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.