Monday 13 December 2021

The Art of Modern Conjuring and The Boy's Book of Conjuring, a Mystery Solved?

If you have an interest in old magic books you will almost certainly have come across this book published by Ward, Lock & Co. 

In many ways this is a typical example of a popular magic book of the time, featuring a mixture of simple tricks with coins and cards and some effects with commercially available apparatus. What sets it apart from its peers is the use of lavish, high-quality photography.  

The number of copies existing today suggests many thousands were printed. The book wasn't released with this title though, when first published in 1909 it was titled The Art of Modern Conjuring. The first edition was clearly dated and had gilded lettering to the cover and spine, subsequent editions were mostly undated with printed lettering. The picture below shows the first English edition.

The book was reprinted without the foiled lettering in the UK and Australia. A licensed American release by The Reilley and Britton Company was published with the gilt lettering to the cover. There was also at least one edition published in a different language with a Dutch version, titled Het Nieuwe Tooverboerk, printed in 1912.1

At the time of publication, The Magic Circle was gaining momentum with opposition to the public exposure of magic secrets at its core. This was probably the reason the people who produced the book opted for anonymity. This anonymity and the book's generic title have led to some confusion and speculation over its creation.

The first confusion comes from an earlier book of the same title, but with entirely different contents, by Henri Garenne. Garenne was the nom de plume of Henry Frank Lind, who worked variously as a magician, a waxworks proprietor and a phrenologist. This book was published in 1886 and consisted of large sections plagiarised from Hoffmann's Modern Magic along with some chapters on spiritualistic tricks. Confusingly, this was also published by Ward, Lock and Co. Many magic dealers through the 1930s and 1940s listed the newer book in their second-hand lists as "The Art of Modern Conjuring (Ward Lock)" in an attempt to distinguish it from the earlier book, seemingly unaware that the earlier book was also "Ward Lock". 

This raises the possibility that Lind could have been the author of both books. Though Lind was still alive in 1909, there are a few reasons to rule out this possibility. The first is that the original book was "suppressed" by Hoffmann due to its plagiarism.2 This would have presumably created significant losses for Ward, Lock & Co. making it unlikely they would trust Lind with a further publication. Lind had also moved away from conjuring and is listed on the 1901 census as a waxworks proprietor in Kirkgate, Leeds. Lind toured his waxworks predominantly in the north of England picking up local acts casually through newspaper adverts.

We know Lind had moved away from conjuring when he began exhibiting waxworks, as he wrote in 1904: "In my time, when known as Dr. Lind the illusionist and entertainer, and also since I have been connected with exhibition business..." This quote comes from a letter we wrote in The Era seeking donations to help rebuild his career after his waxworks, household goods and other exhibits were destroyed in a catastrophic fire in Blyth.3 In the course of researching Lind and finding out about the lives that surrounded him I've decided to put them into their own blog post which will follow shortly. Suffice it to say, he did not write the 1909 book.

The biggest clue to the true authorship of the newer book comes from Will Goldston. Though the book was listed anonymously across all newspapers and the magic press, in a few very early listings of the book in The Magician Monthly, Goldston credited it to "Ralpho". 

Ralpho was a magician barely recorded at the time but there are a few good reasons to trust Goldston's attribution. Looking at the first edition of the book, there are only two adverts included. One was for Ward, Lock and Co.'s general interest magazine The Windsor, the other was for Will Goldston's magic department at the department store Gamages. 

It's not unusual to have magic dealers advertising in magic books from general publishers but the fact that it is the only advert from a magic dealer in the book, and that it appears in the very first edition, suggests lines of communication between Goldston and Ward, Lock and Co. were open prior to publication. Incidentally, future editions did not feature adverts for any magic dealers.

The book was also very positively reviewed in The Magician Monthly by Goldston as soon as it was released in January 1909. We can be sure January 1909 was the month the book came out as it was also when Ward Lock's own Windsor Magazine advertised it as "Just Ready". On top of that, this issue of The Magician features an etching of the book, suggesting Goldston was well prepared for the book's release in advance. 

