Friday, 19 January 2018

Feature Article: Ellisdons.


In this feature article I've gathered together information about Ellisdons. As a business that firmly concentrated on the novelty and toy end of the magic market it isn't often written about in depth. This is despite its' considerable success over many years. Solid facts about Ellisdons are hard to come by, no longer around to write its' own history, and not being a social hub for professional magicians, Ellisdons rarely appears in magic history books.

For this article I'm indebted to the late Allen Tipton who, aside from greatly encouraging my interest in magic history when I was a boy, wrote a potted history of Ellisdons for Abra Magazine. He later posted it online and it can be found here. Much of Allen's information came from his correspondence with Tina Futch, a member of the Ellisdon family. In this article I've stuck to the history of the business, Allen's articles contain more Ellisdon family history for those interested.

For simplicity, I will refer to the company as Ellisdons throughout, though it was sometimes given its full name Ellisdons and Son or E&S for short. If an Ellisdons item is marked or packaged they generally used the E&S abbreviation.

Early Years:

So, starting at the start, Ellisdons always advertised that they were founded in 1897. Based in Sydney, Albert Ellisdon sold tools and equipment to Australia's growing agricultural and gold prospecting population. Ellisdons didn't have a chain of shops, they operated through mail order posting items to individuals, a business model kept for generations. Very little is written about this period in the company and I have tried, and failed, to find any adverts or ephemera from their time in Australia, it's possible they were a very small outfit. The age of the company may have been an exaggeration, I've always thought it was funny they claimed to be founded a year before Davenports.

The company as we know it really begins when Albert, his son Ernest and grandson Bryce Ellisdon moved to London in the early 1930s. This seems to be when they change tack and begin trading in jokes, novelties and magic. Allen Tipton points out that at this time Davenports were the only retailer of magic equipment that also embraced jokes, novelties and puzzles, so there was space for Ellisdons to move into this area. Here are some early Ellisdons items.

Mail Order:.

What made Ellisdons different from other magic dealers of their time was their target market. Magic shops traditionally depended, and to some extent still do depend, upon a large group of enthusiastic amateur and semi-professional magicians. Generally speaking,  amateur magicians like to regularly buy new exciting props. So keeping up with the demand for new, well made and novel props was essential for these dealers. Ellisdons didn't invest in making novel, new effects or importing the latest American ideas, they aimed at the casual child magician, schoolboy and prankster. Here are some of the jokes and puzzles they sold at their height.

Targeting this market they concentrated on small, easy to post, items from little packet card tricks to stink bombs and fake spiders. They advertised heavily in comics to grow a huge mailing list of joke and novelty fans. At their height they had a circulation of over 100000 on their mailing list to receive catalogues.

One interesting note is that Ellisdons' first magic and joke catalogue was printed by Davenports, as covered by Fergus Roy in The Davenports Story. Ellisdons and Davenports traded with each other as well as being competitors for the whole of Ellisdons time in business in the UK. After this first catalogue, Ellisdons regularly printed their own. These comic and catalogue adverts featured fun, mischievous artwork drawn in-shop by Bryce Ellisdon.

These enticing adverts are probably what has been remembered most about Ellisdons and two reprints of their catalogues have been published since the shop closed. One of these reprints is still available in this mixed pack of reprinted 1960s ephemera. Ellisdons was very much the British parallel of the American companies covered in Kirk Demarais' book Mail-Order Mysteries. Below are the parcels that would make a schoolboy's heart leap with excitement. The pink slip is a substitution form and the blue sheet is an order form.

More than any other magic company of the time Ellisdons concentrated on mail order. The few shops of equal or bigger size to Ellisdons boasted showrooms and sometimes even small stages for the demonstration and examination of apparatus before purchase. Ellisdons didn't stock this high-end professional apparatus and instead depended on colourful descriptions and illustrations to secure purchases. Here are some of the magic items Ellisdons sold at their height.

Ellisdons' best selling magic items were probably card tricks. They were cheap to print or import and cheap to post. They sold their own marked cards and also had a card tricks magic set, really just a collection of packet tricks boxed together. Below is a photo of some of the card tricks Ellisdons sold, on the left is the card magic set with contents in a fan below the box.


