“Examine the Contents”: Clowning and Songsters in American Circuses, 1850-1900

Micah Childress

Abstract


 

This article examines the jokes and songs of circus clowns (often compiled into thirty-page books called songsters), performed during the main show or in the vaudeville-like aftershow. These songsters, largely unexamined by historians, are an important window into 19th-century American culture and popular entertainment. The content of the clown’s routine addressed race and ethnicity, gender, class, economics, politics, and, of course, the age-old comedic fodder of lawyers and mothers-in-law. Clowns and their songsters demonstrate the volatility in American culture during the last half of the 19th century, and circuses became a place where Americans could express their opinions in a public arena. These views were not single-minded, but varied depending upon the clown, leaning to the political right or left, or simply ridiculing both sides. Although the circus provided a one-day vacation from the daily toil of farming or factory work, it could not escape  the political debates that took place on the floors of Congress, town halls, courtrooms, churches, and saloons. Micah Childress is a Ph.D. candidate at Purdue University, US, with a special interest in American circus, from 1840 to 1920.

 


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Popular Entertainment Studies ISSN 1837-9303