Updated on October 19, 2018.
The circus is one of the world’s oldest tourist attractions, and perhaps no figure is more emblematic than the clown.
There is not half so much tragedy behind the funny make-ups of clowns as people like to believe.
Different variations of the comic character have existed in nearly every civilization throughout history—they appeared in the pantomimes of ancient Greece, in front of Egyptian pharaohs, performed for imperial Chinese courts, and took the stage in Shakespeare’s productions. Phineas T. Barnum, founder of Barnum & Bailey Circus, famously said, “Elephants and clowns are pegs on which to hang a circus.”
While historically their role has been one of jest and comic relief, images of the clown have evolved throughout the centuries. Today, pop culture icons like Stephen King’s 1986 horror novel turned film It and Charles Dickens’s Memoirs of Joseph Grimaldi, a biography on England’s most famous clown, painted a more sinister character. This trope has proliferated in the horror genre during the past century. (Read more about Why Clowns Creep Us Out.)
While photographer Richard Hewitt Stewart’s glass-plate photos from National Geographic’s October 1931 issue give off a distinctly spooky vibe, the story actually challenged the clown’s bad rep. “There is not half so much tragedy behind the funny make-ups of clowns as people like to believe,” wrote author Francis Beverly Kelley. “All in all, the clown's is a noble calling. The world is full of tears, and man by nature is a sorrowing creature. It requires infinitely more to send us into the gales of laughter than it does to make us cry.”
This article was originally published in October 2017.