The Golden Age of Magic (1875-1930) generated thousands of colorful posters of all sizes, advertising impossible feats by famous magicians such as Kellar, Houdini, and Carter the Great. Generally produced via stone lithography, these posters ranged from formal portraits of the magicians, who are sometimes surrounded by red, devil-like flying imps, to fantastic depictions of specific stage illusions and tricks, from a woman being sawn in half to acts of self decapitation.

Though treasured by collectors today, who often back their fragile prizes with linen, the lifespan of magic posters was never intended to be long. Their purpose was solely to capture the imagination of an entertainment-hungry public in order to fill up a venue when a traveling magician came to town. Magic posters were printed on very thin paper and slapped up on the sides of buildings. After a show was over, the posters were either ripped down or plastered over with new posters advertising the next upcoming act. Given their impermanent nature and the unceremonious way in which they were handled, few of these posters survived.

The dean, literally, of the Society of American Magicians was Harry Kellar, whose heyday was the early 1900s. Kellar’s posters were printed by the Strobridge Litho Co. of Cincinnati, Ohio, and are considered the creme de la creme of magic posters for their gorgeous colors and rich detail. Some Kellar posters are nothing more than formal portraits but others depict the great magician causing a hypnotized woman to levitate or commanding little orange demons to perform circus tricks in the pits of Hell. In one memorable poster, Kellar invites the viewer to behold his own beheading as he relaxes comfortably in a chair.

In 1908, Kellar sold his show to Howard Thurston, who put Kellar’s tagline, “The Great Magician,” on his own posters. At first Thurston had Strobridge produce his posters, as they had done for both him and Kellar, but Thurston eventually switched to the Otis Litho Co. of Cleveland, Ohio, whose quality is generally considered just a notch below Strobridge’s.

Many magicians honed their craft in the shadow of more famous performers, who served as both their colleagues and promoters. For example, in the early 1920s, Harry August Jansen performed under his own name, billing himself on posters as America’s Greatest Transformist. By the 1930s, though, Jansen had changed his stage name to Dante and was promoted by Howard Thurston, whose name and photo (as well as Kellar’s) were often printed on Dante posters. In numerous depictions, a devilish imp whispered in Dante’s ear, a visual device common to Kellar posters. In 1940, after many years of touring in Europe, Dante returned to the United States to perform on Broadway with a magic review called Sim-Sala-Bim.

When Thurston died in 1936, a Lithuanian magician whose stage name was Will Rock (born William George Rakauskas) purchased Thurston’s show and effects and took it on the road as “Thurston Mysteries Presented by Will Rock,” a phrase found on many of Rock’s posters from the 1940s. In one famous illusion, Rock appears to pull the cord on his own guillotine, a trick updated by The Amazing Randi for rocker Alice Cooper in the 1970s.

Other magicians whose posters are sought by collectors include the mind reader Alexander (Claude Alexander Conlin), who is typically shown staring straight at the viewer, his dis...

Posters for Charles Carter, aka Carter the Great, are particularly colorful and lush, printed by Otis Litho Co. One classic Carter window card is titled “Carter Beats the Devil,” showing the magician playing poker with the devil (Carter holds four aces to the devil’s quartet of kings).

But the king of magic posters, as of magicians, was Harry Houdini, whose posters are in a class by themselves, sometimes commanding six figures. The best ones were printed by Strobridge and range from portraits to illustrations showing him escaping from chains or looking dapper as he performs card tricks. In one famous image, Houdini is depicted upside down in his Water Torture Cell (a glass rectangle filled with water), his escape made all the more impossible by the presence of a fanged monster holding down the container’s lid to ensure that he never gets out alive. How will he ever get out of this one, we are meant to wonder. To find out, the poster implies, pay your two bits and step inside.

About our sources | Got something to add?

▼ Expand to read the full article ▼

Best of the Web (“Hall of Fame”)

MagicGallery.com

MagicGallery.com

This collection of hundreds of posters, cards and portaits from the 'golden age of magic' (1890-1930) is organized … [read review or visit site]

London Transport Museum Posters

London Transport Museum Posters

A must-see collection of 5,000 vivid, colorful British posters from the early 1900s onward. Browse by artist (over … [read review or visit site]

Fillmore and Avalon Collection

Fillmore and Avalon Collection

Wish you'd visited San Francisco in the late 1960s? Get a quick hit with this comprehensive collection of psychedel… [read review or visit site]

Ephemera Society of America

Ephemera Society of America

Great reference on ephemera... includes examples and descriptions of various ephemera categories, selected special … [read review or visit site]

USSR Posters

USSR Posters

Ben Perry's Flickr photoset showcasing almost 1500 Soviet propaganda, advertising, theatre and movie posters from 1… [read review or visit site]

New York Public Library

New York Public Library

The New York Public Library's impressive Digital Gallery offers free access to over 500,000 historical images inclu… [read review or visit site]

The American Memory Project

The American Memory Project

This amazing Library of Congress site includes about a hundred photo and document collections (see complete list) o… [read review or visit site]



