Saturday 5 July 2014

Updated: The World's Smallest Magic Set?

Update is below the original post.

Here's a very small magic set, certainly the smallest in my collection. Its twenty tricks fit into a standard sized match box branded "Masters' Army and Navy Safety Matches". The other side and the striking surfaces read "20 TRICKS" and "ENTERTAIN YOUR FRIENDS".

When the inner drawer is removed we can see it jammed full of small bits of apparatus with which a range of magic tricks can be performed.

Squeezed in are a few small rings and a length of ribbon, two dice, two match sticks with a small piece of rubber tube, some mini playing cards including a double back and double front, two wooden pegs, a metal gimmick for levitating two glasses and a length of metal tube.

Sadly there are no instructions with this set, and I have no idea who manufactured it. It's clearly from the latter part of the 20th Century and British. Most of the props are self explanatory, though I'm unsure what the metal tube is for. It could be for the trick where you hold the tube on a borrowed handkerchief and push a lit cigarette into the tube extinguishing it against the handkerchief without causing it any damage.


Since writing this I was kindly contacted by Alex Melven who informed me that these were assembled and sold by the noted stage magician Edward Victor.

Alex pointed me towards Rae Hammond's book "The Magic of Edward Victor's Hands" where the instructions for this set are reprinted along with other matchbox magic sets Victor made and sold in the 1950s.

I also found another example of this set recently made with a "Swift" brand matchbox. The contents is similar with the exception of the cigarette tube which was made of plastic rather than metal. 

Wednesday 2 July 2014

A Letter from J. N. Maskelyne.

My personal favourite magician of the past is John Nevil Maskelyne. I'm not going to go into depth about his life here but suffice to say he's one of the history's most influential magicians. Here's a little item from Maskeyne's time at the Egyptian Hall in Piccadilly. Dated from 1901, while Maskelyne was still with George Alfred Cooke, it's politely written declining the offer of a print.

Although it's just a guess, the print Maskelyne could have been referring to may have been the one below. I only assume this as it is a relatively common print that relates to the hall and pre-dates Maskelyne's time there.

This print, published in 1828, shows the building when relatively new and still a museum owned by William Bullock. The building was leased to Maskelyne from 1873 until 1904 when the lease expired and the building was demolished within a year. Although The Egyptian Hall, "England's Home of Mystery", has now gone there is a wonderful model of the hall at The British Magic Museum. The model contains their collections of Maskelyne related items.

For original Maskelyne related buildings there are a few still extant, most notably his watch making shop in Cheltenham. He lived and worked here at the time when he was exposing the Davenport Brothers (no relation Davenports the shop) and when he met Cooke.

Now a chemist's shop, the building has a blue plaque commemorating Maskelyne though there is nothing inside mentioning him.

Wednesday 25 June 2014

Coins in Nests of Boxes.

In this bumper post I'm going to detail some of the nests of boxes in my collection. A classic of magic, this trick consists of a spectator providing a coin to the magician which is vanished by the conjurer's preferred method. The magician then shows a box in which is found another box, and another and so on until the final box is opened and shown to contain the spectator's coin.

Above and below are the two earliest examples I have, both from Blands magic sets. They are remarkably fine containers made of boxwood with a decorative large box to contain the smaller boxes. The precision is staggering and they still work perfectly today. The smallest box can only just hold a modern penny.

Jumping ahead some seventy years here is a painted tin model sold in the fifties. A cheap but still persuasive effect these would have been held shut with the aid of elastic bands around each box. The coin would be introduced with the aid of a slide and could be produced loaded from a jacket pocket quite smoothly.

Ellisdons put out a simple cardboard model with a little bag in the centre. Manufactured in large quantities these were sold by mail order in the backs of comics as well as through magic and novelty shops. More information on Ellisdons can be found here.

Here's another nest of boxes, this time manufactured by Davenports. Early on, Davenports sold wooden nests similar to the Blands models above, but come the dawning of plastics they soon advertised their new model:

You could purchase the set with or without rattle boxes. One of these rattle boxes will be included in a future post. The plastic boxes were branded with the Demon Head trademark as were other Bakelite products such as their coin plate.

These small boxes were introduced in the late thirties and were joined by a similar effect. Not strictly a nest of boxes, the "J.C. Miracle Coin Trick" is a pair of small plates bound together by tight elastic bands. The spectator's coin is found between these plates within a ball of wool as described in the advert below.

The advert boasts that the discs will last a lifetime, and sure enough here they are with the slide as they would have looked when new.

More showy than a nest of boxes, but with much more preparation required, this isn't an effect you see very often now. I don't believe any one's manufacturing quality versions of this effect today but very cheap models can be found, such as this.

Saturday 21 June 2014

Robert Mason's Magic Shop Interior.

