Why Is A Flea Called A Flea, Anyway?


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flea map

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, a flea market is a 'market, typically outdoors, selling secondhand goods.'

It’s not like these often outdoor shangri-la’s of secondhand treasures are buzzing with winged vermin. Or is it?

As it turns out, there is no confirmed reason why a flea market is called a flea market, though there are a few popular recurring explanations.

The most popular theory is that the name comes from the Parisian Marché aux Puces Saint-Ouen, which has been in operation for over a century and a half. The literal translation is “market of fleas” and it was thus named because many of the items sold by these 19th century dumpster-divers were thought to be so timeworn that they attracted fleas.

But that’s not the only story. Another version has the term coming from a time, under Napolean III, when the slums of Paris were being demolished in favor of broad avenues, forcing the second hand dealers who had lived and worked there previously to “flee.” Once settled in a new location at the northern border of the city, the market became known as the “flee market,” which later morphed into the “flea market.” The Puces, as it is lovingly referred to, remains in this same location today.

A third, and slightly more likely explanation, is that the phrase originated with the Fly Market in early New York City (sometime in the 1700’s). Called the Vlie, (a Dutch word that means swamp and is pronounced flee) this market was located on a former salt marsh on Maiden Lane in what is now the financial district of Manhattan. By the early 1800’s, the Fly was the biggest market in the city.


Flea market stalls at Menge, Pass Christian, Mississippi. Photo by Miss Malaprop.

Regardless of how the name entered the lexicon, flea markets have been popular in Europe for centuries, and in America for over 100 years as well.

Today’s American flea market is a modern version of a phenomenon that has endured throughout history in all civilized societies – wherever there is a high concentration of people, there will be market days when they assemble for the exchange of goods and services.
~ Albert LaFarge, author of U.S. Flea Market Directory

There is no shortage of flea markets all over the country, with the peak season beginning right about now. In fact, estimates show that there are over 5,000 flea markets (and antiques fairs and farmer’s markets, etc) in the US alone serving approximately 100,000 intrepid shoppers! We’re building a master list here at Krrb and to get things started, we’ve started with our favorite flea markets in New York City. Let us know about you’ve favorites around you. Remember – sharing is caring.

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  • Agha Jamal Nasir

    Actually, reviews show that there are over 5,000 start market segments (and products events and farmer’s market segments, etc) in the US alone offering approximately 100,000 intelligent shoppers!StarStay Hotels

  • It doesn’t matter if they didn’t like your posts what matters most is, it satisfy me, as your subscriber

  • Great post however , I was wondering if you could write a litte more on this subject? I’d be very thankful if you could elaborate a little bit further. Bless you!

  • Sarah W

    I’ve always wondered why it was called a ‘flea’ market. I have always assumed it was the first explanation as you said, but had never heard the other two! I like the ‘flee’ing market explanation the best :)

  • Glad you like! It was a late night inspiration, but I think it holds up. And yes please, a list of your favorite fleas would be much appreciated. I for one would print it out and keep it for when I get over to your neck of the woods!

  • Van

    I love the clever “anatomy of a flea” graphic with this post! I’ll have to work on a list of local favorite fleas one day soon :)