In addition, the only other mention of Ralpho in the magic press of the period was in The Magician Monthly annual for 1907-08, which featured a photo of the man in a montage of other conjurers. This shows Goldston was aware of Ralpho and probably knew him to a greater or lesser extent, so there would be little reason for him to assign his name to the book if he did not think he was the author. 

It's interesting to note that while Goldston had time to commission an etching of the book for his January advert Selbit, the editor of The Wizard, only just received his copy it time to very briefly review it for his January issue, writing: 

"Just on going to press, unfortunately delayed this month due to unforeseen and unpreventable circumstances for which we make apology and which we trust our readers will overlook, there was placed in our hands another contribution to modern magical literature..."

This mildly passive-aggressive quote shows that, despite their press deadline being pushed back for unrelated reasons, they still only just received a copy of The Art of Modern Conjuring in time to give it a "hasty perusal" before publishing their January issue. It seems unlikely Goldston would have been given this preferential treatment if the author or authors had not been in his circle. At the time Goldston was publishing through Gamages and did not begin his more commercial publishing through Routledge until after parting ways with the department store. It seems likely that Ward Lock approached Goldston and, feeling he could not publish commercially outside of Gamages, he put forward some names of good candidates. We can't rule out the possibility Goldston was more closely involved but, given the success of the book and Goldston's immodest nature, he would probably have mentioned his connection in an editorial after his departure from Gamages.

A further piece of evidence that supports the validity of Goldston naming Ralpho as the author is the one photo in the book which shows a face. In a plate showing an extending pole, we catch a small glimpse of the magician whose hands feature throughout the book. 

Blown up, the man appears to be the Ralpho in the annual, or someone who bears an uncanny resemblance to him. My thanks to John Davenport of The Davenport Collection for providing the scan on the right.

Writing on the same question in 1979, John Henry Grossman came to the same conclusion.4 I had not read Grossman's article when I came to this conclusion, so it was heartening to see that he was of the same opinion. Without the luxury of the digitised archives of newspapers and records we have today, this is where Grossman had to stop on the question of who authored The Art of Modern Conjuring. 

So who was Ralpho? It seems odd that a lavish book created for very wide circulation was put in the hands of a magician who seemed to have made so little impact at the time. In 1909 there were a plethora of magic magazines and books but, beyond the mention in Goldston's annual above, he doesn't seem to appear anywhere. 

Looking into the British Newspaper Archive there are reports of Ralpho performing at occasional events from 1893 to 1907. He was usually billed "Signor Ralpho". Generally, these performances were in London and they were often in aid of a local charity or cause. He always received a polite write-up, but there is little detail beyond noting he performed with cards, coins and featured a birdcage effect. The gaps between performances are large and he only appears to have advertised his own magic services for one short period, all pointing towards him being semi-professional or amateur. 

The key to finding his identity beyond a stage name is in this brief period where he did advertise. Between February and April 1906 he placed five identical adverts in The Essex Times which read:

 "Ralpho, The Well-Known Illusionist. Open for Engagements. Concerts, Drawing-Rooms and 'At Homes'. Entertainments Arranged. Platform and Other Decorations Personally Supervised. Terms Moderate. Address: 233, Parkhurst Road, Manor Park." 

Referring to the electoral registers from 1905, 1906 and 1907 only one person was registered at this address: Samuel Thomas Roffey. Roffey was born in 1876 or 1877 in Battersea, the son of a baker. He followed his father into this profession and is listed as a baker on all censuses from 1901 through to the 1939 register. It seems highly likely that Ralpho and Roffey were one and the same and he was a passionate magician jobbing in the family firm. This would mean that at his earliest performance he was only sixteen, but it was a casual community event and it wasn't unusual then, as it isn't today, for young magicians to be able to hold their own at such performances. It seems that he kept up his passion for magic and became a member of the group that congregated around Goldston prior to The Magicians' Club's founding. 

Though he probably kept up magic as a hobby, his last appearance in the British Newspaper Archives is in 1907 and Goldston's mention of him as the author of The Art of Modern Conjuring in 1909 is his last appearance in the magic press. Perhaps he began taking on more responsibilities at the bakery as his father grew older and there was no longer energy to couple the early mornings of the bakery with the late evenings of the magician. Roffey fought in and survived the First World War, moved to Bristol where he continued as a baker and died in the third quarter of 1947. 

