Monday, October 26, 2020

Everyone's first Houdini poster

Recently I was going through boxes of posters in my garage and was delighted to discover my old "Harry Houdini - King of Cards" poster reproduction. This hung on my bedroom wall from around 1976. I suspect this was the first Houdini poster for many. It sure was mine!


This reproduction is now iconic in its own right. So what's the story behind it? To tell the story right, we should probably start with the original.

King of Cards is often said to be Houdini's first poster and leads some to conclude that he started his career as a card magician. Neither is correct. While it could be said this is his first known solo poster, there are posters for "The Houdinis" that pre-date this. Houdini actually had this printed around 1898, probably at the same time as his full color Metamorphosis poster. Both posters were printed by the National Printing and Engraving Company of Chicago and both were used during the Houdinis 1898 tour with the Welsh Bros Circus. But the following year Houdini received his big break via Martin Beck and forever became the King of Handcuffs, making his King of Cards poster obsolete. Ironically, this poster, which is today is seen so often, it probably the poster Houdini used the least of any during his career. But that could be why so many copies survive.

In 1941 an original King of Cards poster featured on the cover of Genii magazine. Editor William Larsen noted: "The poster which is reproduced on the cover was found in the Houdini files by Edward Saint, Houdini Archivist, and especially rephotographed, on his instructions, for our use." The poster became known in magic circles. A mockup King of Cards poster with the image of Tony Curtis can even be spotted in Houdini (1953).

An original King of Cards and the 1941 rediscovery.

In November 1961, magician Tommy Windsor created the first reproduction of the King of Cards poster. This was well before magic poster reproductions were common, and it may have even been the first? Windsor's reproduction was printed on heavy 80 pound book paper and sold for $2.00 (postage paid). In his adverting Windsor dated the poster as 1895 and began touting it as Houdini's first. He also promoted it as a great deal, seeing as originals were known to sell for $25 and up! It appears Windsor only sold his poster for a limited time as his advertising dries up after 1961.


In 1968 Lee Jacobs again offered "Tommy Windsor's Harry Houdini King of Cards Poster" along with his own magic poster reproductions. Jacobs was a magician and publisher who operated a mail order magic business out of Pomeroy, Ohio. Presumably Jacobs had acquired Windsor's unsold stock, or he was selling them on Windsor's behalf. But in 1973 Jacobs announced that he had acquired the rights to the poster from The Tommy Windsor Studio. In the August 1973 Linking Ring Jacobs stated: "This is our finest hour. We have just completed the most beautiful poster reproduction ever and at a price you won't believe."

It's probably no exaggeration to say the Lee Jacobs King of Cards poster sold in every magic shop in the country. (I believe I got mine at Hollywood Magic.) And it was just in time for the great Houdini renaissance of the 1970s. It may have even been a contributing factor. It frequently shows up as background art in film and television. In The Life and Afterlife of Harry Houdini, Las Vegas magician Jen Kramer is quoted as saying, "I'll bet ninety percent of the kids who dream of becoming a magician have that poster on the wall, and we stare at it endlessly."

Unlike some of Jacobs other reproductions, King of Cards is approximately the same dimensions as the original. The quality of the reproduction is also excellent and the book paper gives it a lithograph look and feel. Ironically, it's now old enough that it could be confused as being an original! But there are obvious tells. Original King of Cards posters have wider borders and a large empty space at the top where performance details would be placed. Also, "NATIONAL PR. & ENG. CO. CHICAGO" is omitted from the lower right border of the reproductions. Jacobs also stamped his name and address on the backs.

As for telling the difference between the Lee Jacobs and Tommy Windsor reproductions, I'm afraid I've not seen a confirmed Windsor poster, so I don't know the differences for sure. But it's possible Jacobs trimmed the borders tighter on his posters. I did spot a "vintage" repro on eBay that had larger borders and no Lee Jacobs stamp on the back. So maybe this was a Tommy Windsor? If anyone has a confirmed Windsor, I'd love to see it.


In 1980 Jacobs issued a "NEW" King of Cards reproduction. This new poster was done on 100 pound glossy enameled stock with the color being closer to the original. While the borders are still trimmed, the Chicago Printing Company credit is restored. On the back are reproductions of two Houdini photos and a letter along with an essay by Jacobs dated February 22, 1980. The essay furthers the myth that the poster "dates from before the days when Houdini began doing the escape feats."

