Friday, 11 September 2020

A Haberdashery of Hocus Pocus.

Magic is always most effective when done with familiar objects. Due to this, tricks from specific periods can demonstrate which objects were commonplace at that time. Though sewing's a popular hobby today, when clothing was more expensive repairing clothes was an everyday necessity. This meant the tools and materials needed to do this were in every household. 

Houdini famously swallowed loose needles and thread before regurgitating them, the needles now threaded. Thimble manipulation and pocket tricks with thimbles were also popular. This post looks at three effects, marketed in the 1930s by Davenports, centred around things that might be found in a sewing box of the time.

This simple linen tape was produced by the German firm Bartl, whose artwork is reproduced on this Demon Series box. This tape is part of an effect where a strip of paper is measured before four inches are torn off. The conjurer magically restores the paper to its original length. Most spectators would not suspect such an everyday object like a linen tape could carry a secret. 

One effect that Davenports manufactured themselves was called Bewildering Buttons, described in their advert below.

This was a truly charming effect where a button securely sewn onto a card would magically swap places with one of a different colour. The method is really superb and would certainly be used today if such cards were still commonplace. An example of one with red and black buttons is below:

At the same time as Bewildering Buttons Davenports were also selling an effect called the Three Reel Mystery, though this was a lot less popular judging on how many survive today. In this trick, three reels of different coloured thread were placed onto a small wooden rod which ran through their central holes. Under the cover of a handkerchief, while the rod was held on each end by a spectator, the central reel of the three magically passed through the rod. All of the reels and the rod could then be examined by the onlookers. 

All of these tricks would have resonated with a 1930s audience and the top two of the above were sold by Davenports for many years after. Today they would appear unusual in a contemporary act and effects with thimbles are similarly rare to see performed today. The accoutrements of sewing can be found in dozens of magic books and catalogues of the past. It's a curious side effect of today's throwaway fashion culture that they have been consigned to the history books. 

Friday, 17 July 2020

Jardine Ellis, a Posthumously Commercial Inventor.

Jardine Ellis had a short and successful career as a magician, noted for novel and effective routines performed only by himself. As a creative magic mind, he made the decision early on that he would keep his effects to himself and resist the urge to market his secrets to fellow magicians. He was a popular member of many magic societies, attending gatherings of the Magic Circle and the Magicians' Club where he would baffle his contemporaries. The excerpt below, from The Magic Wand, describes Jardine Ellis at the 1921 Magic Circle Grand Seance.

Born Duncan Lome Campbell in 1881, Ellis traveled the globe performing. His career was a short one as he died of pneumonia in 1923. His imaginative effects could have been lost forever had it not been for the actions of some of his fellow magicians, particularly George Johnson and Stanley Norton.

In the few years after Jardine Ellis's death, Johnson wrote up and published a selection of Ellis's tricks in The Magic Wand. Some magicians were offended by this, believing Jardine Ellis had made it quite clear that he didn't wish for his secrets to be shared or sold. George Johnson addressed this in the foreword of his book: A Few Jardine Ellis Secrets, a compilation of the effects previously published in The Magic Wand:

"This clever worker was at some pains to keep his secrets within a charmed circle and usually stipulated that his tricks were not to be either shown or exposed to a conjurer. I have witnessed many of the effects but for the majority of the secrets I am indebted to Mr. Stanley Norton who, by the way, has himself written the description of the Slate Mystery.

One day, while exchanging secrets - as conjurers are wont to do - Mr. Norton remarked to Mr. Ellis, 'You are very particular as to these effects; do you expect to keep them forever and ever?' Ellis laughed, 'Oh well,' he said, 'when I am gone it does not matter what becomes of them.'

I do not, therefore, feel any qualms about publishing this booklet."

It was very convenient that Norton recalled this conversation, excusing any future use of Ellis's secrets. Two of Jardine Ellis's, now public, routines really caught the attention of magicians. They are both still popular today.