This still leaves the question of how and why a hard-working baker moonlighting as a magician landed the commission to produce a book for a large commercial publisher. Whether it was the idea of a magician or the publisher, if someone decided to produce a photographic textbook on magic in 1908 there would be one natural man to approach: Louis Nikola. Nikola had written articles on how to perform magic for a range of popular magazines including Boy's Own, The Strand and Hobbies. What set his articles apart from those of other magicians was the use of clear and attractive photographs which were taken by Nikola himself. Many years later, when Goldston was compiling his 1934 book Who's Who in Magic, Nikola listed his favourite hobby as photography. 

Photographic illustrations were not new in magic books, with 1902's The Modern Conjurer by C. Lang Neil a major pioneer in the field. This was entirely photographically illustrated, here is an example of a typical spread:

Four years prior to this, Nikola wrote a series of articles for the Boy's Own Paper on how to perform magic tricks. These included a mixture of line drawing and photographs and were probably among the earliest photographic explanations of magic tricks. David Devant, who also had a passion for photography, had modelled in photographic articles earlier on the allied arts of paper folding and shadowgraphy, though I do not believe he worked on articles exposing conjuring tricks this early. Below is a picture from an article featuring Devant on shadowgraphy from the December 1897 issue of The Strand.

Nikola and Devant may have discussed their shared passion for photography as they both worked at St. George's Hall. Devant's articles were written for The Strand, a popular magazine best remembered today for publishing Arthur Conan Doyle's stories. The Strand regularly commissioned articles on conjuring and related topics. In 1904 Nikola produced a superb article in The Strand on balancing effects containing dozens of clear photographic illustrations, far surpassing the quality of those in C. Lang Neil's The Modern Conjurer.5 

The idea that Nikola was the photographer for The Art of Modern Conjuring is supported by a notice in the March 1909 issue of The Magic Circular. This journal recorded magic news alongside the transactions of The Magic Circle. The organisation had only been founded four years earlier and Nikola, a founding member, came up with the name for the club. The magazine dutifully recorded every addition to its library and Nikola was only recorded donating one book to the library during his membership of the organisation. The notice read: "Presented by Mr Louis Nikola: - 'The Art of Modern Conjuring.' - Anon, 1909." This could be a coincidence but it does seem unlikely that Nikola would donate this book without having any connection to it. Alongside donations, the club also recorded purchases for the library. If Nikola had no connection to the book but thought it would be a worthwhile addition to the library, he probably would have recommended the club purchase the book, rather than buying and donating a copy personally. Nikola's membership of the club was short-lived, likely ending in 1910, though he continued to perform occasionally at club events.6 Perhaps the Circle's focus on punishing exposure, a lucrative sideline for Nikola, provoked his move away from the club. If he was involved in the 1909 book, this would certainly explain his resistance from being publicly connected to its production. It seems unlikely whoever produced the photographs for this book would have shied away from taking credit for such a groundbreaking work had they not been concerned with repercussions. As a side note, the only allied art photographed in the book is shadowgraphy, which happened to be Nikola's secondary act after magic.

It seems clear that the photographer, whether Nikola or not, was probably a magician, as the compositions show a clear understanding of how to illustrate methods effectively. Today we have gone full circle and drawings are recognised as generally being more useful for explaining complex methods than photographs. Sometimes photographs are unsuccessful due to the magician having a poor understanding of photography practices and the photographer having a poor understanding of what needs to be shown clearly for the purposes of the explanation. For photographic explanations to work there needs to be a magician in front of the lens and a photographer who is also a magician behind the lens. The magician in front of the lens should also take direction from the photographer.

Looking at the explanation of the french drop in The Art of Modern Conjuring, for instance, it seems clear this has been photographed by someone who knows how to teach someone the method and performed by someone who knows how to do it. This seems a trivial achievement today, but looking at the effectiveness of photographic explanations that proceeded this book it was a remarkable step forward. Perhaps this achievement is largely forgotten today as it didn't catch on, without investment in equipment and time, good drawings are still clearer.

