At the turn of the 20th century, magicians like Harry Houdini were as worshipped as today’s movie stars. The posters that advertised them were often as magical as their shows.

These posters promised escapes from the boring confines of physics. This one promises an impressive levitation illusion by the infamous Harry Kellar, circa 1894. (Via Wikipedia.org.)

The giant floating head is a tired cliché in modern movie posters--but maybe it could be redeemed if it were hyping a live self-decapitation act, as seen in this dramatic 1894 poster.

Magic posters were often filled with nightmarish images of imps and devils, as seen in this ad for illusionist Von Arx, circa 1920.

"A lot of these magicians made people believe that they could make contact with the dead," poster collector Zack Coutroulis says.

The sinister-looking Dante, presiding over his "50 Mysteries" in this poster from 1930, welcomed children at his performances.

A rare 1930 lithograph for illusionist Harry Thurston, Howard Thurston’s younger brother, who had ties with the Chicago mob scene.

"There were a lot of female magicians," Coutroulis says. Ionia was popular during the golden age. "She specialized in grand illusions. Ionia dressed in Egyptian or Greek-style costumes, and made people appear and disappear."

A stone lithograph for a magician troupe called “The Fak Hongs," circa 1930.

Yu Li San was a female medium who performed with a magician called “Profesor Alba” in the 1950s.

Magicians loved portraying themselves as devils. Circa 1910.

Before "Ask Jeeves" came around, you could ask the mentalist Alexander. Poster circa 1915.

"Benevol was Italian, but he was billed as a Mexican magician," Coutroulis says. Magicians tried "to be more appealing by billing themselves from these foreign countries and using foreign-sounding illusions."

A Benevol poster from 1910 advertising a grisly beheading.

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14 Bedazzling Posters From The Golden Age Of Magic

Promising levitation, self-decapitation, and Houdini's death-defying water-torture illusion, these posters sure beat the formulaic movie ads of today.

Nowadays, we’re so busy watching cars explode or taking 3-D rocket ship rides on the big screen that we don’t have much time for dorky little magic tricks. But at the turn of the 20th century, magicians like Harry Houdini were as worshipped as today’s movie stars. And the posters that advertised them were often as magical as their shows—way more impressive than this century's dime-a-dozen movie ads.

Over at Collector’s Weekly, Zack Coutroulis, an obsessive collector of vintage posters from the Golden Age of Magic, walks us through highlights of the weird world of magic promos. "Some of these posters have never even been photographed before," Coutroulis explains, "and they’re amazing. But poster collectors tend to keep to themselves. I’m one of the few people that actually enjoys sharing them."

Often filled with nightmarish images of imps and devils and promising miracles like levitation and bullet-catching, these posters promised escapes from the boring confines of physics. "A lot of these magicians made people believe that they could make contact with the dead," Coutroulis says.

Most of these posters were printed using stone lithography, a method all but lost today. "Artists or lithographers would draw on these great, big slabs of limestone, and for every color of the poster, a separate stone had to be drawn," Coutroulis says. The artist would then hand-print each poster, often on very thin newsprint, meaning that no two prints were ever identical, and they were always quite fragile. "You breathe on them wrong, and you’ll split them in half," Coutroulis says. "The fact that these posters even exist, no matter what condition they’re in, is amazing."

The giant floating head is a tired cliché in modern movie posters—but maybe it could be redeemed if it were hyping a live self-decapitation act, as seen in one dramatic 1894 poster advertising magician Harry Kellar’s mystical talents.

Read the full interview with Coutroulis here.

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2 Comments

  • I love these vintage posters! What a great selection. I especially like the "self decapitation" poster of Kellar. I would have loved to have been around to see one of these magic performances back in the day. I would have been way better than any shoot-em-up-kill-em, overly produced, green screen movie of our modern day. Something that many people don't realize is that all of these vintage posters (if created before 1923) are considered public domain images which means that their copyright has expired and they can be reprinted and reused without any royalties or licensing fees. It's a great way to keep these impressive posters alive and not just sitting in a museum somewhere. Here's a link to some great vintage magic posters. http://viintage.com/album/vintage-art-and-design-graphics Anyway, great article, keep up the good work!