The circus is one of the world’s oldest tourist attractions, and perhaps no figure is more emblematic than the clown.
Different variations of the comic character have existed in nearly every civilisation 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 (also one of 2017's most-searched Halloween costume ideas) 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.”
LEAD IMAGE: "The patent hair grower is only one of numerous ingenious 'props' used by the funny men to lampoon modern customs and conventions." National Geographic, 1931 PHOTOGRAPH BY RICHARD HEWITT STEWART, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC CREATIVE