As a side note, it's worth discussing the possibility that Nikola may have authored the book as well as taking the photographs. There are two main reasons this is unlikely. The first is covered: Goldston identified Ralpho as the author and he certainly appears to be the man in the photograph. The second is the writing itself. Nikola's writing style before and after 1909 is very different from that of this book. The Art of Modern Conjuring is unusually sparse with no patter or excessive descriptions. This is part of its usefulness, providing clear, accurate explanations without distractions. Nikola's articles are florid and conversational. This difference is particularly clear when reading explanations of the same trick in The Art of Modern Conjuring and in articles written by Nikola.

With all this evidence I feel the most likely course of events was as follows. Ward Lock decided to make a photographic magic book having seen the success of Neil's The Modern Conjurer and the popularity of photographically illustrated articles on magic. They probably approached Goldston for advice who, knowing his friend Nikola's photographic skills, pointed them towards him. Nikola, who was now a successful performer, may not have had time to write the text or may have requested too high a fee. So, he opted to just act as photographer. Nikola or Goldston approached Roffey (Ralpho) to undertake the role of demonstrating the tricks in front of the camera and writing the text. This separation of photographer and author would also explain the book's major shortcoming: the plates' positions rarely relate to the descriptions of the effects in the text.

The book went through many undated editions before being retitled as The Boy's Book of Conjuring. This occurred in the 1920s during a period when Ward Lock was expanding its range of children's books dramatically. It's unclear when the book was retitled as the editions remained undated, but the copy with the white and red dust jacket below has an inscription dated 1928, so it was almost certainly in 1928 or earlier. 

This edition is printed on extremely heavy paper stock and was printed by Butler and Tanner of Frome. The edition with the orange dust jacket states on the front flap that the edition is "New and Revised", though the title page makes no mention of this. This edition was printed by the Liverpool firm C. Tinling and Co. My copy with no dust jacket at the top of this article states "New Edition" on the title page and is also from Tinling's press. It should be noted that no material seems to have been revised, added or removed throughout these editions. The only differences are with paper thickness, dust jackets and the colour of the bookcloth. Assuming that the copy dated 1928 is the earliest, the copy that states it is a new edition on the dust jacket followed it and the copy stating it's a new edition on the title page followed that, this picture shows the changes in bookcloth colour over time from left to right. 

It seems likely this book remained in print up to the Second World War, and potentially beyond, in this form. Though popular, the book had some major drawbacks for the publisher. By 1939 the market for magic books aimed at children was very crowded and the disjointed layout with illustrations separated from descriptions would have made this an unpopular choice alongside competitors. The photographs also clearly show a magician in formal Edwardian dress, which would have appeared very outdated. Rather than commissioning a new book, Ward Lock finally really did create a new and revised edition.

Published in 1952, the text remained mostly the same, with some sections re-ordered, the section on magic with chemicals removed and some effects with no longer available apparatus also removed. The biggest change was the removal of the photographs. Instead, they were used as the basis for drawings, which were included in the text alongside the relevant tricks. These drawings also adjusted the dress of the magician to a modern suit. A handsome full-colour dust jacket was commissioned and a new frontispiece showing 1950s schoolboys performing tricks was added. 

This edition was a success for the firm and went through four impressions: 1952, 1953, 1956 and 1963. This version was also the first time the book has been published with a name attached, with Eugene Stone listed as the editor. Stone was not a magician but had worked on a few other books for Ward Lock: a picture book on animals of the countryside and a highly successful book of baby names. 

It's probably never going to be possible to know for certain who wrote The Art of Modern Conjuring or who did the photography. I think it's almost certain Ralpho was the author, it's highly likely Roffey was Ralpho and it's a strong possibility Nikola did the photography. Regardless of this, it's a rarity for an anonymously produced general magic book to remain in print for over fifty years. Below the bright dustjacket of the final edition, the illustrated cover was lost in favour of plain brown cloth covered boards. The spine does have one subtle nod to the original book, with the old cover illustration of the classic force miniaturised and reproduced in silver foil. The photograph from which this was drawn appeared on the original frontispiece in 1909, perhaps the hands of a baker named Roffey photographed by a magician named Nikola? 