In addition to their direct mail order business Ellisdons wholesaled their stock to chain shops, independent toy shops and department stores. Their biggest customer in this field was almost certainly Woolworths (the UK, not the US, chain). With over 1000 shops children had access to magic tricks and jokes even if their town had no dedicated magic shop. The packaging followed this market and Ellisdons produced a huge range suitable for display on simple self service racks. I've mocked one of these up to display some of my Ellisdons items.

In addition to individual items Ellisdons also put together magic sets for shops. Much like Davenports had done with their Maskelyne's Mysteries sets discussed here, Ellisdons allowed Gamages and other shops to badge their sets. Below is a Gamagic set made by Ellisdons for Gamages.

Ellisdons also made their own magic sets for sale by mail order and in toy shops. Below is an example from the 1960s or 1970s.


I'd briefly like to look at two items that sold like hotcakes for Ellisdons for many years. Both were perfect for Ellisdons' style of advertising and probably over promise on what they can deliver. Here's Ellisdons' "Vamping Chart".

This proudly boasts that "without the slightest knowledge of music whatever" one can play music on the piano. The idea being that this chart rests on the piano above the keys and by learning a few, supposedly simple, rules anyone can play along to popular tunes. Although they sold many thousands of these they can't work that well as no one is selling them today.

If there were to be one product Ellisdons is most remembered for it is likely the Seebackroscope. It was available for many years before Ellisdons marketed it in the UK, but it's popularity spread through the back pages of comics and they sold huge quantities of these little gadgets.

Much like the Vamping Chart this over promises somewhat. It does allow you to see a very small amount slightly behind you, but the hijinks children may have imagined possible would probably not have been. Sid Templer, the founder of novelty shop Hawkin's Bazaar wrote in the forward to an Ellisdons catalogue reprint that he had ordered a Seebackroscope as a boy. He complained to Ellisdons that it didn't work to his satisfaction and they sent him half a page of stamps as compensation.


As mentioned, Ellisdons were targeting young amateur magicians and their publishing history reflects this. They published very few titles, and they were very general and aimed at the beginner. Although their range was small they sold huge quantities of these small-format, cheap books.

These are some of the easiest second hand magic books to find today, despite the fact that they fall apart very easily and most printed have probably ended up in the bin. They have wonderful, full-colour covers to catch the eye of aspiring magicians.

An unusual anomaly from Ellisdons is the hardback version of J. C. Cannell's Modern Conjuring. It is much larger than the paperback above and has extra sections on a range of other entertainments.

Though still aimed at the beginner, it's well printed and bound, in stark contrast to Ellisdons paperbacks. Published in 1938, in the first decade of Ellisdons UK business, maybe it was their first publication (excluding catalogues). Possibly it simply didn't sell well mixed in with the cheaper products on offer. I don't think a second hardback edition was printed.

The Shop and Factory:

Although they're mostly remembered as a mail order business they did have a public shop. They settled in the High Holborn area of London and had a large shop there for many years. In 1959 they moved from 245-246 to 145-146 High Holborn, very close to Davenports' 111 High Holborn address. It's not easy to pin down when they moved out, but it seems to have occurred in the 1960s. Certainly by 1969 they were no longer in London as can be seen from this catalogue on The Davenport Collection website.

It's very hard to find images of the inside of the shop or the staff who worked there, if anyone has any I'd be very interested to see them. One thing I did find was this clip from 1963 which shows members of the Ellisdon family joking with each other. I assume that at the head of the table is Ernest Ellisdon as Albert would likely have died by this time.

Ellisdons had a factory in Bedford on Kempston Road while they were still based in London. At its' peak it was a very large operation with 40 employees at the factory and more than 100 craftspeople working from home in the local area. Some of the work would have been manufacturing items, but much or it would have been packaging and re-labelling imported goods. With the closure of their London shop Ellisdons became entirely based from this factory until 1980 when, in steep decline, it briefly moved to Cornwall before closing altogether in 1982. The family blamed the decline on the changing tastes of children, moving away from cheap jokes towards computer games.

