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.

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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"