Even though the paper quality on the 1980 poster is heavier and less susceptible to aging, to my eye the image is slightly inferior to the earlier poster. And it's a shame to loose the lithographic look and feel. In 1980 I was excited by the extras on the back and the restoration of the printing company's name. But today I prefer my pre 1980 poster. Below you can see the two reproductions side by side front and back (original on left and 1980 on the right).


Lee Jacobs would go on to release a reproduction Buried Alive poster in 1986 which featured material on the back related to "Harry Houdini, Motion Picture Star". Jacobs died in 2003. Of his magic poster reproductions, his widow Ramona Compton said, "This may have been Lee's greatest contribution to the field of magic. And he had always wanted to be remembered for this contribution."

In 2014 the original King of Cards poster that Tommy Windsor used for that first reproduction in 1961 sold at a Potter & Potter auction or $17,000.

Today you can get beautiful King of Cards poster reproductions with the full borders and accurate colors from Nielsen Magic and others. But for me there is something magical and, yes, collectible about these earliest King of Cards reproductions from Tommy Windsor and Lee Jacobs that started it all.

Did you have a King of Cards poster? Do you remember where you got it? Please feel free to share your own King of Cards memories in the comments below.

Thanks to Magic Castle librarian extraordinaire Joe Fox for all the information and great images that turned this post from a one paragraph quickie to a King of Cards deep dive!

UPDATE: Mark Horowitz has sent this image of his original Tommy Windsor King of Cards poster. As you can see, the borders are indeed a bit wider than the Jacobs repro. These were sent to buyers folded and with an "Insurance Poster Trick." Thank you Mark for providing this final piece of the puzzle!

16 comments:

  1. Very interesting, for some reason it is a poster I have never had myself. I have a repro of the eclipsing sensation poster, but doubt if I will ever own an original.

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    1. There goes my theory that everyone had one! :p Maybe everyone of a certain age. Eclipsing Sensation repros came much later. For many years if you wanted a Houdini poster, it was this or the Bob Peak poster (if you could find it).

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  2. I had one on my wall in my bedroom also. I got it in the 1970's. Mine was a center feature of the old Byron G. Wells publication, available on news stands even at that time, "The Magic Magazine". It was laying sideways in the center of the mag, stapled in place like the rest of the pages, basically taking up two pages of space and blank on the back. I had a thurston one and i believe a kellar one that i got the same way. That was actually a pretty cool little magazine too. Ah, memories. 😊 Whitt Smith

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    1. I loved The Magic Magazine. Think I even had a subscription. But are you sure it wasn't "Houdini's Magic Magazine" that had the poster? I believe that's the mag that offered color Houdini poster centerfolds. The one I still have has a USD poster.

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    2. Sorry Whitt. You are correct! It was The Magic Magazine.

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  3. Sadly I don’t have any HH posters... I’d love to get a repro of Russia/Siberian transport escape, but hard to find surprisingly.

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    1. During this same garage sorting I discovered posters for the Siberian Transport and Slander in Germany that I had no idea I owned! The Houdini Historical Center sold them in the 90s. There were still in the tube mailed from Appleton.

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    2. BTW, you can get the Houdini in Russia and many other HH poser reprints from Nielsen Magic. Not cheap, but I'm sure they are of the best quality.

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    3. I have looked through my run of "The Magic Magazine" and "Houdini's Magic Magazine", here at home....

      "The Magic Magazine" did indeed have a 2-page "King Of Cards" poster (Oct. 1975).

      "Houdini's Magic Magazine" only lasted 5 issues. Across 3 of those issues, there were 2-page posters of:
      *Warren Paper Co. poster.
      *WTC poster (w/giant monster).
      *America's Sensation! The Jail Breaker.

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  4. The card manipulations stayed in the act for some time. According to Silverman HH debuted in London with the card manipulations, cuffs, and the Sub Trunk.

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    1. It was even part of the full evening show.

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    2. That's interesting HH did card manipulations in his 3 in 1. Do you remember where you read that? I think it was his way to maintain his connection to magic when he broke out with the cuffs in London.

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    3. It's listed in many if not all of the 3 in 1 programs. One even says his card work "gained for him the title 'King of Cards' more than 30 years ago."

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    4. Ah thank you! I've never read an actual 3 in 1 program but I've read descriptions about them.

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