As a juggling historian, I am obviously interested in early writings about the history of juggling. One of the earliest accounts we have of the history of jugglers was written by Signor Saltarino, who was actually Hermann Waldemar Otto (1863-1941), a German writer, journalist, and artist. He is best known for his Artist’s Lexicon, detailing a history of performing artists. The following discussion of famous jugglers comes from his book Artistry and Its History (Das Artistentum und seine Geschichte), which was published in 1910. The original German text was provided by juggling historian Erik Åberg and was translated by another juggling historian, Lukas Reichenbach. I (David Cain) made some additional editing of the text, added some notes, and added photos, so this is certainly a team effort among juggling historians. Thanks to Erik and Lukas for allowing me to bring their findings and work to the broader juggling world. I should also point out the curious omission by the author of Paul Cinquevalli, the most famous juggler of all time, who was performing at the time this piece was written. The author also barely mentions the two other top jugglers of the time, Kara and Salerno, and doesn’t describe their work at all.
The Juggler and His Art
By Signor Saltarino
The current understanding of a “juggler” is an artist of circus and variety-theaters who has achieved remarkable physical skill in catching and throwing a variety of objects; primarily balls, bottles, plates, and bowls, from years of practice. The word originated from the medieval “Joculator,” which was used to describe professional travelling artists (“Gaukler und Spielleute”) in comparison to the amateurs (“Troubadours and Trouveres”). In France, they also used the name “Menestrels,”, in England “Minstels.” Today we know a “Minstrel” to be an eccentric singer or dancer, primarily of English nationality. The “joculatores” used to carry their juggling props in a small bag that was attached to the belt. It is likely that travelling artists who focused on tossing and catching called their art “Jonglerie” or “Jonglage,” while balancing artists used the term “Equilibristen.”
The first juggler known in history was Pierre Gringouire, born around 1475 in Caen. He was known as the “König der Gaukler” (King of Jugglers). He is shown on a “little picture” (Miniaturbild) as a “Bateleur” in “Trikot und Flatterhöschen”, (sports dress and short pants) wearing the obligatory bag at his belt, juggling 3 dice in his left hand. Gringouire traveled through France, performing on his journey and presenting his feats at the castles of nobleman. (Editor’s note: Gringouire was also a well-known poet and playwright. He was famous enough that Victor Hugo included a fictionalized version of him as a character in his book The Hunchback of Notre Dame, published in 1831. Gringouire passed away in 1538.)
Illustration of Pierre Gringouire
From this point on, the juggler was a common appearance next to the fire-eaters, rope dancers, “dem harten Mann” [hard man, probably describing an acrobat or strongman], and the snake charmer, without us knowing about a certain important individual getting famous in this area of physical skill. Later, starting around 1780, the better jugglers went from the streets to the stable circus, but it was the appearance of the Asians in Europe that helped juggling gain recognition.
The Japanese and Chinese have been good jugglers for a long time and show astonishing tricks, which have worked for centuries, but their work is monotonous, while the Europeans are more diverse, more precise, and always looking for new ways to present themselves, therefore giving the “variatio delectat” the audience demands.
The attention the Asians created in Europe made the indigenous jugglers dress in Japanese or Chinese costumes and pretend to be of Asian heritage. This way our best “Japanese” jugglers (meaning fake Asian) got better and better on European ground until they finally displaced the actual Asians and finally established themselves, also in regard to their costumes, first wearing trikots again and later performing in a gentleman’s suit.
One of the first great jugglers of modern times was Karl Rappo (born 14. May 1800 in Innsbruck, died from typhoid 1854 in Moscow). He was a so-called “strength juggler” and is said to have juggled with 6 cannon balls [Rappo did 6 balls, but not with cannonballs].
