Dusting Off Some Local History: “Clowns at Christmas Time”
By Greg Kocken, Archivist, UW-Eau Claire, Kockeng@uwec.edu
Let’s have a serious conversation about clowns. I do not associate clowns with Christmas time, and like many people of my generation it is hard to shake images of the clown Pennywise from the 1990 miniseries It from my mind. I remember sneaking out of bed to watch portions of the show on TV with my parents completely unaware of my presence. I did not sleep well that night (or for many of the nights to follow). While searching local newspapers I recently stumbled upon a fascinating advertisement about a 1939 Christmas Parade that took place in Eau Claire, Wisconsin featuring a “bevy of Clowns.” It certainly piqued my interest; are clowns associated with Christmas?
During my research, I found an article from World Clown Association Historian Bruce Johnson that explained “comedy and clown type characters have been a part of Christmas celebrations for over 600 years.” That was news to me, but I suspected there was more to this story. To get to the bottom of this I reached out to my friend Peter Shrake, the archivist at Circus World Museum in Baraboo, Wisconsin. Pete shared that, “Character clowns and an expansion of clowning emerged in the 1920s. It is not surprising to find clown type characters associated with Christmas celebrations, but less commonly would circus clowns be associated with these events. Basically, there are circus clowns and then everything else. During the holiday season many of the circuses were off the road, leading circus clowns to be largely absent from these festivities.” Shrake also pointed out that the bobble head characters, a concept imported from Europe, and created using papier-mâché, were popular in the first half of the 20th century.
The 1939 Christmas Parade was billed in The Eau Claire Leader of September 27, 1939 as “more elaborate than any Christmas pageantry presented here in years.” The advertisement which appeared in the Leader on December 9th claimed the parade would be over a mile in length, and the entire festival would feature multiple bands, Santa Claus (and his cabin), sled dogs, camels, a performance stage built in the street, and much more. Indeed, on the day of the parade, the public schools were closed, and the university even cancelled afternoon classes so students could participate in the festivities. The event was organized by the Retail Trades Committee of the Eau Claire Chamber of Commerce to thank the citizens of Eau Claire for their patronage throughout the year. Today, clowns continue to be present in holiday festivities, such as the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, bringing joy to future generations that may not be as traumatized by Pennywise as I am.
Is there a local history mystery or topic you want to know more about? Do you have a suggestion for an upcoming column of “Dusting Off?” Please contact Greg at the UW-Eau Claire archives. He would love to hear from you.