinness world record holder and 16 time IJA gold medalist. In addition to his juggling pursuits, David is a successful composer, songwriter, multi-instrumentalist, and singer as well as the author of twenty-six books. He and his children live in Middletown, OH (USA).

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