One of these was a clean production of a glass of wine using handling from Ellis's Thimble and Wine Glass routine. Davenports introduced two separate improvements to the effect, the first being advertised around 1933 (above). By the mid-1930s a second improvement had been made, which can be viewed on the left of the picture below.

Despite this effect's popularity, Jardine Ellis's name lives on in a different routine of his, the Jardine Ellis Ring. This ring has become a true classic of close up and parlour magic. In Ellis's original routine, known as the Rod and Ring, the metal ring would magically pass through a walking stick. This was the effect that Davenports marketed from the early 1930s. One such ring is to the right of the photo below.

On the left is a larger copper ring of unknown manufacturer. These rings were extremely versatile and could be used for many effects beyond the ring on stick effect. As such, they became a favourite of magicians with many new routines invented with the prop. Perhaps the most significant of which are those by Hans Trixter, published in Conjuring Trix and Jardine Ellis Ring Effex. The booklet was published by Magic Wand in 1955, now under the management of George Armstrong. Jardine Ellis Rings are still available to buy from magic shops and are even included in some toy magic sets, such as those manufactured by Hanky Panky Toys.

It's hard to say whether Jardine Ellis would have been happy with his effects becoming a part of many magicians' repertoires. Either way, it's clear that the use of his name to market his tricks, in particular the Jardine Ellis Ring, has kept his name in the minds of magicians almost a hundred years after his untimely death.

Friday, 5 June 2020

The Rabbit as Magician, a Popular Comic Theme.

One of the defining symbols of magic in the public eye is that of a magician pulling a rabbit out of a hat. Much has been written on its origins but it is now little more than a cliche, rarely performed by working magicians.

It is a powerful symbol nonetheless and one embraced by the magic community with all matter of novelties and trinkets produced depicting a rabbit popping out of a top hat. A testament to its popularity is its common use in political and comedic cartoons. One fairly popular joke is to reverse the roles of the magician and rabbit and have the rabbit pulling the conjurer out of a hat.

This illustration was used on the cover of the 1961 book Tricks of the Television Stars and More Tricks of the Television Stars. The books were made up of tricks previously printed in Harry Stanley's house magazine The Gen and the cover art was probably done by Dennis Patten. A variation of this appears in a trick header within the book.

The image of a rabbit coming out of a hat was already popular by the 1950s, as shown by this cut-out advert illustrated by the magician Jack Lamonte. Lamonte specialised in custom publicity items for magicians and magic societies.

This lively flier is promoting the Sheffield Circle of Magicians' 1955 Night of Magic, held at the beautiful Montgomery Hall. Lamonte's rabbit is much less sinister than most, taking clear inspiration from Disney.

Another magic society to use the motif was the British Ring of the International Brotherhood of Magicians. 

These rabbits were used in two programmes for the British Ring's 1946 convention, the first since the outbreak of the Second World War. Printed by the Ring's go-to printers Burnley's Central Printing Works, the artist is not recorded.

It's unclear when the first rabbit pulling a man out of a hat appeared. I would suspect it came out of a newspaper cartoon. The earliest example I have (off the top of my head) is on the cover of Gerald Lynton Kaufmann's 1938 book How's Tricks. This isn't just any cartoon though.

This cover, and the frontispiece, show the most characterful depiction of a rabbit producing a magician from a hat I've found. It was illustrated by Theodor Seuss Geisel, better known as Dr. Seuss. When this illustration was produced Dr. Seuss had only published a few books under his own name and was predominantly an advertising artist. He would later become one of the best-loved children's authors in America writing The Cat in the Hat and How the Grinch Stole Christmas.

The image of a rabbit pulling a magician out of a hat will also be very familiar to viewers of U.K. comedy television. Since 1986 the production company Hat Trick has used a charming animated logo designed by Richard Morrison to close their programmes, more information on which can be found here

Friday, 10 April 2020

Will Blyth, a Proficient Part-Time Author.

