Marvel at the Awesome and Mysterious Power of 19th-Century Magic Advertisements
Devils. Crystal Balls. Skeletons. Bats. Floating figures. Disembodied heads. The promotional posters for late 19th-century magic shows promised sensational entertainment and awe-inspiring tricks, among them necromancy, mind-reading, fortune-telling, levitation and hypnosis. It’s no surprise that attending a magic show at a large theater–as opposed to a country fair, where they had traditionally been held–became a popular pastime for Victorian-era audiences.
As their fame grew, different illusionists became synonymous with certain tricks. Harry Keller was renowned for levitating a woman; Howard Thurson, the “King of Cards,” could make cards vanish one-by-one; and the most famous of them all, Harry Houdini, pioneered escape acts and sought to uncover fraudulent spiritualists.
These magicians and their illusions are portrayed in exaggerated glory in the advertisements for the performances, which make up a large part of the Magic Poster Collection from the Library of Congress. Below, we bring you the most tantalizing specimens from the trove.
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