Ellisdons' mailing list was purchased by a different joke firm, Jokes Corner who advertised in comics and magazines to sell novelties. They still trade under the name Magic By Post, in fact I remember ordering their catalogue as a boy and it coming with a free trick, it was an Ellisdons Three Card Monte. They still sell these, along with Two Card Monte packet tricks in their distinctive Ellisdons packaging.

Friday, 22 December 2017

Eric P. Wilson and his Snowman.

As it's that time of year I thought I'd pick out a trick made specially for Christmas. To begin let's look at who invented it.

Eric P. Wilson was a magician active from the 1920s (or earlier) who died in 1963. There is very little written about him, most of my knowledge comes from his books and adverts for his inventions. His main contributions to the magic world came in the form of effects for children's parties with three of his four books being of this genre. Below are two of his most popular magic books.

There's some debate over whether or not he invented the Square Circle illusion. Davenports sold his version under the name Wunda Villa and it climaxed with the production of a doll taller than the central tube itself (the doll produced was a "golly" toy, now rightly considered offensive). It seems today that Louis S. Histed was most likely the inventor of this effect, though, as it uses the black-art principle, it could be argued no particular person can be given whole credit for the effect. Here's the  full page advert Davenports used to sell Wilson's effect.

Wunda Villas are very hard to come by now, but these snowmen are seen more often. This might be because you could buy four of these snowmen for the price of a Wunda Villa and still have change in the 1930s. The effect was perfect for children's shows and was marketed for many years.

It's a simple trick based on the ghost tube principle. The apparatus can even be used as a plain ghost tube leaving out the final snowman production, ideal for the rest of the year.

I'm not aware of this trick being used much since. The secret is maybe a little too simple for general use. It could be that revealing the snowman can give away the secret of the ghost tube to the eye of an observant viewer. It was designed for children's shows though and judging from its popularity must have been effective for that audience.

Friday, 1 December 2017

Maskelyne's Mysteries as a brand.

From the 1860s the Maskelyne family presented magic entertainments in London and on tour around the world. There was a gradual decline in the Maskelyne's fortunes however and their last theatre closed between the wars. The decision was made in 1935 to sell the company and Lewis Davenport, who performed at the Maskelynes' entertainments throughout his career, purchased Maskelyne's Mysteries.

The deed for this purchase was (and probably still is) on display at The British Magic Museum. The deed is pictured below, apologies for the awkward angle, it was to avoid reflections off the case.

With the purchase came a huge amount of paperwork, apparatus and theatrical equipment. It also came with the rights to use the Maskelyne name and this article is going to look at how Davenports used the name to sell their wares. As a side note the Davenports did occasionally perform using the Maskelyne's Mysteries banner, but I'm going to concentrate on the shop side here.

"Maskelyne's Mysteries" was a phrase used by the Maskelynes for many years to describe their performances. The Davenports stuck with this and the term "Maskelyne's Mysteries" was used alongside "Demon Series" to represent tricks retailed by Davenports. 1930s and 1940s catalogues usually had "L. Davenport and Co. and Maskelyne's Mysteries" as the header on every pair of pages.

In August 1935 Davenports opened a satellite shop, also in London, called Maskelyne's Mysteries (ran by Gus Davenport). This was open a relatively short time, closing in April of the following year (dates can be found in this pdf from The Davenport Collection website). Although it was only open a brief time catalogues were issued. Following the closure the Maskelyne's Mysteries name was still used on leaflets and catalogues such as the one below.

Although the Maskelyne's Mysteries name was used prominently across Davenports catalogues and adverts it was only rarely used on specific lines sold by the company. One example, possibly the first, is this woodworking plan for an effect known as The Phantom Air Mail.

It prominently states "Maskelyne's Mysteries present The Magical Constructor No.1". As far as I know there were never any further Magical Constructor plans, I have seen four or five of this particular plan, but none for other effects. It seems like a really good idea, so I'm not sure why these plans weren't more popular. Maybe magicians weren't willing to pay for an effect in plan form, I haven't seen any examples of this trick made up.

The most successful Maskelyne branding was Davenport's range of toy magic sets. Davenports had always made sets, but the Maskelyne's Mysteries sets were extremely popular and can be found much more easily than other Davenports sets.

These sets have similarities with others of the period, particularly the Ernest Sewell sets discussed in this post. I believe the Maskelyne's Mysteries sets were first manufactured around the same time as the first Sewell ones in the late 1930s.