Selected references:

Guissart, A. (1931) 'A Wizard's Wanderings in a Legerdemainist's Library' in The Linking Ring: August 1931. Ohio: International Brotherhood of Magicians, pp. 632

2 Dawes, E. (2005) 'Professor Luigi Meurice Hiodini, Alias the Doctor and the Colonel' in The Complete Rich Cabinet of Magical Curiosities. Thornton Heath: Peter Scarlett Magic, pp. 967.

The Era, 5th of November 1904, pp. 26.

Grossman, J. H. (1979) 'Ask the Doctor!' in M-U-M: February 1979. Oklahoma: The Society of American Magicians, pp. 17.

Nikola, L. (1904) 'Eccentricities of Equilibrium' in The Strand: July-December 1904. London: George Newnes Ltd., pp. 91.

6 Dawes, E. (2005) 'Louis Nikola: The Magician Who Gave The Magic Circle Its Name' in The Complete Rich Cabinet of Magical Curiosities. Thornton Heath: Peter Scarlett Magic, pp. 1394.

Friday 16 July 2021

Houndsditch, The One-Time Home of the Novelty Trade.

Novelties and magic have been interlaced since the very earliest days of magic retailing. If you peruse a Hamleys catalogue from 1900 you'll find pages of jokes, novelties and puzzles between pages of the finest stage and parlour tricks available at the time. Some magic shops grew large enough to import these cheaper items directly from the manufacturers in Japan, America and Germany but others relied on purchasing wholesale from importers. In London, many of these novelty importers and traders found a home in the unusually named street of Houndsditch.

Located in the East End, Houndsditch was originally a defensive Roman ditch running along the outside of a portion of the city's wall. The route of the ditch's name is said to come from the 13th century when waste, including dead dogs, was routinely dumped in the ditch. The unpleasant story behind the street's name, and an association with crime, even led to an attempt to hold a referendum on renaming the street in 1908, though ultimately there wasn't sufficient support for the referendum to be held. The ditch was filled in the 1600s and quickly developed to become a street.

The newly available land on Houndsditch provided a blank canvas for Jewish immigrants who had been granted permission to settle in England by Oliver Cromwell in 1656. This community grew and became well-established in the East End. The area steadily welcomed Jewish immigrants over the next few hundred years but things changed greatly in 1882 following the accession of Tsar Alexander III. He created a wide range of laws persecuting Jews in Russia and many were forced to flee their countries. Two million went to America and 150 000 settled in Britain. Jewish communities across Britain worked hard to help support, home and feed their new neighbours.

It was this influx around Houndsditch that led to the sudden appearance and growth of many new businesses, with most in the area specialising in either clothing or novelties. Some of these novelty traders became long-established and successful but they left behind very little trace in the archives. A few had catalogues, some advertised in papers, but many more were purchasing their wares at the London ports and selling them directly to shops and hawkers with little or no paper trail. Some businesses were recorded in one form or another though.

Two postcards postmarked 1908 show the busy road. One is captioned: "Hounsditch [sic] The Famous Centre for the Latest Novelties." 

Though many shops are visible in the photo the only one which can be clearly seen is Henry Grunhaus. It is possible to just make out the words toys, dolls and fancy goods in the window. On the 1901 census Henry is listed as a salesman at a fancy goods warehouse, with his father Marcus listed as a fancy goods dealer. In this second photo we see Henry's brother's shop.

Isidore Grunhaus's shop is clearly at 29 & 30 Houndsditch, the original location of their father Marcus's shop according to the 1901 census. The caption reads "Houndsditch. One of the Busiest Streets of London. The Home of the Novelty Trade."  These two postcards were almost certainly commissioned by the Grunhauses themselves as they so clearly display their premises. The above example even has retouching to make the name on the shop clearer.

Another novelty wholesaler who left their mark was Richard Bercovitch. He put together wholesale lists of jokes and novelties from his shop named the A.1. Balloon and Novelty House. The use of "A.1." as a prefix was a common ploy at the time to ensure your business appeared at the front of directories.

His 1920s catalogue reproduced images from a range of his suppliers from across the world and also had a few illustrations produced closer to home for his "Berco" range of jokes.