When I was the tender age of 8 I went to the book shop with my birthday money and chose a book on my favourite topic at the time, magic. At the time I only had a few books on how to do tricks and this was the first book I had on the history of magic, Peter Eldin's "The Best-Ever Book of Magic".

Each double page spread in this oversize book includes illustrations from a large range of artists commissioned specially to accompany Eldin's history of magic. One particular page that had a profound effect on me was the section on magic shops. It gave a short history of them, along with a highly detailed illustration of a magic shop by Robert Mason.

I recently rediscovered my copy of this great book and upon turning to the magic shop page remembered how much I loved it. So I Googled Robert Mason, found his website and gave him an email. As luck would have it he still had the original, though he'd cut it down to remove the figures on the right as he'd not been happy with them. I bought it and framed it along with a print of the figures that had been removed. The picture appears to be heavily based on the interior of Davenports.

Though I didn't know when I first saw the image that it was so close to Davenports, I did find that out when I first went there aged 10. The image had a big influence on me and it's one of my favourite items in my collection.

Wednesday 18 June 2014

Wonder Clocks Sold by Izani-Henley and Davenports.

A popular trick since its invention the "Wonder Clock" has been made in many sizes and materials. Large cigar box sized table models were made out of wood by the Victorians along with match box sized metal and plastic versions still available today.

This beautifully made, chrome plated brass, model is probably the most common type you'll find. Made in great numbers in Germany and sold by many different magic companies throughout the world. The trick is a simple one, the spectator sets the hand to their chosen number and slides the cover over the dial. With the dial covered the magician can reveal the selected number. This example has its original packaging.

This great little pocket trick is still being made today and you can pick up plastic versions for just a few pounds, in fact the cheap toy-like appearance makes the trick slightly more effective as it doesn't look so much like a mechanical prop. I spotted probably the largest collection of old models of this trick recently.

This bumper case of "Wonder Clocks" is in the mocked up back room of the reproduction Davenports shop at The British Magic Museum. If you ever get the chance to visit make sure you do, it's superb.

Saturday 14 June 2014

Updated: Maskar and Mavis, Personal Photos from a Fringe Professional.

Updates are below the original post.

This set of three photos shows the little known magician Maskar standing in front of his show with his assistant Mavis and some other people. He's not a well known figure in the history of British magic but these provide a good snapshot of professional magicians in the 1950's.

The pictures are of two different booths ran by the magician, possibly on Blackpool's Golden Mile as there are records of him demonstrating illusion sideshows there.

They provide a rare glimpse of late sideshows in the UK which mainly faded away towards the end of the 1950's. Two other sideshows are visible in the backgrounds of these two images, though I have been unable to identify them. The man in the turban is Maskar and the woman is Mavis, who was possibly the main draw judging from the photographs used on the advertising boards.

I can not identify the other people in these photos but I suspect they may be relatives of Mavis or Maskar. Maskar performed as a "white yogi", performing tests of pain and endurance alongside standard illusions. He is possibly best remembered as a tour companion for the escapologist Murray.

Above is a proof for a poster printed in 1953. It shows Maskar in second billing to Murray, a place he occupied for much of his career.


A while after this was posted I was contacted by an admin of the History of Blackpool Facebook page, Bob Kearns, who asked to share these images to the group. He posted them up and it got some really useful responses.

Pete Skinner contributed some particularly interesting information:

"[Robert] Harbin's Invisible Ray Illusion has a sideshow pedigree being shown for some years on Blackpool's Golden Mile by Murray and presented by Maskar."

This was the first I'd heard of Robert Harbin's illusion being presented by Maskar for Murray, more of that in a bit.

Pete Skinner also posted a clipping from the 4/6/1964 issue of The Stage.

This great little clipping is filled with information that was new to me. He was Welsh, had worked with Horace Goldin and had a yoga themed strength act as a side show on the Golden Mile.

Returning to the Harbin connection I was also contacted by Emma Heslewood, who's working on the exciting Blackpool Museums Project. She was researching Blackpool's connections to magic and we had a chat about magic history during which she shared more information about Maskar and Murray. I learnt that Maskar had worked for Murray presenting an illusion built by Harbin, known as the Invisible Man and Out of this World. 

Looking in Harbin's "The Magic of Robert Harbin" he doesn't only explain the illusion, but goes into some detail on the history of it:

"At the time when I left England for Bermuda, most of my cumbersome apparatus was disposed of. Some of it went to Billy McComb and the remainder to Davenports. It was to the latter that the "Invisible Man" was sold and a little later it was bought from George Davenport by Murray who conceived of the novel idea of using it as a side-show. Year after year he had this presented in the north of England always finding it extremely profitable. In the handling of this, I must give praise to Maskar who with masterly showmanship, proved to the spectators that they were watching a modern miracle."

