Magic has been enchanting and astounding people for a long time: Bending the constricts of reality with seemingly supernatural means dates back to before 50,000 BCE. By the late 19th century, magicians were performing for large audiences in theaters, and illusionists competed with one another for the spotlight by coming up with more and more elaborate acts. Posters were a popular way to advertise and set performers apart from their peers; even the most famous magicians needed flyers to draw crowds. The ads used bright colors and sinister imagery to capture the imagination of potential audience members.
1. Harry Houdini
The Hungarian-born escape artist was known for squirming out of restraints. After repeatedly slipping out of handcuffs and prisons, the performer earned the moniker Harry "Handcuff" Houdini. As his fame spread, Houdini's acts became more and more elaborate: He allowed himself to be suspended in the air, submerged underwater, and even buried alive. He was featured in a number of movies that showcased his agility, strength, and dexterity.
Despite many rumors that his daring escapes were staged, Houdini was hellbent on exposing frauds. When he failed to contact his mother after her death, the performer realized that mediums and psychics preyed on the emotionally vulnerable. He would attend séances incognito, tearing off his disguise when he collected enough evidence to prove that the mediums were faking their spiritual connections. (You can read about his takedown of famous medium Mina Crandon here.) Then, he recreated the supposed mediums' Illusions and tricks for his audiences.
2. Harry Kellar
A common theme on many magician's posters are imps, devils, and demons whispering the secrets of dark magic. Harry Kellar started that trend with his ominous portrait. One imp whispers magic tricks so mystifying, it makes his friend gasp.
Some of these under-worldly tricks included levitating people and vanishing birdcages. Thanks to strong performances, Kellar became a household name. He was good friends with Houdini in his later years and served as the inspiration for the escape artist's stage name.
3. Howard Thurston
After Kellar retired, he symbolically draped his cape on the shoulders of Howard Thurston, naming him his successor. You can see the young magician was a big fan of the tiny red demon idea and used it several times.
Thurston put on enormous shows that required eight entire train cars just to carry his props. His shows were lavish and spectacular, and often required large props, like a Whippet automobile that he would fill with women before making it vanish.
4. Alexander Herrmann
Alexander Herrmann the Great was a friendly rival of Kellar and an inspirational figure to Thurston. The French magician was taught sleight-of-hand by his older brother after being whisked away without his parent's permission. After parting ways to work on his own career, Herrmann toured the world with his wife, Adelaide.
5. Edwin Brush
Brush started as a sales manager for a clothing company, using magic tricks to help bring in business. He eventually realized that he could make a living that way and became a full time magician. As seen in the illustration, his mustache was groomed to turn up, making him appear more magical.
5. Christian Andrew George Newmann
Newmann the Great was a mentalist who was known for hypnotics and psychic readings. One of his better known tricks involved driving a car while blindfolded (eek!). Above, you can see him navigating the world sans vision.
6. Zan Zig
Here is a poster for Zan Zig, the least famous magician on this list. The illustration shows a variety of different acts, from levitation to conjuring spirits.
7. Frederick Bancroft
Bancroft decided to become a magician after befriending Alexander Herrmann. Despite being from Minnesota, he used exotic imagery inspired by his trip through Europe and the East Indies. The ill-fated performer never really got his career off the ground and passed away as a result of typhoid fever at age 31.
8. Theodore Hardeen
Hardeen was the younger brother of Houdini and used this affiliation to spring-board his career. Like his brother, the performer was an escape artist and was featured in movies.
9. Karl Germain
Originally spelled "Germaine," the Wizard dropped the E in the later years of performing. He developed a love for magic at a very early age and toured professionally by the time he was 20.
10. Eugene Laurant
This magician, called "The Man of Many Mysteries," was known for elaborate illusions and chapeaugraphy (hat tricks).
11. Claude Alexander Conlin
Alexander was a mentalist known for classic crystal ball readings. He was widely successful for mind readings and similar telepathic acts. The magician spent a large sum of money on printing high quality posters that often used bright red colors to attract attention.
12. Miss Baldwin
Miss Baldwin was actually two different people—Clara and Kitty Baldwin. They were the two wives of Samri Baldwin, who used them as assistants (at different times). He would blindfold the women and they would demonstrate their psychic abilities. Kitty, Baldwin's second wife, eventually left to pursue her own career, although she never found the same success she did with her former husband.
13. Frederick Eugene Powell
Powell was the dean of The Society of American Magicians from 1922 to 1938. He toured with Imro Fox and Servais Le Roy under the name "The Triple Alliance."
14. Servais Le Roy
Le Roy was part of the Triple Alliance, but he was better known for the act he performed with his wife, Talma. The couple is featured together in the poster.
15. Herbert Albini
If you learned anything from these posters, it's that the devil owns a lot of magicians' souls.
The accomplished illusionist chose his surname after the musician, Frederick Baxter Ewing, who went by Lieutenant Albini. Ewing was apparently not too pleased, because he threatened to sue over the name and publicly disassociated himself from the magician.