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    

"bairn" - Awesome Mentalism Book- Ken Dyne Aka "kennedy""a Piece Of My Mind"-michael Murray-rare Hardback Edition Signed #188 Of 300The Berg BookMagic Tricks Lot - Tricks With Dvds - Magic Tricks, Books, Huge ValueMentalist Magic Tricks & Books Lot - Becker, Knight, Astor, Rawlin & More'modern Magic' By Professor Hoffmann - Antique Vintage Magic Book - ConjuringFrank Garcia Exclusive Card Secrets Rare Magic Book 'more Magic' By Professor Hoffmann - Antique Vintage Magic Book - Conjuring RareHardeen Brother Of Houdini -- Rare! 1933 Theater Program Handbill - Great PhotosFryer Bacon *c1815* Famous Historie Magician Bungye Vandermast Conjuror Alchemy'the Best Of Slydini & More' By Karl Fulves Hard - 2 Book Set - Close-up Magic'later Magic' By Professor Hoffmann - Antique Vintage Magic Book -conjuring RareVtg Ss Adams "magic & Pranks" Retail Sign 2 Sided 14" X 6" Rabbit Hat TrickThe Dai Vernon Book Of Magic1918 The Magic Of Oz L. Frank Baum Neill Illus Dust Jacket Wizard Of Oz Rare $$Rare 1854 Magic Mysteries Of Astrology Witchcraft Ghosts Occult Herbs1927 Book Of Fate Napoleon Occult Personal Arts W Key Divining Magic Fortune HbClothes Make Magic, Emmi Cotten, 1956, Dutton, Illustrated, Fashion, DressingMagic Book Marlo Without Tears Collectable Johnson Smith & Co Catalog Old Book Confidence Gambling & Card Shapers Tricks ExposedSuperior Magic, Catalog No. 10, 1958Man, Myth & Magic Encyclopedia Of The Supernatural Full Complete 24 Vol Set-1970Tarzan's Africa - Giant 36x53 Poster 1974 Ballantine Books Edgar Rice BurroughsJason England Bottom & Second Deal Notes Signed Dai Vernon Erdnase Gambling OopMysto MagicTannen Magic, Catalog No. 5, 1965Mysteries Of Astrology & Wonders Of Magic - C.w. Roback Rare Antique Occult 1854Come To Barsoom - 1973 Ballantine Books Edgar Rice Burroughs Poster - High GradeGroup Lot 15 Magic Book's Brand New - Never Used Nr #3Modern Coin Magic By J.b. Bobo C.1952 Coin Sleights Coin Trick MagiciansVintage The Magic Book By Harry Lorayne - Copyright 1977Two Poster Stamps - International Brotherhood Of Magicians, Kenton, Ohio, 1927Abbott's Magic Company, Catalog Number 18, Copyright 1969Harry Potter Magic World Map Wizard Poster Kraft Paper Vintage Movie 51cm*35cmMarc Lemezma's Mind Tricks Magic BookArcane Gold Edition, Original Rare Deck From EllusionistMagic Group Lot Books, Tricks , Dvd's Brand New - Never Used Nr #3Expert Hocus Pocus Alton C. Sharpe Book Louis Tannen 2nd EditionSeabrooke’s Book By Terry Seabrooke'encyclopedia Of Rope Tricks - Vol 3' By Stuart James - Rope Magic Book ConjureWitchcraft Witches Occult Magic Sorcery 194 Rare Old Antiquarian Books On 2 DvdsMax Holden Magic Shop, Catalog From 1949The Cheap Close Up Book By Paul HallasHow To Ensure A Full Date Book By David Hemingway Magic Booklet*1895* 1st Edn Signed J M Wheeler Limited Copys Footsteps Past Magic Gods DemonsAntique Book/chemcraft Chemical Magic/mystifying Demonstrations/directions/1940Tannen Magic, Catalog No. 4, 1963Slayer Mini Poster - Christ Illusion Promo 2006 - Unholy Alliance Tour1 Random Astrix Comic Book, Pdf Files, Auction, Free Shipping1920 1st - Psychology & Folklore - Marett Anthropology Occult Magic WitchcraftThe "how To Book" Of The Chop Cups With Cups Balls Merlyn ShuteStrongman Magic / Book -12 Feats Of Strength New Impress Your FriendsChemcraft Chemical Magic, 2 Experiment Books 2 Science Catalogs, Porter BrochureHarry Houdini Tony Curtis, Janet Leigh Lobby Card Genuine Original! 1953Phil Kannen's ~ Houdini EscapesHattich Pioneer Magic Adventurous Tales Of Turbulent Arizona 1964 1st Ed.1965 Walk In Your Soul Love Incantations Of The Oklahoma Cherokees Erotic MagicTannen Magic, Catalog No. 8, 1970Vintage 1992 Team Usa Starline Poster Jordan Bird Magic Etc. Americas Team