They were often sold by department stores and independent retailers. Below is the most commonly found size of set, coincidentally, my three examples were all retailed by Gamages (shown in the bottom right corner of each label).

The contents varies between sets, sometimes items listed on the inside of the box are blanked out and replaced by other tricks with their own loose instructions. Tricks included varied from imported mass produced items to items made by the Davenports themselves (sometimes by the children).

The picture above shows a double decker Maskelyne's Mysteries set. This shows the other label design used on these sets. Although only two designs of label were used they were printed in different sizes to match the different size sets. Below is a picture of this set open with its drawer out.

I believe this was the largest set in the series, though I don't think there was a consistent set of sizes available over the years. Below is one of the smaller types they sold.

An example of how these sizes varied can be found in this late set, shown below. I haven't seen any other examples so long and thin, sadly it's not complete.

We've seen in the Gamages examples above how sometimes Maskelyne's Mysteries sets would be branded with a particular retailer, occasionally the Maskelyne name was dropped altogether and a whole label was produced for the retailer. Although these aren't strictly Maskelyne sets it's worth including them as the only way they differ is the label.

This Robin's example perhaps demonstrates that the Maskelyne name was no longer the selling point it was when the Davenports purchased it in 1935. Maskelyne sets were made up until the late 1950s, possibly just into the 1960s when imported plastic sets started to displace more expensive hand made sets.

Maskelyne is still a familiar name among magicians, but no longer with the general public. These sets do show an interesting period where the name was still synonymous with magic despite the Maskelyne family's performances dropping away.

Friday, 27 October 2017

Smaller and smaller, a look at diminishing effects.

A theme that pops up quite often in the old catalogues is the idea of an object gradually shrinking before vanishing entirely. Perhaps the most popular of these tricks, and one of the few regularly performed today, is the diminishing cards.

In this effect a group of cards is removed from a deck and fanned. The fan of cards then decreases in size incrementally before disappearing.

The set on the left is by Davenports, I'm unsure where the set on the right comes from. In both cases the largest card is the standard poker size, which gives an idea of how small the cards end up. The Davenports set is threaded together, allowing for more natural fanning than the riveted set.

A variation on this theme is the diminishing billiard ball, popular when billiard ball manipulation was common on the stage.

These two sets are likely from Germany. The left set shows the different sizes and the one on the right shows how the balls nest.

Even less popular than billiard ball manipulation today is pocket watch manipulation. Here are two adverts for the diminishing pocket watch.

On the left is the Davenports advert for the effect, the right is a Janos Bartl advert. Bartl manufactured these watches in Hamburg.

This set is beautifully made. There are small brass nubs in the centre of each face to ensure the printed faces aren't rubbed off when the set is opened and closed.

Here's an effect I'm going to shoehorn into this post, it's not strictly a diminishing effect. The trick, know as Multum In Parvo (a great deal in a small space) allows a quantity of milk to increase and then diminish again.

The unusual thing about this example is that, unlike most sets, it is made entirely out of glass. The gimmicks being specially blown for each vessel. I'm not sure who produced it, but the quality is superb. This doesn't have the kicker ending where all glasses are filled from the jug at the end, the milk is simply poured back from the jug into the smaller glass giving the effect of a sudden decrease in milk.

This is by no means a complete list of diminishing tricks, match boxes, coins, cigarettes and many other items have been included in similar effects.

Friday, 20 October 2017

Stamps, stickers and seals.

It's always fascinating when you open a magic book and find in it a book plate, or signature of a previous owner. Sometimes there's a label or stamp showing which shop sold the book and in this post I'm going to look at some examples of these.

Working roughly chronologically here is an ink stamp from Bland's.

This stamp shows Bland's address from approximately 1885.

Hamley's later bought out Bland's but here is a label from one of Hamley's other shops from before the takeover, 229 High Holborn.

In this 1893 edition, the label has been used to cover up the publisher's printed address. This common trick is used to try and ensure the customer returns to the magic shop for more books instead of buying direct from the publisher. The catalogue page has also been pasted in the book and wasn't part of the original binding. 

