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]

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    

Antique Magic Card Tricks Conjurer Occult Illusions Demons Devil Book Old JuggleEnid Blyton The Magic Faraway Tree - George Newnes 1943 - 1st EditionVintage Large Magic Poster! Carter The Great (original 1926)1904 Magic White And Black Rare Arcane Witches Occult Antique Book IllustratedLot 2: 1938 Gilbert Mysto Magic And German Magic Set Show Vintage Childs Toy1898 Fortune Telling By Cards Book Cartomancy Tarot Occult Palmistry Rare Ed.Juan Tamariz Sonata - Bewitched Music Vol 1 Book1980-81 Topps Basketball Near Complete Set 158/176 + Posters Bird-erving-magic Lot 2 Hardback Modern Magic The Art Of Conjuring By Professor Hoffmann Vintage 3 Dusheck's Magic BooksMagician Nicola-4 Page Color Flyer-australia Tour-ca.1920s/30s-mini-posters NorsDragon Book Of Essex Andrew Chumbley Hc Xoanon Occult Grimoire Witchcraft MagicPhoto Frame By Mikame Craft Magic Of Japan - NewWitchcraft & The Black Art - Wickwar Folklore Occult Magic Evil Eye DemonologyMnemonica By Juan Tamariz - First Edition Hardcover BookClose-up Magic-the Book Of John-mendoza-oop RareMagic Magcian Conjuring Conjurer Secret Wizard Wizardry Tricks Rope CardsMore Power To You - David Acer (magic Book) - First EditionFrank Garcia Card Book, Exclusive Card Miracles. Mint! More Garcia Listed.Art And Magic/first Edition/hcHoudini Move Promotional Flyer-1953-images Of Film-tony Curtis-fine Cond. NoresA Few Parlour Traicks By Amasis, The Egyptian Magician-4 Page Booklet V.good NorVintage Occult Book Magic And The Qabalah W.e. ButlerThe Pathworkings Of Aleister Crowley: The Treasure House Of Images: Occult MagicThe History Of Magic By Eliphas Levi Occult Magick Wicca 1973The Magic Of Psychotronic Power By Robert B. StoneHalloween: Houdini SThe Magic Of Sam Berland Book. Hummer + Kosky + Dr. Daugherty. Classic Book!The Art & Practice Of Caballa Magic Ophiel 1977Sex Magic, Tantra & Tarot The Way Of The Secret Lover Hyatt & DuquetteMagic: It's Ritual Power & Purpose W.e. Butler The Magic Of The Swatchways. Cameos Of Cruising In Small Yachts. M. GriffithsSacred Magic Of Abra Melin The Mage 1948 Magick Crowley Mathers OccultOriginal Ellisdons Magic Jokes And Novelty Catalogue Rare Vintage 1930's/40'sTerry Southern - The Magic Christian First Printing Hardcover 1960Magie Duvivier By Jon Racherbaumer 1st Edition + Sealed Cards For Printing OopHow To Rent An Audience Book Magicians Entertainers NewRare! Howard Thurston's Card Tricks - Henry Wehman 1903 Vintage2 Brand New And Sealed First Edition Full Bleed Coloured Decks Of CardsSleight Of Hand - Sachs - Fleming Book Company 1946The Ptichman's Svengali Pitch For Profit Routine Original Authentic Book6 Magicians' Coins. Magic Mysto Outskirts Of Infinity, Magic Mushroom Band 1990 Gig Poster. Bevis Frond. PsychSuperforce: The Ancient Laws Of Magic At Work Paperback 1976 Occult BookMagic Wagon By Joe Lansdale Limited Edition Unread The Book Of The Sacred Magic Of Abramelin The Mage S.l. Mac Gregor Mathers Vintage Occult Book Transcendental Magic Eliphas Levi Tarot InriJohnny Carson Autograph, Signed Magic Moments From The Tonight Show Poster Edmond Hamilton 2 Sf Pb Captain Future Series Quest Beyond Stars/magician MarsHoudini Vintage Magic Kit (1967) W/ Complete Contents And In Original Condition Divine By Colin Mcleod (book) Lafollette(geo.reuschling) Large Lobby Photo-multiple Character Images-v.good NrMagic Johnson & Michael Jordan 20"x16" Poster Signed By BothRepro Magic Poster Of Alexander Who Knows All. A Lee Jacobs ReproThe Magic Garden By Gene Stratton Porter, Hc,1927, Grosset & Dunlap 1975 Magic Card Book " Afterthoughts" By Harry LorayneDunningers Complete Encyclopedia Of Magic Book3v Stage Magic Illusionist Conjurer Hypnotist Escapologist Mentalists HoudinVintage Occult Book Enochian World Of Aleister Crowley Enochian Sex Magic MagickS.s.adams-atlas Novelty Co.detroit Catalog-magic, Puzzles,jokes, Etc.1931 Vfine