From Janet M. Davis, The Circus Age: Culture & Society Under the American Big Top:
Some circus programs contained portraits of clowns in literal blackface, with huge red mouths and bulging eyes, strumming energetically on a banjo, but often the auguste clown’s blackface was metaphorical. He created his racial identity through the act of ‘‘whitening up’’ with thick pancake.
His greasy whiteness and exaggerated bodily zones—huge red mouth, lolling, paint-encircled eyes, big fake nose, ears, and feet—made his look strikingly similar to blackface. Showmen played upon this visual connection by arguing that African American men literally were clowns because of their supposed aﬃnity for clowning and the circus. The Ringling Bros.’ route book from 1895 and 1896 contained a section, ‘‘The Plantation Darkey at the Circus,’’ which imagined—in almost orgasmic language—black men as minstrel characters.
Proprietors further conﬂated the African American man and the clown by arguing that both were completely controlled by their emotions, not reason.
Superlative examples of white manhood—the big cat tamer, the wire walker, and so forth—demonstrated little emotion during life-threatening acts. The clown, by contrast, howled in mock fear when he saw a mouse, or shrieked in pain at a mosquito bite. Showmen characterized male African American spectators in a similar vein as giddy and superstitious.
Actual big-top acts made this rhetorical relationship between the clown and the African American complete. In 1888 Eph Thompson trained the elephant John L. Sullivan at the Adam Forepaugh circus. Wearing a boxing glove at the end of his trunk, the elephant sparred with Thompson in the ring and frequently ‘‘punched’’ him so hard that Thompson went ﬂying over the ring bank.
Unlike the white trainer who dominated powerful animals, Thompson played a clownish coward—constantly vanquished by the boxing pachyderm—and consequently remained unthreatening to Euroamerican audiences. Yet Thompson still had a diﬃcult time ﬁnding employment with American shows. As a result, he moved to Europe where his career ﬂourished.
In line with the tenets of nineteenth-century romantic racialism, show-men’s portrayals of black men and clowns reﬂected contemporary representations of white women: late-nineteenth-century scientists argued that ‘‘excessive’’ emotionalism deﬁned women, racial ‘‘savages,’’ and children of all races. The German Darwinist Ernst Haeckel and the Americans Edward Drinker Cope and G. Stanley Hall were all proponents of recapitulation theory, positing that every organism repeats the life history of its ‘‘race’’ within its own lifetime, evolving through the less developed forms of its ancestors on its path to maturity. They contended that Euroamerican women and ‘‘primitives’’ remained mentally and emotionally ﬁxed in lower ancestral stages of evolution. Accordingly, only white boys were physiologically and mentally capable of reaching the highest stages of racial and gender development as fully evolved men. This line of thought used pseudoempirical phrenological evidence to claim that African American men were perpetually emotional and juvenile, just like the clown.
The painted clown acted out childish behaviors and infantile pleasures. He reveled in dirt, cried freely, openly adored the serious ‘‘adult’’ acts, and played physical pranks on everybody, from ringmaster to the audience. If playing a hobo (popularized most fully by Emmett Kelly’s ‘‘Willie’’ tramp character during the Depression, when at times nearly one-quarter of the American workforce was unemployed), the auguste clown’s persona was deﬁned by dirt. Laughing loudly at the clown’s antics perhaps transported audiences back to the unrestrained pleasures of their own collective infancy and childhood.
More than a ‘‘low Other’’ who simply represented a tantalizing version of what they were not, the unfettered clown symbolized what clock-bound, alienated adult Euroamerican men perhaps felt they had lost.
Even the red noses have their origins in racist stereotypes.
While the Native American plains tribes had their own various manifestations of the Trickster figure, the main clown type of non-Native Americans was not the August, as it was in Europe, but the character clown… After the [Civil War] ended, however, one particular style of character clown came into prominence: the Hobo.
Eric Lott describes how the Hobo figure was originally based on the blackface minstrel clowns (hence the exaggerated white mouths) who portrayed the figures of African Americans made homeless by the ravages of the Civil War.
Lott explains that the Hobo character clown is a distinctly American invention, with his tattered hat, huge white mouth, three days’ growth of beard, torn clothes, and cartoon alcoholic’s big red nose. […] It seems ironic that such mawkishly appealing personalities had their roots in the miseries of poverty and oppression and the disfigurements of alcoholism and venereal disease.