Tom Turpin
Professor of
Purdue University


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Flies in the face of fashion

What's Buggin You Now?





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Crickets in cages, oh my!

My daughter called me the other day and wanted to know if I owned an antique cricket cage. Apparently she had seen something labeled as such in an antique store. Knowing that I have all sorts of insect-related memorabilia she decided to see if she had encountered something missing from my collection. The answer was, "Well, maybe; I do have a couple of cricket cages."

There are at least three types of devices that people generally call cricket cages. The first type of cricket cage could also be called a live-bait box. Such boxes are used to hold live insects destined to become fishing bait. The bait could be any type of insect, including mealworms, waxworms, grasshoppers or crickets. Mostly though, the insect of choice for such live bait boxes has been the cricket, hence the boxes are often called cricket cages.

Live-bait boxes vary considerably in size and construction, but those of the vintage types are about a 10-inch cube or smaller. Many of these handcrafted bait boxes are constructed of a combination of wood and screen wire. Some commercial bait boxes, even those considered antiques, are metal. In any case, a handle is affixed for carrying purposes, and a small opening, often round, is in the top of the cage. A lid for the opening allows access into the box so that the crickets can be removed prior to being used to bait the fishing hook.

Some live-bait boxes are fashioned from a column of screen wire with a wooden top and bottom. That is the general design you are likely to find in a modern cricket-type bait box. Most of these modern cages have a removable funnel on one end of the container through which to shake crickets - one at a time - into your hand. Cages of this structure are designed to avoid letting a whole flock of crickets escape when you accidently upset the container while trying to capture one to bait the hook.

The history of cricket cages goes back over 2,000 years to ancient China, where cricket cages were developed for confining a single cricket for one of two purposes: to sing or as a contestant in a cricket fight. Crickets were held in high regard in Chinese tradition, and people would keep a male cricket in a cage so they could enjoy the song. Also, in those long-ago years, a sport called cricket fighting developed. Male crickets are fierce competitors and produce spectacular battles when they confront each other. Because of human nature being what it is, such battles became spectator sports with the associated betting on the outcome of the battle.

Of course, having a cricket for purposes of song or battle means confining the little creature. That is where cricket cages came in. Such miniature cages have been fashioned of various materials, including wood, bone, gourd or metal. All have a tiny door through which the cricket is introduced or removed from the cage. Most of these cricket cages measure about 3 by 4 inches, and all have a small hook or eyelet on the top so the cage can be attached to other items. For instance, a number of years ago in Beijing, China, I remember hearing an unusual amount of cricket chirping emanating from a seating area in a park. I discovered that a number of older men had suspended cricket cages, with the resident insect singers, from their clothing.

So over the years cricket cages have become collector items. Back in the old days people would put a lot of money into cricket cages. The bodies of the cages were etched with designs. Cage tops were also carved into likenesses of animals or flowers. For example, I have a gourd cricket cage that has a perforated wooden lid with a carved flower. The sides of the gourd are also adorned with a painted floral design.

Years ago a traveling museum exhibit in the United States featured cricket cages and other cricket-fighting paraphernalia. The exhibit was billed as "unique art forms associated with the ancient Chinese sport of cricket fighting." The exhibit included many cricket cages, including one carved from jade.

I don't have any cricket cages as fancy as most of those featured in the exhibit. However, along with my cricket-cage gourd, I do have a cage constructed of hand-carved thin sticks. This cage has a neat little sliding door through which to place the cricket into the cage. So far I have never confined a cricket in either of my cricket cages. I prefer to hear my crickets singing free!


Writer: Tom Turpin
Editor: Olivia Maddox