If you could look on the bookshelf of a well-read magician in the 1920s or the 1930s you'd find at least a few books by Will Blyth. For fifteen years from 1920 Blyth wrote nine magic books enjoyed by both amateur magicians and professionals alike. Blyth was a well-respected magician who toured magic clubs and societies extensively as a lecturer. He specialised in performing for children and was also renowned for his abilities with the cups and balls.

When C. Arthur Pearson began rapidly expanding his Amusements for the Home series Will Blyth became his go-to magic author, producing more books than any other magician for the series. With the exception of 1925, Blyth produced a book every year for Pearson from 1920 to 1926.

The above books are laid out in the order of their release with 1920 at the top left and 1926 the bottom right. For more information on the Amusements for the Home series have a look at this article.

Will Blyth was a senior member of the Magic Circle and became their honorary librarian. This is an interesting conflict of interests given that many members of the club viewed the Pearson books as akin to exposure due to their availability to the general public. In spite of this, Blyth proudly boasted his membership of the Circle, displaying his medal and featuring the club's logo on the covers of his books.

Blyth managed to keep active in the magic world alongside a successful career within the London Salvage Corps. This was an organisation overseen by the London Fire Offices and concerned with the protection of goods and property affected by fire and water damage from fire fighting. Blyth's father, John, had been a senior member of the organisation and Will Blyth was said to have been born in a fire station. The photograph below shows Blyth in his superintendents uniform and was reproduced on the cover of the February 1935 issue of The Magician Monthly.

Blyth's work as Superintendent, the most senior position in the organisation, involved presenting lectures on fire prevention and safety. It was at one of these that he met a young Francis White who he went on to mentor for many years. Blyth's work in the Corps and his interest in paper tearing combined into an act called the "The Fireman's Story". He wrote up this act and presented it in the closing chapter of his 1928 book Effective Conjuring.

Effective Conjuring was the first of two books written for the publishers Methuen. Methuen rarely published magic books but Effective Conjuring became very successful for them. The 1932 and 1934 reprints are now amongst the most common 1930s magic books on the second-hand market. Blyth's second book for Methuen, How to Become a Conjurer, was released in 1934. This book was more squarely aimed at the beginner but didn't share the success of his previous work for Methuen.

How to Become a Conjurer includes a section on building a magic library where he lists all of the books he had written. This holds somewhat of a mystery. In the list he mentions Cups and Balls, published in 1933 and containing 20 pages. I haven't been able to find evidence of a physical copy of this book. Magicpedia states that Cups and Balls were lecture notes from his appearance at the 1933 I.B.M convention in Northampton.

I'd be very interested to know if this is the case and if anyone has a copy of these notes. There is a pamphlet that was put out by Davenports for many years under the title Sleight of Hand Simplified which, after an earlier stock cover, goes into depth about how to perform the cups and balls. It is anonymous and runs for 20 pages, the length of the mysterious Blyth book. Perhaps this was written by Blyth and originally had a front-page mentioning the I.B.M. conference which was changed for general sale? If anyone can shine any light on this I'd be very interested.

In addition to these books, Blyth was a prolific contributor to The Magic Circular, The Magic Wand and The Magician Monthly among other periodicals. He was well-loved in the magic community and spent a great deal of time helping others both as secretary of the Magic Circle's John Nevil Maskelyne Benevelont Fund and as secretary of the Professional Fire Brigades Widows and Orphans Fund. He died suddenly on the 7th of January 1937 at the age of 63.

His popularity was evident from the scale of his funeral which Francis White described in an appreciation in The Magician Monthly. The funeral cortege travelled from the London Salvage Corps headquarters past a guard of honour and onto Cannon Street where uniformed London Fire Brigade representatives lined the street. Francis White reported that the church was packed and floral tributes came from The Magic Circle, The Sheffield Circle of Magicians, TheAberdeen Magical Society, The Covan, Douglas Craggs, The Davenport Family and many more.

