Love ‘em or completely terrified of them, there’s no mistaking clowns when they’ve donned their signature red noses. The feature is a classic part of the costume, but it is likely traced back to a trio of brothers in a circus family.
The Fratellinis were a family of performers; the patriarch, Gustavo, was a trapeze artist, while his sons—Paul, François, and Albert—worked as clowns. When Paul’s partner Louis died in 1909, he and his brothers became a trio, with each one taking on a unique persona: François, the elegant yet pompous clown, donned a white face; Albert—originally playing the contre-auguste, a role now referred to as just Auguste—assumed a more exaggerated face with dark brows and a red nose; and Paul took a middle road between the two, with less makeup.
The Auguste clown has since become its own kind of character; generally the joker in the act, the oddball who wears ill-fitting clothing and has exaggerated features—including a bright red nose. One of the most famous clowns in history is reported to have helped develop the Auguste character.
In the years following World War I, Lou Jacobs performed with the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus and became a career clown, entertaining for six decades. His obituary in The New York Times noted that “Mr. Jacobs's whiteface makeup with its gargantuan, goofy smile, outlandish eyebrows and plum-sized nose was the emblem for the Ringling circus, and he may have been the world's most famous living clown.” (By the way, he’s also credited with popularizing the now-iconic clown car!)
If there is any uncertainty of Jacobs’ legacy, his costume—including his red nose—was so iconic that when his image was put on a postage stamp in 1966, he became one of the first living people to be honored on the medium. (He’s often incorrectly stated as the first, but the likely actual first was the 1945 "Raising the Flag on Iwo Jima" stamp, where half of the six were still alive when it was issued.)
One legend surrounding the red nose dates back to before both the Fratellinis and Jacobs: As the story goes, in the 1860s, a German circus performer named Tom Belling was wearing oversized clothes and ended up being accidentally pushed into the ring of the show. (The reasoning for his attire and how he found himself in the spotlight varies from tale to tale.) One consistency is Belling falling, bloodying his nose and the crowd chanting “auguste”—German slang for “fool”—at him. Thus, the buffoon stereotype of the Auguste clown, as well as the signature red nose, was born.
While Belling’s story frames the iconic clown image as a happy accident, many regard the tale as more legend than truth. The exact origin of the clown nose is uncertain, but its role in pop culture is much more assured. Clowns and their signature red noses are as much a symbol of the circus as the tents themselves.
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