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The Secret to Becoming a Magician (in 1882)

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What's amazing about the complete scan of 1882's brilliant, batty, bizarre How to Become a Magician over at the Public Domain Review isn't just the fact that it tells you how to make ice in a "red-hot vessel" (you'll need a platinum cup and "sulphuric" acid). Rather, it's that this book has that weird Victorian moralism that doesn't quite fit into the world of illusions.

Here's a sample:
"The following pages are not intended to make the young reader either a cheat or a trickster; there is nothing perhaps so utterly contemptible in every-day life as trickery and deceit, and we would caution our young friends not to cultivate a love of deception, which is only allowable in such feats of amusement, because it is in fact not deception at all, when everybody expects to be puzzled, and is only left to find out the mystery the best way he can."


It does manage to include such actual good advice for magicians such as "No one is nearly so well pleased by a trick whose essence evidently lies in the machinery, while every one feels pleasure at seeing a sleight of hand trick neatly executed." And: "You must remember to keep talking the whole time, and always try to make a joke, or otherwise to distract the attention of the audience, while you are executing the necessary changes."

As well as bizarre instructions like: "Procure a little figure of cork, which you may dress as your fancy dictates."


As a plus, this book features great description of classic illusions like "The Fish and Ink Trick," in which as vase apparently full of ink is transformed into clear water with goldfish swimming in it.

It's also a nice overview of the technology available at the time. Apparently coins were thin enough to be bendable, steel spring watches exist, but carbon paper had to be made from lamp black and oil. And should you need a fortune telling spell to figure out who your future husband will be, the book has nearly a dozen of them. But watch out, "she who draws the ace of spades will never bear the name of wife; and she who has the nine of hearts in this trial will have one lover too many to her sorrow."

All in all, How to Become a Magician is totally insane (and casually sexist and racist in the Victorian way) — but also a fascinating lens on the state of both technology and magic 130 years ago.

To read How To Become a Magician you can head over to the Public Domain Review. There you can also read such works as "Letters from a Cat" (1879) or "An Account on the Late Improvements of Galvanism" (1803).