Karl Rappo 1828
His only son Francois (22 August 1826 in Lübeck – 31 October 1874 in the “Freimaurer Krankenhaus” in Hamburg) was also a strongman juggler and followed in his father’s footsteps. He traveled through all Europe and as far as Siberia and was awarded by Emperor Nikolaus the First several times. Francois had a strange sense of humor. One time when he and his troupe were taking a ship from Stockholm to Stettin, a Dutch artist was thrown from the ship by a storm. A moment after the artist grabbed the rope that was thrown to rescue him, Francois grabbed the “Wanttauen des Fodmastes” (some ropes attached to the mast) with one hand and the wet Dutchman in his other hand saying:” Hello Jan, you need to stay – I paid you in advance” while throwing him back on board.
A student of Karl Rappo was Karl Johann Schäffer, born on the 18 February 1824, the founding father of the famous artistic family. He was a master of the juggling arts, but was over shadowed by his sons Sylvester and Severus.
Karl Johann Schäffer and his children
Sylvester juggled 6 balls like the Rappos and he was the first to balance a turning cartwheel, juggled with a glass of beer in a hoop and finally changed from the traditional costume to a salon-suit.
Sylvester Schäffer Sr.
His brother Severus revolutionized plate juggling and was the first to show cylinder balances and throws and balanced a dogcart on his forehead.
Sylvester Schäffer Jr., born on 22 January 1885 in Berlin, was called the “King of Artists.” The young artist distinguished himself from others through his diversity that has never been seen before. He was a brilliant fast painter, quick-change artist, magician, violin virtuoso, sharpshooter, acrobat, and, primarily, an unsurpassable juggler.
Sylvester Schäffer Jr
Be it as a “Japanese” or as a gentleman / salon juggler, he showed surprising skills. Balls, lamps, tables, chairs, sticks, and hats seemed to follow his every command. Sylvester Schäffer Jr. is the most striking individual in the performing arts today.
Sylvester Schäffer Jr
Another well known strength juggler is Paul Spadoni, born 1870 as the son of a restaurateur in Berlin. After misguided experiences as an acrobat and clown, he finally found his act and his strange and dangerous tricks raised the interest of circus experts. Similar to Rappo, he juggled cannonballs, catching one that has been fired by a cannon with both hands and finally catching a 100 kg grenade on his neck. The fact that this artist, whose strength is not visible if he dresses like a civilian, only hurt himself twice until this day is proof of his precision.
His predecessor, the cannon king John Holtum from Hadersleben wasn’t that lucky, since he lost the fingers of his left hand when he tried to catch a cannonball.
The cannon queen Victoria, born with the original name of Weidler in Straßburg, had to give up the trick soon, too.
One of the most outstanding jugglers, besides Kara and Salerno, is the Königsberger Charles Hera, who had developed great skills at ball play as a schoolboy and started his career with a group of traveling artists. Within years the intelligent artist became a famous attraction, because he understood how to introduce new variations in his work like no other, He even learned mechanics to be able to build his own props.
His most beautiful trick is juggling 3 burning chandeliers with triple spins behind his back on a darkened stage, a trick that took 18 month to rehearse. The simultaneous throwing and catching of 9 candles in the openings of a chandelier required infinite patience.
But Hera also showed difficult tricks as an equilibrist. You wouldn’t believe that one trick, which was performed without preparation was possible. Hera balanced the following objects on each other (from bottom to top); A billiard cue, a water decanter, two glasses, another billiard cue and a champagne glass on top.
An interesting variation of this trick has been recently performed by “billiard juggler” Waldemar Asra from Berlin. The artist is performing with 10 balls on a common billiard table. His wife assists him. A layman will be ridiculed by so much manual skill. Asra pushes a ball, just like a common billiard player, to the opposing cushion from there the ball flies back in an high arc and hits the trigger of a strangely constructed revolver, the revolver goes of and shoots a second ball out of a fine pipe, which is caught on the forehead of his wife. She will then put the ball in a small basket attached to Asra’s back from which he will take the ball again with a movement fast as lightning to then repeat the whole thing again.
