Pre-Club Juggling With Linear Props

Toss juggling with clubs can be traced back to James DeWitt Cook. Cook, who was born in 1857 in Cincinnati, Ohio in the United States. He was the first to juggle clubs, starting around the late 1870s. It is believed that Cook, who juggled as the “King of Clubs,” used solid wood Indian clubs, and other jugglers copied him, eventually using lighter, hollowed out clubs. He was also a very talented club swinger. He retired from performing in the late 1890s and passed away in 1927.

James DeWitt Cook

When jugglers learn that club juggling is only around 140 years old, many seem to doubt this. They can’t imagine that no one juggled objects that flipped and were caught on a handle prior to that. And they are right. The problem stems from our current thinking that one learns to juggle with clubs and then moves onto things like knives, torches, and other stick-like objects. The historical record tells us that the juggling of linear objects happened in the reverse of that, with clubs being the final example. Let’s take a look at some examples of jugglers using these linear props prior to James DeWitt Cook’s work with clubs.

Knives and Swords

In Chapter 8 of the Liezi, a very old collection of Daoist sayings, we read about a juggler who lived during the reigh of Duke Yuan of Song (531-517 BC). The passage reads:

In the State of Song there lived a man named Lanzi, who sought favor from Lord Yuan of Song for his skills. Lord Yuan of Song summoned him, and he performed on stilts that were twice as long as his body and attached to his legs. He walked and ran on them, and he also juggled seven swords, alternately throwing them and always keeping five swords in the air. Lord Yuan was amazed, and at once he granted Lanzi gold and silk.

This would indicate that juggling with bladed objects is at least 2500 years old.

Lanzi juggling 7 swords

Swords continued to be popular in China. Below is an illustration of a juggler from the Ming Dynasty era (1368 to 1644 A.D).

Ming Dynasty sword juggler

The Jewish Talmud mentions Levi bar Sissa (circa 150-220 AD), who juggled eight knives in front of Rabbi Yehuda the Prince, the national leader.

Tulchinne, the royal buffoon of Irish King Conaire, is described in “The Destruction of Da Derga’s Hostel,” as juggling nine swords. The earliest manuscript of the tale dates from the 12th century.

Norse Mythology from the same general time period includes a character named Gylfi, who supposedly juggled 7 swords.

Medieval depictions of juggling show swords and knives being used, as you can see below.

Illustration of knife juggling from an early 11th century manuscript

11th century knife juggler

Medieval knife juggler

Medieval knife juggler

Knife juggling rabbit from a Bible, circa 1265

After the middle ages, knives continued to be used by jugglers, as you can see in the following French woodcut from the 1700s of a juggler dressed in Indian garb with knives shown next to him.

French wood cut, 1700s

Another juggler who passed himself off as an Indian was Angelo Orsini. Below is an illistration of him juggling knives from 1826.

Angleo Orsini 1826

Actual Indian jugglers used knives as well, as you can see in the following depiction of Indian jugglers from 1830.

Indian jugglers 1830

Torches

The earliest known record of a juggler using torches is Rabbi Shimon ben Gamliel (circa 10 BC – 70 AD). He was the head of the Sanhedrin (High Court). A direct descendant of King David, he was held in great esteem as a leader by the entire nation. He is recorded in the Jewish Talmud as being able to juggle 8 torches.

Bottles

Bottles have been a popular prop for hundreds of years. The earliest known example of bottle juggling is from a mention of mathematician Abu Sahl al-Quhi juggling glass bottles at the market of Baghdad prior to becoming a famous mathematician around the 11th century.

Below is an illustration of a Japanese street juggler juggling a bottle, sickle, and ball, as you can see below.

17th century Japanese performer juggling a sickle, bottle, and ball

Bottles were popular props for European jugglers in the 1700s and 1800s.

Karl Rappo (1800-1854) apparently did a trick with three champagne bottles where he balanced one on his head and one on the back of each hand and then launched them into a three bottle cascade.

Juggler with bottles on his prop stand

Native American juggler White Eagle shown with bottles on his prop stand

Bottle juggler in tights

Sticks

Some jugglers didn’t juggle dangerous or fragile linear objects, but simply used sticks and stick-like objects such as drum sticks. The earliest known example is the depiction of five stick juggling shown below, which is around 900 years old.

12th century illustration of a stick juggler

Traditional Japanese juggling, Edo Daikagura, was developed in the 1600s and involves juggling drumsticks known as bachi.

Japanese juggler with bachi sticks, 1850

Hand Bells

Handbells were popular props leading up to the start of jugglers using clubs. You can see hand bells on the prop stands of many of these 19th century jugglers. Note also that many of these photographs show bottles on the prop stands as well. Although these may be from after the time that James DeWitt Cook began juggling clubs, they reflect that clubs had not yet permeated the juggling world and show the linear props that were already established.

White Eagle with hand bells and bottles

White Eagle with hand bells and bottles

Native American juggler with hand bells and bottles.

Niadon with hand bells and bottles

Umbrellas and Tennis Rackets

It’s certainly possible, and perhaps even probable, that jugglers before the late 1870s juggled with umbrellas and tennis rackets. They certainly were doing so around that period.

Roberto Alfonso 1880s

Eldora 1892

Carlotina

Nerlow

As you can see, linear objects were popular long before clubs were toss juggled. If you have an old image of one of these props, feel free to send it my way.

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 15 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-four books. He and his children live in Middletown, OH (USA).

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