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]

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]

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    

1883 Pagan Gods Devil Worship Magic Religion Occult Egypt Asia Hindu Tao Muslim Original 1920 Harry Houdini Show Advertising Poster Glasgow Coliseum Scotland1839 Philosophy Of Witchcraft 1st Edition Leather Devil Magic Satan Occult Xrare'red Magic' By Romer Wilson. First Edition 1930. Illustrations By Kay Nielsen.Key To Ghostism Spiritualism Occult D.d. Home Mesmerism Magic Ghost 1st 1880Donald Friend. Signed Limited Edition. Birds From Magic Mountain Extremely RareRare Magician Token -- Thurston Magic Wonder Coin, Good Luck Swastikas, Mt-325Doug Dyment Mindsights And Stimulacra Signed Mentalism Mental Magic Books Lot The Magic Key, Jolly Books, 1963 L. Miller &co. Illustrated By Sylvia HollandTarbell Course In Magic Book SetVintage Starline 1985 Nba Super Stars Poster Jordan Bird MagicMagic - A Fantastic Comedy - G. K. Chesterton - 1913 Play About MagicSpirits In The House T.h. Chislett Spiritualism Magic Tricks Houdini Occult 1949Rare Must Have Magic Book Breslaw's Last LegacyDuschek's Thumbtip Magic Book, Steve Duschek. Rare Close-up Hb Book TricksZippo Lighter: Vintage Harry Houdini Poster - Brushed ChromeWitchcraft Witches Occult Magic Sorcery 194 Rare Old Antiquarian Books On 2 DvdsWell I Never! A Book Of Surprising Magic By Eric C. Lewis - Antique!Pete Biro A Book, Entitled Son Of Greater Magic Vol. 1 Signed Sonata Volume 1 • Juan Tamariz • Editorial Frakson • Oop • Modern Magic ClassicRare 1909 The Mystic Test Book Of Hindu Occult Chambers Magic Occultism Psychic Entertainer - Mentalism Book Lot - 11 Booklets & Hard Cover BookMust Have Magic Book Best Of All WorldsThe Berg Book - Magic By Joe BergHoudini's Escapes And Magic By Walter Gibson, 1930, First Edition, Blue Ribbon Greg Arce Simple Minded Excellent Mentalism Mental Magic BookSpike Sharpie Edition Stage Magic Illusion Mentalism TrickThe Secret Out Or One Thousand Tricks With Cards 1839 Magic FunTwo Copies Of Houdini Movie Scripts - From The Marie Blood Collection - Signed5x5 Scotland Book By Peter Duffie - Book Brand NewTricks Of The Imaginations By Robert E. Neale First Edition With PropsBook - Encyclopedia Of Silk Magic By Mark Trimble, Autographed . Magic Collection Of Classic Magic & Mentalism Booklets! - Eugene Burger & Docc HilfordThe Magic Island W.b.seabrook Haiti Occult Voodoo Illus. Sorcery Sacrifice SkullStage Crafts By Chris Hoggett, Vintage 1975 - First EditionThe Amazing Harry Kellar Great American Magician - 2012 - First EditionMagic Books LotPhoto-magician Bill Neff-does Trick W/dusty King Cowboy Actor-ca/1930s-fine-myLitho Poster-chang Presents Fak-hong's Japanese Review.ca 1930s-on Linen-ooMaurice Fogel - In Search Of The Sensational - Chris Woodward & Richard Mark OopHoudini The Life Story By Harold KellockClose-up Connivery 2, Dan Garret Book. Magic Tricks, Gags, Routines, RareMagic Book Lot Of 9. Close Up To Stage. Vernon, Geoffrey Buckingham, Jg ThompsonDocc Hilford Lot Lolita System And Sign Of Four Mentlism Magic BooksThe Encyclopedia Of Witchcraft & Magic - 1974 First Edition!Bernard's Lesson On Coin Magic By Lewis Ganson - Vintage 1978 - First EditionTelling Fortunes With Cards - By Kevin Martin - Vintage 1970 - 1st EditionHuge Lot Magic Pappers Booklets From The Estate Of Naturally Jimm Pro Magician Precious Gems Lecture Notes By Diamond Jim Tyler - Book Brand NewTeleshock By Nefesch And Titanas - Book Brand NewMethod Impossible By Jason Messina - Book Brand NewVtg Whitman Let's Guess Puzzle Activity Book 1954 Child Magic Show Magician 50sMagic In Your Mind Us Andersen 1975 6th Sense Skill Matter Detail Focus Image IdMagic Book Children Adult Stage "uncle Charlie's Christmas Cards" By John Oakley