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]

Ephemera Blog

Ephemera Blog

Marty Weil's wide-ranging, in-depth blog on ephemera, including lots of great interviews with ephemera collectors. … [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]

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]

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]

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    

Antique 1920s Great Chang Fak Hong's Art Deco Magic Poster Buddha Orientalist Nr1817 Lalla Rookh Fore Edge Painting! Magic Rare Finebinding Antique Book Art18thc Antique 1787 Leather Book, Alphonso & Dalinda Magic Of Art & Nature, NrMan, Myth & Magic 24 Volume Set Illustrated Supernatural EncyclopediaOriginal Thurston Tampa Magician Magic Otis Litho Cleveland Lithograph PosterMagician Will Rock Thurston’s Mysteries Signed Orig Half Sht Window Card Poster 1885 Modern Magic Professor Hoffmann 319 Illus Occult Tricks Conjure Cards ArtsRare Harry Potter & Prisoner Of Azkaban, Advanced Readers Ed, Rowling, Magic, ScMagician Virgil & Julie Original 1 Sht Lithographed Poster 1950’s Australia Magician Levante Original Portrait Half Sht Lithographed Poster 1960’sMagician Newmann Simla SÉance Somnolency Orig Panel Sht Woodblock Poster 1930s The Magic City. E.nesbit. 1910. 1st Edition. Presentation Copy. VgVintage Broadway Poster The Magic Show Doug Henning 1974 Stephen Schwartz MovieColor Changing Knives Magic- Gary Frank Knives- Merill Knife Book Included.Magician Bruno Warnecke Black Art Orig Half Sht Woodblock Litho Poster 1920'sStage Illusions. Magic Tricks Conjuring. Hardback Book. Will Goldstone. Magician Sorcar Original Portrait Half Sht Lithographed Poster 1950’s Lot Of 10 Magic Books, PamphletsMagic Trick Book Test Miracle Book Test1903 "the Modern Conjurer" By C. Lang Niel - Magic Tricks - Folding Paper Etc.Totally Out Of Control - Chris Kenner Rare Magic BookMagic Books - Card Magic 1 & 2 - Thanks To Leipzig! 1st Edit - Victor Farelli Tricks Of The Masters. Hardback Magic Conjuring Book. Will Goldston 1948 Magic Trick Book Germain The WizardPure Effect By Derren Brown-magic BookThe Great Raymond U.k English Magic Magician Poster Broadside 1924The Professional Touch By Billy Mccomb-magic BookParagons And Paradoxes-illusion Book-magic BookEgyptian Magic 1933 The Book Of The Master Of The Hidden Places W Marsham AdamsMagic Booklet 'out Of This World - And Beyond' By Paul CurryMagic Booklet 'the Complete Don Alan's Chop Cup' By Ron BauerTricks And Illusions. Magic Conjuring Hardback Book. Will Goldston Juan Tamariz Book Collection - 5 Points Of Magic And Verbal Magic1947 Book - Greater Magic By Hilliard Revised Edition, 8th Impression MagicianBritish Myths & Legends - Barber Giants Beowulf Occult Arthur Witchcraft MagicDisneyana 2001 A Family Reunion Where The Magic Began Le Poster Art DisneylandHistory Of Magic Kurt Seligmann Hc C1948 Pantheon Books Karl Fulves Packet Switches Book Part 4 1977Karl Fulves Packet Switches Book Part 3 1977Rare Antique Magicians Magic Coin Token Martinkas Houdini Complete Illustrated Book Of Card Magic Walter Gibson 1969 First Ed Gospel Magic 5 Spiral Bound Books - SpecialAnother Book By Karrell Fox (dj W/ Mylar Protection)Luck Of The Draw By Liam Montier - Brilliant Number Force, Props And Booklet17 Magigram Supreme Magic Catalogue Magazines From 1983 - 19862002-cake Mix Magic In Minutes-cookbook-cakes,cookies,treats+Harry Potter "wizards Wanted Harry Potter It's Magic" Mini Poster 9" X 14" NewKarl Fulves Packet Switches Book Part 2 19733 Illusion Building Books, Ken Griffin, Jim Sommers, Darwin's Great StuffMagician Levante How’s Tricks Original Panel Sht Woodblock Poster 1937 Rare!Allen Jones Sheer Magic~british Pop Art Hc Book~library 1st Ed 1979 Mylar Dj ExBicycle "oracle" Limited Edition Playing Cards Rare Magic Tricks Of To-day By Yelma 1914 Hamley Brothers Magic Magicians How To BookCard Tricks With Regular Deck Book Magic Book (1 Per Package)3 Books On Making Balloon Animals -balloon Zoo -rubber Ark -balloon ArtMagic Trick Book Jon Allen Directors Cut Lecture Notes2 Pbs-chronicles Of Narnia-c.s.lewis-magician's Nephew,prince Caspian