The turn of the twentieth century was a period of innovation, when advances in printing and color lithography coincided with a new golden age in the performance of magic and illusion. This convergence resulted in the most stunning, color-saturated advertisements in the history of magic.
In the early 1900s, lithographs were popular in advertising, especially for stage magicians who used posters such as these to convey a sense of mystery and exoticism in their acts.
Lithography is a complex printing process, which, at the time, used smooth stone plates. An artist drew the image on the stone with grease or wax. An acid wash created an etching where the stone was not protected by the grease. Water could be absorbed into the etched stone, but oil-based inks stuck to the grease image. When pressed on paper, the ink transferred, reproducing the original drawing. Color lithography involves multiple layers of printing with different colors of ink, and eventually translucent inks that would blend to create different color tones.
Numerous examples of these lithographs are on view in the Ransom Center galleries through February 2, 2020, as part of the exhibition, Stories to Tell: Selections From The Harry Ransom Center.
These highlights represent only a fraction of the extensive collection of stage magic advertisements largely collected by Harry Houdini and gifted to The University of Texas at Austin by the Hoblitzelle Foundation in 1958.
Feature image: DETAIL. Otis Lithograph Co. (American, active 1880s–1930s) “George: The Supreme Master of Magic,” 1928. Lithograph, Magic Collection.