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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

  • Circus Clown - There are three basics types of circus clowns including character, auguste, and whiteface. Whiteface clowns are considered of the highest status in circuses and they use the clown white makeup to cover their entire face. The auguste or red clown, often wear red makeup and are the recipients of comic doings. Character clowns will adopt some sort of eccentric character, for example a police officer, or a baker.
  • White Clown - White clowns originated in France and were sophisticated characters as opposed to clumsy clowns. White clowns are also known as clown blanc and are distinguished as sad clowns.
  • Pierrot and Harlequin - Pierrot and harlequin clowns were part of the British comic theatrical genre where they played the part of pantomimes.
  • Auguste - Auguste clowns have face makeup that is a variation of red, pink or tan, as opposed to white. They have large, exaggerated features that are normally black or red in color. Auguste clowns wear costumes that feature large prints, bold colors, and have suspenders.
  • Rodeo Clown - Rodeo clowns are performers who work in bull riding competitions. They are tasked with providing comic relief and helping to protect riders who are thrown from their bulls.
  • Bad Clowns - At times throughout history, clowns were seen as fools, tricksters, and more.

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.