Clowning Around

Clown Smiling

By Jen Baldwin

Do you remember it? The discarded peanut shells beneath your feet; the aroma of animals, popcorn and cotton candy mixed together. The sound of the carni music, the laughter and excited talk as the lights eventually began to fade… the applause, the anticipation as the Ringmaster stepped into the spotlight, magical and ornate in his red suit and top hat. The Circus!

The first week in August is International Clown Week and what a reason to celebrate!  An attraction often used to “kill time” between acts during a live show, clown’s truly date to ancient Greece. Comedians of the culture, they were generally bald-headed and padded to appear larger than normal, performing as “secondary figures.”  Roman’s added a pointed hat, colorful garments and were the target for pranks, gags and abuse. (

Court jesters, harlequins, the classic “white-face” clown, Auguste and the hobo. Common characters in a role played by thousands throughout history, bringing laughter and at times, fear, into the lives of so many.  You can now participate in clown training, therapeutic clown workshops, and learn to be a clown in theatre schools around the world.

The idea of “International Clown Week” first originated in the 1950s, but it was not until the 1960s that the concept really started to gain popularity. The resolution was finally introduced in 1969, and Congress passed the law in October of 1970. Although only officially recognized as such in the United States, it is celebrated by clowns around the world.

Rolling Memories

For so many of us, clowns conjure strong memories of childhood adventure.  The grand tent, and all that lay waiting underneath it, was anticipated in communities across the country.  The young minded lined up to watch the circus train roll into the station.  Those trains, still running today, started as early as the 1830s in the Eastern states, and by the 1890s, Barnum & Bailey had 56 cars traveling the country.  Not to be outdone, Ringling Brothers had nearly 100 cars running the rails by the 1920s. The current Ringling Bros. operation includes two trains traveling simultaneously: Red Unit and Blue Unit; and the animals get the smoothest ride, directly behind the engine.

Today, you do not have to wait for the train to roll into your neighborhood. You can download a customizable “Desktop Train” widget to your computer and have the circus train on your computer every day! []

What does the circus mean in our culture today? Think Cirque du Soleil, Circus Flora, and the Big Apple Circus–all filled with incredible acrobatic performances and visually stunning costumes. They characterize their product with “imaginary world” art forms from around the globe and tell fabulous stories with glimpses of dance, daring, and dexterity. Started in the early 1980s in Quebec, today Cirque du Soleil has developed into an international phenomenon that has redefined the circus experience.

Little Doubt

The affect and effect of clowns in our society has been remarkable through the decades. Far from just being entertainers, Harry Rogers was known as the “Fire Clown” and traveled through many western communities from his home in Chicago, educating school children of the dangers of fire, risks to be aware of, and prevention methods. Before the creation of “Smokey the Bear,” the “Fire Clown” was a valuable resource to the people of the United States. There is truly little doubt that the clown industry holds a special place in the history of our society, and that the jovial characters have influenced many.

Do you still enjoy the sights and sounds of the circus, and the clown, with your family today? Do you carry on this annual tradition? Or has the “Greatest Show on Earth” faded from memory?  Keep the experience alive within your family; tell the stories, pull out the old photos. The Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus is even asking for attendees to share their “Amazing Memories” on their website .

You can find the tour schedule and special offers – and much more! – on the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus website.  You just may find that this is one family adventure worth recapturing, and one that will entertain every generation.

Baldwin, Jen headshot small Genealogist Jen Baldwin is the owner of Ancestral Journeys, specializing in the Rocky Mountain Corridor. She writes for a variety of publications, speaks regionally on genealogy related topics, is the creator and co-host of #genchat on Twitter, and owns Conference Keeper. She also is co-creator and Co-Chair of the NextGen Genealogy Network and is the Director of Operations for The In-Depth Genealogist. You can connect with Jen on her website or on social media.