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Stanyon’s Magic by Ellis Stanyon

Reviewed by Jamy Ian Swiss (originally published in Genii September, 2003)


Stanyon's Magic

Finally, we come to Stanyon’s Magic, yet another icon in the realm of early 20th century conjuring publications. Two hardcover editions of Stanyon were published in 1996, and I reviewed one of those in the October Genii of that year. The following is excerpted from that review:

Ellis Stanyon was a magic dealer and writer who made his living first and foremost selling props, but also dealt in both new and used books, and produced a sizeable catalog of his own manuscripts and monographs on a wide range of subjects magical. In October of 1900, Stanyon introduced his own eight-page newsletter, simply entitled, Magic. This first issue included: biographical articles on both PT. Selbit and the "Wizard of the North," John Henry Anderson; the first installment of an extensive series entitled "Lessons in Magic," this one concerning "Practical tips on palming," specifically balls and coins; an article on hand shadows; various messages, an editorial and "items of interest" from the Editor/Publisher; letters from customers; and several pages of Stanyon's own advertising. This kind of mix proved to be generally consistent with the ensuing 177 issues, produced from 1900 up to and until an interruption in 1914, and then resumed after the war in 1919 and 1920.

There is a treasure trove here in which history lovers will gain a first-hand look at the state of the art a century ago, and working conjurors will be richly rewarded in their search for old ideas to make new again. There are contributions here that are not about, but rather from, the likes of Hilliard and Hoffman! While the biographical material was not included in every issue, it always makes for interesting reading, whether addressing such notables as Selbit or Houdini (where we are told that the substitution trick requires a mere "three to five seconds" to complete), or lesser lights that Stanyon felt worthy of attention at the time. Long before anyone knew the name of Harlan Tarbell, Stanyon was amassing an encyclopedic record with projects like his Lessons in Magic and his Dictionary of Magical Effects, a tremendous resource well worth consulting for counsel and inspiration; just as professionals today so often begin their work by turning to Tarbell, many may find this a useful companion. Stanyon's voice was remarkably modern, and his approach was deliberate and comprehensive; in the course of these pages he also provides a 600-book bibliography totaling 48 pages which will be of interest to any researcher.

A feature which was missing from the first issue, albeit hinted at in the Editor's introductory message to readers "... the interests of magicians suffer no material injury by an expose of their secrets." bur was a frequent feature of the magazine and apparently a source of great notoriety for Stanyon was his "Explanatory Programmes," in which he would describe the professional performances of the era in great detail, and then expound at length on what he speculated to be the methods used by these performers. This habit certainly attracted Stanyon a great deal of attention, although it surely did little to endear him to many working pros of the time. Stanyon seems to have delighted in the controversy. While we're not certain who specifically objected, various allusions to such complaints are periodically made by Stanyon, along with occasional defenses of his position, the reprinting of supportive letters from readers, as well as the claim that some professionals, such as Chung Ling Soo, had offered Stanyon "carte blanche" and supported his predations and exposures. Stanyon provides a clear statement of purpose in his opening issue: "It is the desire of the Editor to popularize the Art of Sleight of Hand which at the present day is so little known." He was constantly pushing conjuring as a hobby that everyone should do, and he seemed little concerned with the interests of professional magi who might object to his methods or his exposure of their own. What he wanted was more hobbyists, more readers, more customers and so today he would likely be happy with the present state of affairs—and probably pushing videos, too. (In a lengthy essay on magic organizations, Stanyon makes a convincing case that magic dealers are simply in the business of exposing secrets. While that is a position that is difficult to disagree with, what is interesting is that Stanyon presents this as a good thing. But I digress.)

In November of 1903 Stanyon speaks to all of these issues in a full-page posting in which he claims that he has been threatened with legal action for publishing "jealously guarded secrets of conjuring tricks and illusions," while he makes a strong pitch that "A hobby is what you want" and "Conjuring is a profitable hobby." Elsewhere Stanyon makes this "special offer" to prospective subscribers: "To anyone sending an annual subscription to Magic we will present gratis the secret of any trunk ... sack, handcuff, or tape trick, or any combination of these you have ever seen performed, and that you may desire to have explained." Yikes! But while the Explanatory Programmes no doubt infuriated his contemporaries (or at least those whose programs were being described), they make for much of the most fascinating reading in these pages. As only one example among the many installments, there is a two-part segment on Nate Leipzig which is followed by an installment of Stanyon's "Original Lessons" that includes approaches to Leipzig's manner of forcing and controlling cards.

At times Stanyon comes off as something of a crank, but he wouldn't be the first crackpot in magic to produce both quantity and quality (the names of Tarbell and Jarrett come to mind, among others). He was, clearly, quite an opera-tor; in November of 1915 he established "The International Society of Conjurers," yet another ploy to build business, familiar still to magicians today. In every issue the advertising pages relentlessly push his latest lists, pamphlets, and so on without respite. The guy knew how to make a buck off magic, but he also knew his magic; along with that offer to new subscribers, one of his repetitive ads read: "The secret of any trick, illusion or sleight may be obtained from this Office, explained by Mc. Ellis Stanyon in his inimitable style, carefully and clearly typewritten, and for the lowest possible charge ..."

Back to the present: One can only exhale a sigh of relief that Mr. Stanyon did not have the Internet at his disposal. Meanwhile, this dig-ital edition includes some 1,500 pages, all 177 issues for a bargain price. A time machine will cost you a lot more.

And finally: It behooves me to mention that the publisher of these digitized journals also offers The Digital Wizard, another British magazine of general magic, published from 1947 through 1956 and containing more than 3,000 pages, and including a hypertext linked table of contents. And Breese also offers The Gen (as reviewed by Eric Mead in the June issue of Genii), simply one of the best magazines of close-up magic over published, filled with 25 years of cutting-edge material from magic's most progressive thinkers of the time, beginning in 1946. In addition to consulting Eric's review, go find the charming article entitled "Gen Day" on the Breese website, written by Hugh Miller. Then, while you're there, buy the fabulous four-disc set. You could not possibly be disappointed.

Stanyon’s Magic by Ellis Stanyon; One CD-ROM; Martin Breese International

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