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A Brief History of Clowns

By: Molly Schwichtenberg

Clowns are performers with a long history of varied traditions, costumes, and performances. The most recognizable modern clown is that which dresses in outlandish costumes and wears colorful wigs, makeup, and often largely exaggerated shoes. The modern clown entertainment style is designed to be entertaining to large audiences. In addition to modern clowns, throughout history, there have been many different types of clowns including pierrot and harlequin, and character clowns, among others.

History of Circus Clowns

The first mainstream clown role was filled by Joseph Grimaldi, who is credited with developing the traditional whiteface makeup of modern circus clowns. Grimaldi expanded the role of clown in the early 1800s. Circus clowns first developed in the 19th century after Philip Astley added a clown to his circus shows. George L. Fox, an American comedian, was inspired by Grimaldi's character, and eventually became known for his own role as a clown. The modern clown with funny clothes, colorful wigs, and a red nose were created by Tom Belling senior, who worked for Circus Renz in Vienna, Austria.

It was not until the early 20th century that clowns gradually began to make an appearance in the United States. Tramps and hobo clowns slowly replaced village idiot characters. Clowns continued to grow in popularity and in the 1950s, the famous Bozo the clown character was developed. Following the development of Bozo the clown came Ronald McDonald, the McDonald's fast food chain mascot. The evil clown was popularized in the late 1980s with the release of Stephen King's novel It.

Types of Clowns

Clowns continue to be popular characters who can be found at circuses, theaters, and more. Clowns are also regularly featured in movies and television shows in many different forms. To learn more about the history of clowns, visit the pages below.