So there we go, I thought I had all the information on Maskar I was likely to find, until flicking through a book I've had for a few years I found a even more!

Tug Wilson was an assistant of Murray (along with Cecil Lyle and Levante). His biography was published in 2011 by Arcady press, written with Christopher Brinson. There's a great section on Maskar's yogi act "Menta Resista" and it states his real name was Lewis Evans. The book includes other pictures of Maskar and his sideshows that appear to be earlier than the three above.

It describes how Murray moved into sideshows as a source of income and to keep his touring company employed after the decline of variety theatres. It was likely also due to Murray's health forcing him out of touring and into running a magic and novelty shop in Blackpool. 

Thanks to everyone who contributed information.

Wednesday 11 June 2014

The "Egyptian Cabinet", a Rare Blands Exchange Box.

Here's a little rarity. An ebonised boxwood exchange box manufactured by Blands around 1880. A simple effect where anything that will fit in this little drawer can vanish or change into anything else that will fit.

Its method is cunningly simple though rarely used. The only explanation I could find in print comes some 70 years later in Norman Hunter's text "Successful Conjuring for Amateurs".

I picked this up in a large Blands magic set. The apparatus has been used by magicians for some time after manufacture as evidenced by its contents. Inside the drawer was a small, brittle, scrap of paper which was found to be ripped from an issue of "The Magician Monthly". As luck would have it the scrap included the date, so we know some lucky magician was showing this off after May 1927.

This is a very uncommon effect and the only other example of this I've been able to find was sold in a Potter and Potter auction in 2011. It is listed as an "Hamleys Egyptian Cabinet, c.1895" so presumably was sold after Hamleys purchased Blands. A photo and description can be found here under Lot 64.

Saturday 7 June 2014

Three Davenports Multiplying Money Trays.

Multiplying coin trays are still popular today, in this article we're going to look at a few examples of this fun effect.

If you haven't realised already I have a particular interest in Davenports apparatus and this post is going to look at three coin trays sold by them over the years. The above is an early advert for three of their trays, though I'm not sure which of the below were available then.

First up is a very plain plastic model 4 inches across. It has a gorgeous marbled green and black finish and is made of thermoset plastic (similar to Bakelite). It is very thin and has a card base. Not a wonderful quality item, especially as the gap between the edge of the plate and the slot is about an inch.

No such problems with this version though, probably their best known model. Fantastic quality in heavy red Bakelite. This is part of a series of three products in this distinctive plastic, all featuring the Demon head trademark, the other two can be seen at the bottom of this post. The action of this model is great and it looks like a stylish Art Deco ashtray or coaster.

The final (and latest) model I have is this thin tin tray, sprayed blue and with a silver paper star adhered to the centre. All of these models were sold separately and in magic sets manufactured by Davenports (such as the popular Maskelyne's Mysteries sets). This is by no means a complete list of coin trays they made, but these are the three most common.

Friday 6 June 2014

Hogarth's Take on an Early Magician.

William Hogarth, the well known painter and engraver, created this lively scene in 1733. It shows Southark Fair, a bustling London street fair filled with performers, the public and excess. Hogarth painted and engraved this scene to go with one of his most famous engravings, "A Rake's Progress". There's more information on this print on the Tate's website where they have another copy of this print on loan.

Of course it wouldn't be on here without a magic connection and to the right of the print we find one. Here is one of just a handful of depictions of Isaac Fawkes, a hugely significant magician who bought magic to the upper classes for the first time. For many years he had a booth in Southwark Fair as depicted here.

The green-jacketed man above is an exaggerated version of Fawkes ringing a bell and encouraging a crowd to gather and enter his small theatre. The banner shows Fawkes with his famous bag trick and has the caption "Fauxs Dexterity of Hand". There's plenty written on Fawkes and I'm not going to regurgitate it here. Hogarth depicted Fawkes previous to this print, in his first issued engraving "A Bad Taste of the Town", though he's not shown in this detail. There's one sticking point with Fawkes in this print however, the date.

Fawkes died in his late fifties in 1772 the year before this engraving was issued. His son carried on his stall at the fair but it is widely agreed that this is a depiction of Fawkes senior from memory or sketches. The most famous and reproduced image of Fawkes originated in 1740 on a fan painting. Here's an image engraved from this by The Brothers Dalziel as published in "Memoirs of Bartholomew Fair" in 1859 (a fantastic book if you can find a copy).

Returning to the Hogarth print, it would not have been sold coloured as it is today. At some point a talented amateur or a print workshop has coloured the print with watercolours to bring the scene to life, this could have been done as late as the 1940's. As portraits of well know magicians go this is the earliest in my collection and a real gem.  

