• Judge Brown

Enchantments, Lithography and the Magical Art that Remains

Updated: Jun 30, 2021

Mystical figures grace Thurston’s program

Passing several Floridian fireworks stands, fruit vendors and cigar stores on the way to the Tin City Magic Shop led to a realization. First, a quiz:

What do the following things have in common?

  1. A stage illusion

  2. Fireworks

  3. A good cigar

  4. A piece of fruit

Two things, really. Each represents a potentially rich experience for the consumer. Yet each one is ephemeral - lasting a brief moment while viewed or consumed. And then it’s gone.

Marketers’ efforts to capture these experiences in a more lasting way has led to the creation of lush graphics, much sought after by collectors. Leading illusionists famously wrapped their shows in gorgeous lithography - usually illustrated with posters, but here I used a program cover by Thurston. That phenomenon was assisted by a historical synergy - magic’s ”Golden Age” - the time from Herrmann to Houdini - corresponded to the rise of stone lithography, with major printing houses like Otis and Stroebridge pumping out masterpieces to meet the needs of road companies. The themes of these pieces have become distinctive and familiar, featuring magicians and their magical creatures and familiars - devils, imps, bats, black cats, genies and the like.

Many of these same printers sold their wares to other entertainment vendors and product companies.

Because cigars are high-profit luxury items, their boxes, and the labels that adorned them, represented significant investments. As such, cigar box labels feature some high art, and the smoke associated with cigars has resulted in mystical themes, including devils and wizards:

Much like cigars, expensive fruit is shipped in wooden crates, and the end pieces have been enhanced with luscious artwork. While fruit crate labels feature a wide variety of subjects, some artists endeavored to capture the “magical” taste.

Lastly, the paper labels of fireworks packets have long harbored wonderful, if much cruder, artwork, in an effort to hawk a product that vanishes with a flash, a bang, and a puff of smoke. Producers have endeavored to imbue their products with wondrous qualities, showcasing patriotic and space age images, while mystical imagery has also played a role:

At first blush, it might seem odd that the advertising graphics for items that are so very distinct, ranging from a piece of citrus fruit to a touring magic show, are so similar. Yet the realization that these are all transitory, unusual and intangible sensory experiences which artists struggle to capture in an appealing way, makes the deployment of comparable strategies obvious, if not predictable.

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