Do you believe in magic? Yes, that’s the title of The Lovin’ Spoonful’s 1965 hit song, but I’m actually referring to magic tricks and illusions. The word “magic” evokes different images for different people. Some may think of stage magic, where a magician twirls a wand and a white bunny appears out of a black top hat. Some may picture grand illusionists who can make buildings disappear right before your eyes. Others may consider magic to be “otherworldly” or even paranormal. Whatever vision the word “magic” conjures in your mind, one thing must hold true—the suspension of reality. If you open yourself up to the idea, the magic can occur. Master magicians, illusionists, and escape artists have taken advantage of that openness to create audience-thrilling illusions for decades. Stars such as Harry Houdini, Howard Thurston, Doug Henning, Lance Burton, David Copperfield, David Blaine, and Criss Angel have wowed people all over the world. Although professional magicians’ talents are inspirational, the vast majority of their tricks fall into the “don’t-try-this-at-home” category. However, aspiring young magicians can practice more basic tricks in their bedrooms and basements. Manufactured magic sets have been around almost as long magicians have been. While searching through The Strong’s collections, I discovered youth magic sets that date back as far as 1900, undoubtedly used by children to entertain friends and family before the days of radio and television.
The holdings of the Brian Sutton-Smith Library and Archives of Play include nearly 100 trade catalogs from the 1950s to the present that depict magic sets and card tricks. The archives also include a collection of close-up magic materials that belonged to a semi-professional magician, Michael J. Amico (1936-2009). Amico’s collection contains several magic instruction booklets, as well as accumulated information pertaining to regional and national magician’s societies, most notably the Society of American Magicians. Researching these materials brought back childhood memories of poring over books of magic tricks—most of them involving coins and cotton balls—and trying to perfect my sleight of hand. It was a great way to entertain myself and my family on rainy days. Today, I see my eight-year-old nephew captivated by magic tricks, his eyes as wide as saucers. I’ve shown him a few simple ones, after which he inevitably runs off to perform the illusion for Mom and Dad. One time, I demonstrated a trick using a dollar bill. As usual, my nephew ran off excitedly to show his parents and this time he never came back. I guess I can consider him a junior magician—he made my dollar disappear!