The Celebrity Clown (1780s-1870s)
The original circuses barely had clowns. In the first circus, Phillip Astley’s in 1787 London, and in the first American circus, John Bill Ricketts’ in 1793 Philadelphia, acrobats and riders provided the comedy. One of the most popular comic acts for years featured a rider, in “Billy Buttons, or the Tailor’s Ride to Brentford.” (The joke of the routine relied on the popular bias of tailors as especially inept, so the performer had to look like a tailor, rather than a costumed clown.) The clown as a specialized role started as an assistant. The “clown to the ring” or “clown to the horse” handled props and held “balloons” — paper-covered hoops — for the rider to jump through, and only presented bits of comedy while the rider rested. The “clown to the rope” did the same for tightrope walkers. With no tents yet, early circuses played in canvas sidewalls or in theaters, where this comic figure was called “clown to the stage.”
This uncertain role of the circus clown reflected uncertainty about circus itself. Over its first two decades, this odd hybrid of horsemanship and comedy didn’t always look likely to survive. It was not even called “circus” yet. Astley had presented his “Amphitheatre,” and his London rival Charles Hughes’ “Royal Circus” referred to the arena, not the enterprise. In the new United States, Ricketts advertised his “Equestrian Exhibition,” a reminder that circus formed around horse-riding. It took three decades before a troupe and its show were called “circus,” the “New York Circus” of 1824. That struck a chord: Within a year, it became standard. The use of tents also began in 1825, as the invention of light-weave canvas allowed circuses to tear down and move daily. It started a pattern that would prevail for half a century, summer tours in tents and winter circuses in theaters. (Until the 1850s, most urban references to “circus” meant circuses in theaters that also presented plays, such as Philadelphia’s Walnut Street Theatre, still in business.)
Meanwhile the best-known clown in these early years never appeared in a circus. Joseph Grimaldi, who embarked on his career around the same time circus began, only appeared on stage. Unlike earlier stage clowns, he did not take a comic role in a play, but starred in a performance of knockabout comedy. He and his competitors used a whiteface makeup and fancy costume that strongly influenced the makeup, costume, and knockabout style of circus clowns. Grimaldi’s fame generated two popular bits of lore. The first says that clowns are called “Joeys” in his honor. However, it is not clear when that nickname first appeared, or if it was a nickname was used within the profession or was simply an affectation by writers. A second tale, told over the years about many famous clowns, may have started with Grimaldi: A sick man visits a doctor, who says he’ll feel better if he goes to watch a famous clown in town, at which point the man says, “Alas, doctor” — the tale frequently includes “alas” — “I am that clown.” Though these tales may not reflect historical fact, they testify to the early emergence of romantic notions about clowns.
As circus began to dominate American amusements, clowns and riders dominated American circus. In the 1830s most circuses had two kinds of clowns, whiteface and blackface. The whiteface focused on knockabout comedy; the blackface clown combined physical and verbal comedy, in an awkward but immensely popular exploitation of stereotypes about black people. The whiteface-blackface combination began to fade when minstrelsy spun off from circus, after a quartet of blackface circus clowns formed the Virginia Minstrels in 1843. Though circus, like other kinds of amusements, would continue to employ blackface comedy, the craze for minstrelsy would continue into the next century. A 1923 book, How to Put On An Amateur Circus, included tips on blackface, and blacked-up comics survived into the 1940s, including Marx Brothers movies and Bing Crosby in blackface in the movie Holiday Inn.
Other than the sick-clown story, early circus symbolism barely included clowns. The two most prominent circus symbols were “Circus Day,” the arrival of a circus in a small town that created an instant day of vacation, and nostalgia for “the good, old days,” that began as early as the 1850s. Clowns were not yet symbols because they were simply considered circus workers, with focus on what they did rather than what they might represent. (These early era clowns might be compared to baseball players today who, though occasionally used as examples of this or that attribute, primarily attract fan interest because of what they do on the field.)
The talking clown emerged in the 1840s, perhaps because of the loss of the verbal comedy of the blackface clown. The talking clown included two sub-specialties, the singing clown and the Shakespearean clown. The talking (and singing and “Shaksperian”) clown Dan Rice became the best clown of the century, the best-known circus performer of the century, and by 1860 one of the best-known people in any field in America. (The lingering blackface influence helps explain why Dan Rice is still confused with an earlier blackface stage comedian, T.D. “Jump Jim Crow” Rice.) He started in whiteface and occasional blackface, including a stint with Dan Emmett, author of “Dixie.” As his fame grew, he traveled all over the United States in his own tents every summer and performed in major city theaters over the winter. Dan Rice was almost certainly seen by more people than any other American of his age, as he drew large audiences with his quick wit and “hits on the times.” As he expanded his commentary into politics and presented himself as “The Great American Humorist,” he performed without makeup, as a well-dressed middle-class gentleman in tie and tails. Rice further expanded his commentary to run for political office from the circus ring. Though later accounts would dismiss his campaigns as jokes, he ran legitimately for the Pennsylvania legislature, Congress, and president.
Dan Rice’s pre-eminence attracted many fictions, which continue to be mistakenly repeated as fact. He did not campaign for Zachary Taylor in 1848, nor did that imaginary campaign create the phrase “on the bandwagon,” which only became political slang in the 1880s, with no connection to Rice. He also was not friends with Abraham Lincoln. A fierce political foe of Lincoln, Rice was a Copperhead during the Civil War, a Peace Democrat who argued in the ring against Republicans and Lincoln. However the two men may have known each other, and were paired in the public mind as two uncouth jokesters.
Another popular tale, that Uncle Sam was modeled on Dan Rice, comes closer to truth. First, it must be emphasized that Rice was not a direct model for the Uncle Sam icon. For all his boasts, Rice never made this claim for himself, and anyway the Uncle Sam icon had been developing for decades. Further, the symbol we know today was drawn in 1869 by the cartoonist Thomas Nast, a fierce Republican, who would not have consciously used a famous Democrat like Rice as a model. However Rice was one of the few popular figures among all strata of American society and in all regions, and the Uncle Sam figure combines elements of the look he was nationally known for: The stars, stripes and top hat of his traditional clown costume blended with his tailcoat as “The Great American Humorist,” all punctuated by his even more famous goatee. So though he cannot be definitively identified as its model, if America had any original for Uncle Sam, it was Dan Rice.