Thursday 5 June 2014

Steel Ball Through Glass, Two Versions.

The "Steel Ball Through Glass" trick was very popular from the 1930's onwards. It is one of the many tricks originally manufactured by Davenports and then copied extensively. Max Holden manufactured the effect under licence from Davenports, but Thayer and others plagiarised in the USA, as did companies here and elsewhere in Europe. 

This elegant, simple, effect uses the most innocent looking apparatus. A flat hinged mahogany box with a hole drilled right through from top to bottom, a sheet of glass which fills the interior and a steel ball. With the box closed and the glass trapped inside, blocking the hole, the ball can pass through the glass from top to bottom as shown in this advert from the trick's launch around 1937.

Right from the outset Davenports' advertising was attacking imitators, though this open letter could be mainly a marketing ploy. As with most of the finer Davenports props it is marked, this time with a subtle Demon head.

The locking mechanism is integrated into the clasp and makes the effect examinable. Close-up magic was building in popularity through this period so it's no surprise the effect took off. Of course the imitators cashed in on this and rolled out the copies.

Here's a model I can't identify. It came in a large collection of 1950's equipment. I'm sure I've seen a photo of one of these in a Vampire or Unique advert, but I can't find it. Either way I guess it's been imported, maybe German. It certainly has a similar finish to German rattle boxes.

It's a beautifully made trick and it certainly matches the quality of the Demon version. If you know who made it please let me know and I'll update here.

Wednesday 4 June 2014

Kalanag's Salvaged Christmas Greeting.

Here's a Christmas greeting from the German magician Kalanag. A politically controversial figure he toured successfully throughout Europe and America after the second war. This postcard features Kalanag and his wife Gloria with their vanishing Hillman Minx.

It was sent from Blackpool on 22nd of December 1954 to Albert Blackman of Hyattsville, USA. From the very little I could find on the web he could possibly have been a collector of magic magazines and ephemera. The effect featured on the front of the postcard is Kalanag's vanishing Hillman Minx, described in detail by Val Andrews in his recently reprinted biography of Kalanag. A programme featuring a picture of the magician with his car features on the back of this programme from 1952.

This postcard is slightly unusual as evidenced by its condition and the stamps on the reverse. The card is quite browned and singed and the bold purple stamp reads "SALVAGED MAIL AIRCRAFT CRASH PRESTWICK 25-12-54". The stamp is presumably there to explain to the recipient the delay in arrival.

The plane, a BOAC Boeing 377 Stratocruiser landed short of the runway and crashed at Prestwick Airport, Scotland on Christmas day 1954. 26 people on board were killed and much of the cargo, mainly post, was damaged or lost. There was a large salvage operation during which this postcard (and lots of other mail, £900 000 worth of diamonds, etc.) were recovered. In all a strange and sombre relic of Kalanag's career.

Tuesday 3 June 2014

Wonder and Snuff Boxes by Demons and Vampires.

Here's a few items used for slick silk magic. First up is the much copied Demon "Wonder Box". Below is the advert as it appeared in the 1937 Davenports catalogue. This three page advert describes at some length the various merits of the little chromed box:

The box was originally produced in heavily chromed copper held together with fine screws (below right) and a soldered gimmick (not shown). Towards the end of the second war, for a short while, the box was just manufactured in polished copper as the materials weren't available for chrome plating (as such the copper model is rarer).

With this examinable little box silks can vanish, change and appear with the magician able to show the audience a view right through the box at any time. This popular effect found its way into many well know magicians' acts. The copper box to the left was owned and used by the Davenports before being purchased by Paul Daniels who used the box prior to selling it to myself.

Davenports purchased the UK rights to this trick from Bartl but had there own marketing. Davenports were so proud of the box they had the design registered and this number, along with the Demon Series logo, can be found on the inside lids of their boxes. It's been in and out of production, I also have a 70's version of the box in slightly thinner metal.

The Wonder Box did suffer from cheap copies on the market, some of which are still made and sold today. Some manufacturers created equivalent tricks instead, as shown by this advert for Vampire's "Silver Snuff Box".

The above shows Max Andrews handling his latest product. Though the effects possible with the box are very similar to the "Demon Wonder Box" it is not examinable. The box works on the well known "Gung Ho Box" principle.

As shown, you can see through the empty box but when closed silks can be inserted into the top and come out the bottom a different colour, or appear or vanish completely.

Nowhere near as successful as the Demon box this item was released in the 1950's and quickly discontinued. In many ways this is a shame as the effect is as startling as the above and arguably cleaner in handling.

Not to be outdone by Davenports, Vampire proudly stamped the gimmick on the "Silver Snuff Box" but didn't go to the effort of registering the design (which would have been tricky anyway as the secret was already in use).