The History of Sponge Ball Magic
Many magicians will agree that the Sponge Ball magic trick is considered to be one of the best tricks of all time. As Milbourne Christopher wrote, “I know of no other trick which immediately impresses a spectator. The trick happens in his hand in its first stages, and because it happens to him it leaves a deep impression.” But who invented the sponge balls trick? Most magicians would jump to say that it was Albert Goshman as his name has become synonymous with them. But, in fact, despite popularising them, Goshman was not the inventor.
Just like our article on who invented the thumbtip, we'll get to the bottom of where sponge ball magic really comes from.
It’s fair to say that magicians have used pieces of sponge for tricks for centuries (such as to wedge into Cups and Balls as final loads), but our interest lies in the routine that magicians know today: a sponge vanishing from the magician’s hand and appearing in the spectator’s hand.
Meet Jesse J. Lybarger
The name Jesse J. Lybarger is not commonly known amongst magicians today, but his influence is still felt as his creation is one of the most performed tricks of the past century. Jesse was born in Ohio but lived in Pennsylvania most of his life. He became interested in magic after seeing a circus when he was twelve years old. In his adult life, he worked as a salesman for Singer sewing magicians and was one of the first magicians to use magic in political speeches, using magic to get over his points (including the Multiplying Dollar Bill trick).
Lybarger first featured the “sponge ball trick” around 1925 when he performed his routine for an IBM ring in Pennsylvania. He first marketed his “Phantom Balls” in 1925 in The Sphinx and Linking Ring magazines. The advert described an effect that is surprisingly similar to how we perform the effect today:
Performer has three balls on table; taking two of the balls he places them on spectator's hand, then asks spectator to close his hand; performer then takes the third ball and vanishes it, asks spectator to open his hand and to his surprise he has the three balls in his hand.
Now, listen, the best part is this: you can do it after you read the directions; it is all in the balls, and it is a sure-fire effect.
Take a set of these with you on your vacation and you will have more fun with this outfit than any item you can include in your lot of pocket tricks. Yes, it can be worked at clubs, and not too small for a good size stage show.
Price $1.00. The best dollar you ever spent for a magic effect.
The purchase price didn’t include balls, but instead a description of how to cut the balls from "ten cent rubber sponges from the Five and Ten cent store." But the method remains pretty much exactly as we do it today.
We have reproduced the original instructions below:
THE PHANTOM BALLS
Effect: Three sponge balls are presented to audience for examination and left on table. Anyone (preferably a young woman), as assistant, is requested to come forward, face the audience and cup right hand. Performer then puts two of the balls—one at a time—into the cupped hand of victim, requesting him to close the hand and hold the balls tightly. The magician then takes the third ball and holding it tightly in his hand, reduces it to an atmospheric state—or so he claims—sifting the particles, imperceptibly through his closed fingers and into the tightly-clenched hand of the victim, together with the other two balls. The assistant is requested to hold his hand closed for a few seconds—giving time for the third ball to re-assemble and re-solidify. Then, on opening, lo and behold! the three balls are shown in the victim's hand!
Working: While three balls only are shown, a fourth ball is secretly palmed in performer's hand.
Victim is told to cup hand and close the hand quickly as each ball is placed therein. Victim closes hand as directed, as first ball is put into his hand, but he is cautioned by the performer that he was not quick enough. Performer shows how; and in the act of putting the second ball into the person's hand he secretly adds the palmed ball. The spectator now has three balls in his tightly-clenched hand—he supposing he has only two. The deception is easily perpetrated. The balls being collapsible, are squeezed together and seen as one in the act of put-tin the second ball into the hand.
Performer now vanishes—his favorite vanish—third and last ball. Any suitable patter as indicated in the close of the effect will suffice, in the language of someone, "Act well your part" and you'll find this an easily worked illusion and a most effective one too.
Total Expense: Ten-cent rubber sponge from Five & Ten cent store. With pair of sharp scissors cut out four balls, about one and one-half inch in diameter. Be careful to have them round and all the same size.
In the December 1925 issue of The Linking Ring, Amos C. Rohn's advertised six new tricks, one of them being for the “Mystic Sponge Balls,” described as: “A new principle in Magic. The newest and best pocket trick out. Four balls in right hand vanish one at a time and appear in left hand. Also done in spectators own hands. It will fool magicians.” This advertisement doesn’t appear to get any traction and so it isn’t know whether Rohn was selling the Lybarger routine.
Other magicians have claimed to have invented the trick, including dealer Al Cohn who released his routine in the 1940s. Cohn clained that he was the original creator of sponge ball magic, but this is unlikely as Milbourne Christopher wrote: “Al Cohn, who used to run The Magic Center in New York-City, frequently claimed that he was the inventor of the trick, but I do not believe he was aware of Mr. Lybarger's work.”
Audley Walsh has also been pitched as the creator of the effect, likely due to the fact that he marked a different trick called “Phantom Balls” and because his book Sponge Ball Manipulation (1936) was the first mainstream book on the subject.
It is therefore typically agreed that Lybarger was the inventor of the sponge ball routine.
But just where does Al Goshman enter into this? It starts with Al Stevenson who would manufacture all sorts of sponge props (including a sponge coffin!). Stevenson found a method of cutting a perfectly round sponge ball by machine. Apparently others were trying to do the same, but Stevenson was the first to crack it. Stevenson would use polyurethane (a type of sponge used in furniture) and then colour it. The end result was a perfect sphere, unlike the poorly cut sponge balls used prior to that (in fact, some magicians would even use bath sponge to creator their sponge balls!).
Al Goshman then discovered better and faster methods of using the same machine and so apparently purchased the rights from Stevenson to manufacture the balls en masse. His “Magic By Gosh” company still operates today.