Pearson reprinted a few of his books in the late 1930s (above) but since 1940 neither his Pearson or Methuen books have been reprinted. It's fair to say they have dated, as have most magic books of the period, and the poor quality of the binding of Pearson's books make it hard to practically learn tricks from them today. His final book for Pearson, Money Magic, is perhaps his most underrated, being probably the first coin magic book written in truly clear language. In the forward for this book Percy Naldrett wrote:

 "I commend this book to the man-in-the-street who wishes to be ever ready to entertain friends without too laborious preparation or practice; also, I commend it to the more experienced conjurer seeking subtle and delightfully deceptive moves, and again to the genial joker, who delights in catches. I can only find one fault in the book of Money Magic. It is too cheap."

This nicely sums up Blyth's books. Accessible, affordable and of substance.

Friday, 28 February 2020

The Secret Out Series, the Stepping Stones to Hoffmann?

When I was in my early teens attending meetings at the Nottingham Guild of Magicians I used to spend a great deal of time looking through the magic library in the tea room. In a little lock-up cabinet there was a great range of magic books donated to the guild from its foundation in the thirties. Perhaps as a sign of things to come, I had little interest in the post-1950s books and was drawn to the mystery of the earlier publications. After devouring the Hoffmanns, all the Pearsons books on offer, and the Naldretts I looked at a few of the odder earlier books. W. H. Cremer's Magic No Mystery and Hanky Panky were certainly odd.

Over the years I've found copies of my own and picked up other magic-related books whose covers seemed to match.  These half dozen books were marketed as a series by their London Publisher: Chatto and Windus. My copies are from the Edinburgh bookseller John Grant who, according to Raymond Toole Stott, was the last firm to print them. In magic circles the four books associated with W. H. Cremer are well known.

W. H. Cremer Junior (1811-1889) was a toy and game importer and seller on London's Regent Street, just a stone's throw from where Hamleys is today. In an advert for the shop's catalogue from 1870 Cremer states it contains "Information on every matter relating to Toys, Games, Dolls, Magic, Entertainments and Amusements of every kind for Evening Parties, Fetes, &c." In this same advert, from Christmas 1870, Cremer's The Secret Out is advertised.

Although Cremer is listed as the editor of The Secret Out it has a murkier background than this. A version of this book had been published previously in America and is thought to have its roots in the translation of a few French texts on magic. For more speculation on the true authorship of this, and other Cremer books, see this interesting thread on Magic Cafe. Cremer may have arranged the printing of this book in the UK so he could stock it in his shop, or the publisher may have thought having the name of a well known, high-class shop owner associated with magic would help the book sell. Either way, it seems that Cremer had little to do with the actual content of the book.

Three other books were published under Cremer's name by Chatto and Windus and John Grant. The Magician's Own Book shares its title with a well known early American publication on magic, though its content differs. Hanky Panky is a bit more cobbled together with the boast of "250 illustrations" managed by the inclusion of many stock illustrations barely related to the text. Magic No Mystery suffers less from this and carries 70 relevant illustrations.

In addition to the Cremer books, three other books were marketed at part of this series. In an 1881 Chatto and Windus catalogue, The Pyrotechnist's Treasury by Thomas Kentish is included but by the time of the advert below, from the John Grant series, this book has been omitted.

The remaining two in the series were The Art of Amusing by Frank Bellew and The Merry Circle by Cara Bellew. The Art of Amusing contains a tiny amount of magic and The Merry Circle doesn't include any. They still belong to this popular and influential series though and have a great deal of entertaining novelty value.

It seems that these books were very successful from the very early 1870s and were being marketed as a series from 1875 at the latest. Perhaps the success of these books encouraged Hoffmann to begin translating and writing his own magic books. They certainly demonstrated there was a good market for magic books, both for magicians and amateurs.

Friday, 31 January 2020

Stressful and Startling Sugar Spoons.

Spoons are a staple of any shop selling practical jokes. In a country where drinking tea is a national obsession thousands of these spoons were sold by magic shops to naughty children hoping to scare and irritate their relatives. These were mostly imported from Germany or manufactured in the UK and were retailed by many shops, particularly Ellisdons and Davenports.