A unique artist is L. A. Street, who was the first to think about juggling downwards. He started with 2 or 3 balls and managed to work himself up to juggling with 7 and 8 balls, which would be bounced against the floor or a wall, after countless tries. Street, who called himself a “Rubber Ball Manipulator” was trained as a dancer and had great success with it. He did up to 12 pirouettes and gained the title of “Russian championship dancer.” He started juggling in 1898 in America and it took him 6 years to gain his current skill.
L. A. Street
A popular and funny act of variety was the comedy juggler. It’s likely that this character originated by accident, when a bad juggler, who worked more on the floor than in the air and therefore got mocked by the audience took the idea and became funny on purpose, just in the same way the character of the “dummer August” (stupid August, an early clown archetype) originated 50 years ago from a foolish servant. It’s said that the first comedy juggling was the Danish Baggesen, but Leo Billward from Vienna claims that he had the idea himself first.
Leo Billward was born in 1862 as the son of music hall owner Carl Kampf in Vienna and already acted in child roles at the age of 6. He showed great interest in juggling and his mother complained about broken bottles, plates and glasses on a daily basis. In 1876, he had his debut as a juggler and became a proper artist soon, but he is only documented by his reputation and big salaries from the day he decided to become “stupid.” Many have copied Baggesen and Billward.
A completely new juggling act is the work with hoops. It’s inventor is William Everhart, born in Columbus, Ohio, as a farmer’s son. As early as 7 years old he would show his dexterity in throwing and catching balls and rings at little festivities and took his first engagement as a juggler when he was 19 years old. But his astounding hoop-play failed to gain recognition until he was found by the manager Field. He lead the “hoop king” through the world and made him a rich man.
William Everhart and Company
His German counterpart, hoop juggler John Mettros from Munich, got a great reputation in the world of artistic, too.
John Mettros Troupe
It will never be possible to write a complete guide about the art of juggling. It is impossible to notate in text, in picture, or scripture. Like a magician, a juggler needs to be born for it. A natural disposition, pleasure and love for this job, never-ending patience, and endurance are the requirements to learn this difficult work. It requires intellectual abilities, to not only copy the masters of the present, but find and develop new tricks and performances. Often the common audience doesn’t understand the difficulty of a trick, and because it appears so easy and playful only an expert can respect it, as he knows that the juggler trained daily for years and had to bend down a hundred-thousand times before he could perform that trick safely.
One more ball or an extra spin will increase the difficulty of a trick by a hundred times. There is a great gap between a beginner who starts practicing with 3 balls and a master juggling with 6 of those. It takes years of exhausting work on details, torn apart between joyful energy and discouraged frustration, infinite repetitions of a seemingly simple game starting in the morning and only ending when the sun disappears or hurting arms force the juggler to stop his practice.
And once a trick is safe with balls, there are other objects: plates, bowls, lamps, sticks, hats, umbrellas. Difficult balances with many different props and throwing burning torches forward and backwards. After that, work can be made more difficult by using imbalanced, big and heavy objects like a cylinder, an open umbrella, or a burning cigar. After several rotations, the hat lands on the head, the umbrella will be caught with the right hand and the cigar is caught between the teeth. Or the juggler throws a coin in the air and catches it with the eye like a monocle and lets the coin slip into his wallet with a smile. All these tricks and many more have to be mastered before a juggler can earn he right to call himself: “ the greatest juggler in the world.” But even as a champion, the juggler can’t rest on his achievements. Even when he has a 100% confidence in his tricks, he has to do them day by day to stay in practice. Because it’s not unusual that an acknowledged juggler has bad luck one evening, even several evenings in a row, and his props can be found on the floor more often than in the air. Difficulties of many kind, but mainly bad stage lighting, a small stage, or fatigue after a long travel are to blame for failures. The juggler, whose art counts as the most difficult physical feature, can never say: “I am confident in my skill” and even the best of them have to endure days where they fail every trick, so that the audience have to believe that they are watching a total beginner.