My sister site,, has just released a full reproduction of this catalogue, complete with a new introduction about Bercovitch and his business. For more information or to purchase have a look here: Richard Bercovitch, Ltd. Joke Catalogue.

For the most part, the Second World War saw the end of Houndsditch's association with the novelty trade. Hawkers selling novelties were no longer the norm in London and larger department shops, magic shops and toy shops were importing their goods directly from manufacturers or via agents in the country of manufacture. During and after the war there was a long period of shortages and restrictions which closed most options for novelty importers to find their goods abroad. A few shops lived on in Houndsditch, but it appears they did so by turning more towards traditional retailing and away from importing and trading. One survivor was W. Goldstein and Co. (not to be confused with the magic dealer Will Goldston) who ran a shop called the Army & Navy Novelty Co. A picture of their shop still thriving on Houndsditch in 1975 can be seen on the London Picture Archive here.

Today, Houndsditch has been sanitised into another London street of concrete-faced offices and the odd ground-floor restaurant. No buildings survive from the time of Bercovitch and the Grunhauses to give a hint of the community that once called Houndsditch home.

Friday 5 March 2021

Shocking Snakes, a Perennial Prank.

I'm currently writing an in-depth book on the history of the Ellisdon family and their famous joke and magic business. It's set to be released later this year through

To mark this announcement I thought I'd take a look at some classic joke shop staples, appearing snakes.

The most famous incarnation of these was created in 1915 by the goliath of the American novelty world, S. S. Adams. He created the Snake Nut Can, an innocent-looking tin of nuts which, when opened by the unsuspecting victim, released a huge green snake. Here's a 1950s model.

Though Adams' can was certainly the most successful use of this idea, his invention was really a variation on an already popular theme, rather than a true original. The first adverts I have of a joke appearing snake are in a Hamleys catalogue from around 1900. One is a spring snake from a playing card box and the other a spring German sausage from a pouch of tobacco, both almost certainly imported from Germany.

Over time the most popular form of the joke sold in the UK used small pots of jam, mustard or face cream. One of these early glass jars can be seen below.

These two adverts from Davenports show how the joke was marketed from the inter-war years onwards. The distinctive pattern of the jar above can be seen in the advert on the left.

The German and Japanese manufacturers ran with this joke in a big way creating many variations. Snakes would pop out of practically any object which could accommodate a spring snake. One of the simpler tricks was this shaving brush canister.

Many of these early versions have charming hand-painted faces. To give an idea of the huge variety of snake jokes on offer, here is a page from the German firm Carl Quel's 1937 wholesale catalogue.

The top advert shows one of the most complex of the snake pranks manufactured, the snake camera. This looks like a real 1930s camera, complete with bellows, but fires out a snake when the joker pretends to take a photo.

The London joke firm Ellisdons found particular success with a fake book aimed at tempting the onlooker to have a sneaky look.

The advert above, from their 1937 catalogue, shows what would happen to the victim when they attempted to read What I Know About Women. These were also fitted with a spring-loaded noise maker which emits a loud squeak when the snake escapes. 

These pre-war models were imported from Japan by Ellisdons. During and after World War Two they manufactured them themselves, selling them in large quantities through Woolworths and via mail-order. 

Pre-war Japanese snake tricks were carefully crafted in card and paper and would have effectively duped many victims. Most simply carry the word "Japan" or "Foreign" but a few have makers marks such as this trick harmonica case. I haven't yet been able to confirm which firm used this mark.

The smallest items I've found which incorporate a spring snake are these two Japanese lighters.

The lighter on the left has a cloth snake while the one on the right has a cheaper waxed paper one. The most popular of the snake tricks remained the jars and cans though. The Japanese ketchup jar below has a painted red interior to represent the ketchup and hide the spring snake and sprung squeaker within.

As with most novelties manufactured in Germany and Japan, particularly those fiddly to make like the above, the Second World War saw the end of their manufacture. The huge variety of snake jokes didn't return after novelty manufacturing resumed in the mid-twentieth century. Spring snake novelties are now confined to cheaply made plastic snake cans which would arouse suspicion before opening, providing merely a shadow of the original joke.