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    

Magic Highways By Jack Vance Signed Lettered Subterranean PressFarrell The Magician 1910 Circus Poster Donaldson Litho Sideshow Magic L@@k1921 Harry Houdini Escapologist~rope Tricks~magic~magician~houdin~spiritualism++Yellow Fairy Tales Book Antique 1890s Illustrated Magic Fantasy Witch Dragon OldBlue Fairy Tales Book Antique 1890s Illustrated Magic Cinderella Sleeping BeautyAmerican Indian Fairy Tales 1916 Antique Schoolcraft Illustrated Legends MagicSir Ben Kingsley Signed Art Print: “the Great Zamboni: Master Of Magic” PosterVintage Man, Myth & Magic Hardcover Supernatural Books 24 Volume Complete SetCollectors Workshop / Deluxe-limited Edition Billiard Ball Set Occult Series- Magic, White And Black By Franz HartmannRare 1898 Jsbras Malaya Singapore Malay Magic Folk Lore Of Negri SembilanGreater Magic By John Northern Hillard 1947 Book Revised Edition RareMind, Myth And Magick-t.a. Waters- Hb-1993-first Edition-magic BookDr Zomb Ormond Mcgill Original Hypnosis Mentalism Magic PosterMagic 1400's-1950's Published By Taschen 1st EditionAntique Book Ventriloquism Paul Stadelman Joke Comics Training Ventriloquist VtgSecrets Draun From Underground Magic Book Richard KaufmanJohn Bannon Book Lot: Smoke And Mirrors & ImpossibiliaHandbook Of Magic Museum Extension Project C1935A Book At Midnight: Lebanon Circle Magic: Magic Trick/mentalismVintage Hamleys Supplementary Catalogue Of Conjuring Tricks And NoveltiesThe Life And Times Of A Legend Annemann-magic BookCriss Angel Shirts, Dvds And PhotoMagic Book - Hereward Carrington - Personal Experiences In SpiritualismHandlordz Leather Bound "the Secret Books Of De'vo, Volume 2. #128/150 Very RareVintage 1967 Dunninger's Complete Encyclopedia Of MagicThe Book Of Black Magic By Arthus Edward Waite - Wesier Books 1972 Paperback.The Magic Of Oz, L. Frank Baum, Wizard Of Oz Series Hardcover BookLot Of 4 Franklin Library Books Divine Comedy Copperfield Magic Mtn. Red & BlackThe Magic Of Slydini By Lewis GansonAntique How To Do Sleight Of Hand Pamphlet A. Anderson, Harry Wolff Pub. As IsVintage 1973 ~ Magic And Occult Primer ~ Formulas Rituals ~ Demonology ProphecyMan Myth And Magic Volumes Five And SixMagic Themed Postcard, Notecards, Xmas CardsCanada"moose Magic" Miles Smeeton Hd/bk In Jacket 1974Witchcraft Witches Occult Magic Sorcery 194 Rare Old Antiquarian Books On 2 DvdsMagic - Jack Hughes List Of Magic Catalogue - Pb InstructionsMagic: Route 52 By Steve Reynolds - BookJohn Racherbaumer Card Finesse And Card Finesse Ii Book LotIntimate Miracles Book Dean Dill First Ed Tim TrotoBunny Boy, Magic Action, Pop-up Book, Vintage 1935The Money Maker Machine Manual Book Alqonquin Mc DuffNelson Mental Magic Catalog No 26Trout Madness & Trout Magic By John D. Voelker 1st Edition 2 Volume SetPaul Daniels Magic Annual 1982 - Hardback Book Illusions Magician TricksMagic The Gathering Eldritch Moon Poster From Fat PackModern Magic Tricks For Boys And Girls~lindhorst~1937 1st~learn Magic Secrets