First up is a pair of classic exploding spoons. When laid on the table they look innocent enough but if picked up a detonator is released and a loud bang is produced.

Spoons like these were sold in mail-order catalogues with lively cartoon adverts. In this article I'm featuring Davenports adverts as, in my entirely biased opinion, they are the most entertaining. Here's an advert for a bending spoon from the 1930s.

These spoons were one of the more unusual in their group as they were manufactured as a trick from scratch rather than being normal spoons altered after production. The hinge is well made and invisible to the casual observer.

A more popular and cheaper trick spoon was "The Impossible Spoon". These were normal spoons drilled with a large hole in the bowl. Here's another Davenports advert.

Popular from the 1920s these spoons are probably the easiest to find novelty spoons out there. The spoon in the foreground was made in Czechoslovakia and the one in the background Germany. It's likely they were turned into trick spoons in the UK however.

The spoon below is much scarcer. Made in the UK, it has a celluloid lid sealed to the mouth of the spoon's bowl. It performs much the same function as the spoons above, preventing the user from getting sugar out of their sugar bowl.

My favourite of these silly spoons is the fly spoon, which does what it says on the tin.

Again using a normal aluminium spoon the novelty manufacturer has created a trick with just a small alteration. A hole has been drilled in the centre and a fly pin has been pushed through the hole. When held on a tablecloth it's easy to make the fly move around on the spoon in a very realistic fashion.

Spoons were not the only items of tableware that received the novelty treatment as can be seen from this Davenports advert pushing an array of folding cutlery.

Although many of these are of pretty low quality there are odd exceptions such as this bending fork. It is of high quality and has a superb hinge, almost invisible when the fork is straight. 

Joke cutlery is still manufactured but not in the quantities seen between 1920 and 1960. Spoons with holes in their bowls are now marketed as "Diet Spoons" and bending spoons are still available. A few new novelties have also been introduced such as extending forks and spoons such as Archie McPhee's "Freeloader Fork"

Wednesday, 25 December 2019

Radio Magic, a Look at the B.B.C.'s Online Offerings.

This post is a departure from the norm here. I had hoped to start writing longer articles once the Sewell book was out, but a different magic history project I'm collaborating on has progressed faster than I'd anticipated. I simply haven't had the time outside work to spend on the blog.

So, instead of a standard post, I'm going to list some of the magic history-related B.B.C. Radio programmes currently available to listen to online. With the introduction of B.B.C. Sounds many archived documentaries have become available to listen to for free on their website and the B.B.C. Sounds application for smartphones and tablets.

There are many more magic history documentaries and dramas visible on the B.B.C.'s website which aren't currently available but perhaps will be in the future. I've separated the programmes available into broad categories below. The programmes are made for a lay audience and there is a fair amount of repetition in some of the below, but they're pleasant listening nonetheless. The majority of these can be listened to worldwide.

Magic History:

It's Magic (1993):

This six-part series explores the history and practice of magic with contributions from Edwin Dawes, Michael Vincent, Jack Delvin, David Berglas, Fay Presto and Ali Bongo.

The six parts cover the history of magic, tricks involving illusions of death, vanishing and appearing effects, animals in magic, escapology and mentalism. Although only an overview of each topic, the half-hour format allows for some entertaining anecdotes.

Listen here:
It's Magic: Hocus Pocus
It's Magic: Cut and Thrust
It's Magic: Now You See It, Now You Don't
It's Magic: The Rabbit out of the Hat
It's Magic: Great Escapes
It's Magic: Magic in Mind

The Unseen - A History of the Invisible (2016):

This five-part series from science writer Philip Ball explores the links between science and magic of all types. The second and third episodes are of specific interest to magic history fans. The second part explores science and performance magic, with contributions from Will Houstoun, and the third part looks at science and the rise of spiritualism.