This paper label is later and was found in a copy of Hoffmann's Latest Magic, so it's probably from 1918. 

Later again is this purple ink stamp found in Percy Naldrett's 1925 book Volume Six.

Another big dealer during this period was the department store A. W. Gamage. They often put small paper labels in the inside covers of books. The one below is from a 1904 edition of Hopkins' Twentieth Century Magic.

In 1905 Will Goldston began managing Gamages' conjuring department. Here's a label from around 1910, during Goldston's time there.

Goldston left Gamages in 1914 to establish his own magic shop. This 1917 edition of Supplementary Magic by Elbiquet contains one of Goldston's paper labels.

Looking at a much smaller dealer now here's a stamp from a 1909 edition of Some Modern Conjuring by Donald Holmes.

I'm not familiar with Maddock, mentions of him are scarce. According to Genii's Magicpedia his real name was Jas. W. Bell and Fergus Roy mentions him as a relatively large dealer in The Davenport Story, Vol. 1.

Speaking of the Davenports, their labels crop up very often, particularly their seal-like paper labels. In this example a solid ink stamp has been used alongside the seal to discourage customers from buying direct from Burling Hull.

This seal is perhaps the most common, and shows the 15 New Oxford Street address they held between 1915 and 1937 (for a list of Davenports' addresses and when they used them see the FAQ section on the Davenport Collection website).

Here is a clearer view of a similar seal.

There are also at least two gold versions of this seal. This one shows their address from 1938 to 1942. 

This label wasn't from a book, but from the inside lid of a Sand and Sugar can.

They also produced a gold label with no address on, instead it simply had Made in England written around the edge.

This label was found pasted in a book from 1945. Often, and understandably, some magicians weren't best pleased with having labels pasted in their new books so it's not uncommon to see evidence of their removal.

Slightly later than the above, Willane's Wizardry was published in 1947. This copy has a label affixed from George McKenzie's Mac's Mysteries.

Of course many dealers sold second hand books and fixed their labels in many years after the book's publication. Here's one such example.

The famous escapologist Murray sold magic items and jokes after poor health prevented him from performing.

I'm aiming to add more labels and stamps to this post as I find them. I've just picked a few books from my library, as I come across more I'll add them to the list.

Friday, 1 September 2017

Pots for poultry, some dove and rarebit pans.

Few tricks have had the staying power of the humble dove pan. It first became popular in the late 19th century, though the inventor has been forgotten in time. Most early version were made in tin, as were many normal cooking pans at the time.

This large example would be able to hold three or four doves and has air holes under the handle. The original routine would generally begin with some eggs being broken into the pan, followed by some magic liquid (lighter fuel) which would be lit. The lid would then be placed on to extinguish the flames before being lifted to show the eggs had changed to an animal or animals.

More showy pans were made of polished copper, brass, chromed steel and later aluminium. Below is a chromed Davenports model named the Goldston Dove Pan.

Before the recent increase in imported spun metal tricks from India Canada's Morissey Magic had the market share in dove pans. Here is one of their larger aluminium models, a duck pan.

The dove pan is most commonly used with a slightly different routine today, more suited to children's entertainers. The ingredients for a cake are put in the pan, set alight and a birthday cake produced for the birthday boy or girl.

A similar effect, the Welsh rarebit pan, was also hugely popular from the late nineteenth century into the twentieth, but is rarely seen today. Below is a tin example sold by Blands in the 1880s.

The original plot of the trick began with the borrowing of a hat. The pan is shown empty and the ingredients for Welsh rarebit (for foreign readers, this is a type of cheese sauce on toast from Wales) placed within. A fire is then lit in the audience member's hat and the now lidded pan held over it to cook the contents. The magician proclaims that the contents will have cooked into a nice slice of rarebit but upon removing the lid a live rabbit is found within instead. The hat is then shown to be unharmed by the flames and returned to its relieved owner.

Here's a later, English-made, version from the the early twentieth century. This looks more like a normal pan with its single handle. Sadly this effect went the same way as as the omelette pan in this post, as hats fell out of fashion it became difficult to borrow a suitable high sided hat from the audience.

The dove pan lives on though, having moved from the grand stage shows of  Leroy, Talma and Bosco to the repertoires of children's entertainers across the globe.