Clubs & Associations

Other Great Reference Sites

Most watched eBay auctions    

Original Carter The Great Magic Lithograph PosterRevelation By Dai Vernon Card Magic Book Hc Erdnase Annotated Brand New Sealed1904 Hardeen Agency Catalog For Circus & Variety Artistes Magician Magic HoudiniTom Mullica-showtime At The Tom-foolery-richard Kaufman-1992-photos-v.fine-ojLot (2) Vintage Magician Catalog Printing Blocks Medium Spirit Trumpet Cv8101Rare Magic Trick: Magic Wagon's Zingana Box "limited Edition"The Magic Box By Joseph Pintauro Art By Norman Laliberte 1970 1st EditionFrank Frazetta Kubla Khan Signed Limited Edition Portfolio UnopenedLarry Becker’s Stunners Plus! - Magic And Mentalism BookRare Occult Ceremonial Magic Vintage Occult Hardcover Demonology WitchcraftLiber Coronzom A.d. Mercer Hb 1/200 Occult Grimoire Enochian Magic John DeeMagic BooksMagic BooksMagic Without Tears By Aleister Crowley , Pb, Third Printing 1982Antique Vintage A Magician's Tour Harry Kellar Chicago 1886 *fMagic BooksBook Of Secrets By John Carney -2002 Hb -1st Edition New Condition Magic TricksFosforos 1st Ltd Ed J Nefastos Satanic Grimoire Necromancy Black Magic IxaxaarLast One The End Of Magic/signed. Advance Reading Copy By Amber Benson Of Btvs.The Encyclopedia Of Witchcraft & Demonology - Robbins Occult Magic Grimoire RareTranscendental Magic Its Doctrine And Ritual 1910 Eliphas LeviBertram On Sleight Of Hand Book Ross Bertram 1 St Ed 1983Magic And The Supernatural A Pictorial History By Maurice Bessy Hb 1964 Occult Lot Of Mental Magic Books New & VintageMagic BooksCard Manipulations Book Jean Hugard Bound Vol 1-5Close Up Presentation 1979 Magic Privately Published Presto PressLot Of Card Magic New & Vintage, Mastermind Deck, Regal, Lorayne. Books1922, Lessons In Conjuring By David Devant, Great Britain, Occult Fantasy Magic Dunninger And Houdini Magic AdvertisementGimme Shelter Poster 1970 Rolling Stones Rare Magic Lantern Film Society 1998 Tibet Tibetan Buddhism Tibetan Mysticism & Magic Lhasa Alexandra David0neelTrout Mask Replica 331/3 Book Kevin Courrier Captain Beefheart Magic Band ZappaKwan Magic Catalog No 1 Hong KongThe Wizard & The Magic Wand/3 Year Run/1909/monthly Magic JournalsCeremonial Magic By A.e. Waite / Hardcover Occult Grimoire Magick Nercomancy Redeal By Richard Turner With Dai Vernon PosterVintage Magician Catalog Printing Block Magic Trick Sterling Letterpress Cv8112Magic Book Magic Catalogue #13 Louis Tannen 1980Magic Trick Pamphlet Anomaly Bob Solari 2010The Magic Faraway Tree / The Folk Of The Faraway Tree / + + + Enid Blyton Rare Psychedlic Counter Culture Magic Mushroom Poster By Howard NealSuccessful Conjuring Magic BookWatch Me Closely....vintage Magic Card Tricks Conjuring Book..louis Lam 1938Retro Harry Potter Magic Old World Map Brown Kraft Paper Wizarding Poster 72x46Tal And The Magic Barruget (1965) Eva-lis Wuorio 1st Edition Illust. DustjacketRetro Harry Potter Magic Old World Map Brown Kraft Paper Wizarding Poster 72x36cRetro Harry Potter Magic Old World Map Brown Kraft Paper Wizarding Poster 72x46Retro Harry Potter Magic Old World Map Brown Kraft Paper Wizarding Poster 72x36cCarter Beats The Devil Glen David Gold Magic Trick Illusions Conjuring Tricks Retro Harry Potter Magic Old World Map Brown Kraft Paper Wizarding Poster Amateur Magicians Handbook (henry Hay) Oop Rare Book. No Reserve!3 Vintage Ding Dong School Books ~ Debbie & Her Nap, Magic Wagon, Your FriendCard File By Jerry Mentzer Card Magic Book Hc First EditionTransformations (creating Magic Out Of Tricks) Bylawrence Has, Ph.d. Magic BookRetro Harry Potter Magic Old World Map Brown Kraft Paper Wizarding Poster 51x32cRetro Harry Potter Magic Old World Map Brown Kraft Paper Wizarding Poster 51x32cRetro Harry Potter Magic Old World Map Brown Kraft Paper Wizarding Poster 72x36cRetro Harry Potter Magic Old World Map Brown Kraft Paper Wizarding Poster 72x36Retro Harry Potter Magic Old World Map Brown Kraft Paper Wizarding Poster 72x36c