Listen here:
The Unseen - A History of the Invisible: Conjuring the Invisible
The Unseen - A History of the Invisible: The Spirit World

Great Lives - Harry Houdini (2009):

The first of three Houdini programmes on this list is this look at his career presented by Matthew Parris. Parris discusses Houdini's life with magician Paul Daniels and Houdini biographer William Kalush.

Listen here:
Great Lives: Harry Houdini

Omnibus - Are You There Harry Houdini? (1996):

This documentary, presented by Brian Sibley, looks at Houdini's life with a particular focus on his death and interest in spiritualism. Many of the Magic Circle magicians who contributed to It's Magic above feature prominently discussing his life and career.

Listen here:
Omnibus: Are You There Harry Houdini?

Witness History - Harry Houdini (2016):

The shortest of the three Houdini documentaries, this looks at Houdini's Mirror Handcuff Challenge. With entertaining contributions from Paul Zenon, it provides an interesting snapshot of Houdini's time in the U.K.

Listen here:
Witness History: Harry Houdini

Magic History Related:

In Our Time - Automata (2018):

Melvyn Bragg discusses the history and cultural context of automata with Simon Schaffer, Elly Truitt and Franziska Kohlt. This is really worth a listen, but it does suffer from Melvyn Bragg regularly interrupting the academics to demonstrate his own knowledge.

As an aside, Simon Schaffer's B.B.C. Four (TV) documentary on automata, Mechanical Marvels: Clockwork Dreams, is regularly repeated and worth watching.

Listen here:
In Our Time: Automata

Beyond Belief - Spiritualism (2014):

This fascinating talk show looks at the history and practice of Spiritualism through a discussion between a Spiritualist, an Evangelical and an academic interested in spirituality. Though there's little magic history in here it does cover many aspects around the growth of spiritualism, and its current practice, generally absent from magic history books.

Listen here:
Beyond Belief: Spiritualism

The Long View - Retail Difficulties: Gamages in 1930 (2008):

I'm stretching it a bit here, but I am fascinated with Gamages and its magic department which grew and shrank over the years. There is no mention of magic in this documentary but it does give an insight into the history of this company and why it is no longer a household name.

Listen here:
The Long View - Retail Difficulties: Gamages in 1930

Other programmes perhaps of interest:

I Was Philip Larkin's Magician (2018):

This fantastic programme looks at the friendship between the biochemist (and magic historian) Edwin Dawes and the poet Philip Larkin. Written and presented by Andrew McGibbon it shines a new light on Larkin and is filled with charming anecdotes from Dawes.

If you to listen to only one programme on this list make it this.

Listen here:
I Was Philip Larkin's Magician

The Why Factor - Magicians (2016):

This short programme looks at the various reasons people become magicians. It's full of interesting insights into the psychology of magicians and what drives them.

Listen here:
The Why Factor - Magicians

The Conversation - The Magicians: Ekaterina Dobrokhotova and Adeline Ng (2016):

This episode of The Conversation sees two accomplished magicians from different backgrounds discuss their careers and the various challenges women face in the male-dominated world of magic.

Listen here:
The Conversation - The Magicians: Ekaterina Dobrokhotova and Adeline Ng

Outlook - Derren Brown: The Magician's Secrets (2019):

Derren Brown is well represented on B.B.C Sounds and this recent interview conducted by Emily Webb is worth a listen. Brown's Desert Island Discs can also be listened to on the website.

Listen here:
Outlook - Derren Brown: The Magician's Secrets
Desert Island Discs: Derren Brown

The Life Scientific: Richard Wiseman on Lying, Luck and the Paranormal (2019):

This episode of Jim Al-Khalili's wonderful series has Richard Wiseman as its subject. The always entertaining Wiseman discusses his more recent areas of interest and his past work.

Listen here:
The Life Scientific: Richard Wiseman on Lying, Luck and the Paranormal

I hope the above programmes will be of some interest. If you spot any others available to listen to on the B.B.C.'s website please let me know and I'll add them to the list.

Merry Christmas and Happy New Year.