Blast From the Past: Sleight-of-Hand



The Traveling Magician, John Rogers, 1877. The New-York Historical Society

 You may have walked by someone doing this trick on the streets of New York: he has a little table set up with three upside-down cups and he gets people to wager money on whether or not they can guess under which cup the ball was placed. Don’t fall for it! This person is using sleight-of-hand techniques to fool people into giving him money.

The Conjurer by Hieronymus Bosch, ca. 1496-1520. Oil on panel, Musée Municipal, Saint-Germain-en-Laye

 Sleight-of-hand is used by magicians to manipulate small objects…usually to make them disappear and reappear elsewhere. It’s also called prestidigitation (“quick fingers”) and it’s very useful if you plan to go into the magic business.

Magic trick from the collection of the New-York Historical Society. The Folk Art Collection of Elie Nadelman, ca. 1880-1920

 New York has long been center stage to illusionists and magicians. Our most famous resident magician was Harry Houdini (born Ehrich Weiss in Budapest). Houdini first moved here with his father in 1887 and lived in a boarding house on East 79th Street. Later, with his wife, Houdini purchased a home on West 113th Street. Houdini was famous for his incredible feats of escape from things like straitjackets, water-filled containers, and handcuffs. On July 7, 1912, Houdini was locked in leg irons and handcuffs, nailed into a crate, which was roped shut and weighted down with lead, and then tossed into the East River. He escaped in 57 seconds!

Houdini spent his life perfecting his magic skills and performing around the world.  It is hard work and takes a lot of practice to execute tricks in front of an audience effectively and convincingly.


Harry Houdini, ca. 1899. Library of Congress

At the New-York Historical Society, we have a series of lessons for all budding magicians. Celebrity magician Matt Wayne is leading four classes for kids 8-14, each focusing on a single trick from beginning to end. Our first class was a big success…don’t miss the next one where Matt Wayne has participants practicing the Cup & Coins trick and mind reading!


Matt Wayne
Chiromagica board game, ca. 1870. The Liman Collection at the New-York Historical Society


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