Home » Articles » The Hobby of Book Collecting

The Hobby of Book Collecting

The Hobby of Book Collecting
By Leo Rullman

Of the making of many Magic books there is no end.

Leo Rullman, antiquarian magic book dealer (1875 - 1946).

Leo Rullman, antiquarian magic book dealer (1875 – 1946).

Prefacing this article with an apology for para ­phrasing a well-known quotation, I respectfully beg to submit that in respect to Magic books “the mills of the gods” do not grind slowly,” and certainly they have not, in the past, ”ground exceedingly fine.”

In the past decade, which marks the span of my association with the subject, the magical market has been literally inundated with a flood of “literature.” Nearly every week marks the advent of a new title. Every would be follower of the late Harry Keller , every aspirant to the fame of Mask elyne, every neophyte in the mysteries of deception at some time in his life feels himself endowed with a “message” of which he must sooner or later unburden himself – which he generally does to the tune of ”Magic and its Confessors,” “Fretful Magic,” Banana Wizardry,” “Making Magic Stay,” “Excusable Magical Secrets,” and so forth, ad libitum and ad summum!

During the past ten years not less than 432 magical publications, in nine languages, comprising pamphlets, brochures, and books dealing with the subject have been given (save the mark!) to a patient public that, in the vernacular of the street, ”doesn’t know what it’s all about.” Many of these publications have long since passed, and been forgotten, consigned to the oblivion they merited.

And here – Enter the collector! For it is a curious trait of human nature to spurn the available and seek far and wide for the unobtainable. Hold up to the buyer of magical literature a new work by a practical writer; hail it as the greatest book on the subject in a generation, and he will probably advise you he has “all that” in his library at home. But let the cataloguer inform him, a few years hence, that the same volume is out of print and very scarce, and, though the dealer live in a wilderness, Mr. Collector will, literally, beat a path to his door to obtain a copy. And so it comes about that we have “book hunters,” or “book finders,” to the multitude. Personally, while having considerable experience In the first field I cannot lay claim to much success in the latter capacity.

But if the volume of magical literature has increased, so, too, have the collectors. Whereas formerly a few score individuals were possessed of libraries of magic, today there are literally thousands of collectors of books relating to conjuring and the allied arts. Nor are they confined to conjurers, amateur or professional; many men who toil in office or laboratory are enamored of this collecting habit, and the avidity and assiduity with which they apply themselves to the furtherance of their hobby are marvellous to behold – even though at times disconcerting to the “book finders.” No class of book shop is proof against their determination. They labor persistently and incessantly towards the consummation of their ambition to accumulate a library that will be at once the envy and admiration of every collector; and it is my belief, confidentially, that the only reason King Tut’s slumber through the centuries was not disturbed lang syne is because it was not generally known that he was a collector of magical literature.

And these collectors have their peculiarities. One gathers first editions and association copies. Another is interested only in English literature. Some want various editions of the same work; others want all books in any language so long as they relate to conjuring. One is a connoisseur of fine bindings. A few care not for outward appearance so long as the contents are intact. For several years I sold books to a gentleman in one of our mid-western cities who insisted on having each copy in immaculate condition as to binding. No matter how rare the volume, he would have none of it unless in outward appearance it was fresh and clean. His object, he wrote, was to have his library make a nice showing through the glass doors of his book case. Necessarily many excellent books were conspicuous by their absence from this collection. This man was not a collector; he was a book buyer.

The literature of magic has a very wide scope. No bibliography to date can be said to have adequately covered the subject. This is largely due to the fact that much of the literature is transitory in character and make-up. The cheap pamphlet of today is thrown away and forgotten in a few months, or years, and the bibliographer, in compiling a list of publications of even twenty years back is often dependent upon the memory of others for his facts.

The pioneer American Bibliographers, Mr. Henry Ridgely Evans, whose valuable contribution to the subject, “A Bibliography of Magic and Prestidigitation.” published as an appendix to the monumental work compiled by A. A. Hopkins, entitled “Magic, Stage Illusions and Scientific Diversions.” (Munn & Company, New York, 1897), and Mr. H. J. Burlingame, whose “Bibliotheca Magica ” ap ­peared at the end of his brochure “Tricks in Magic Vol.. III ” (Clyde Publishing Company, Chicago, 1898), faced this difficulty, as is evidenced by the fact that a number of early American works escaped their attention. As a brief reference to early American publications, those appearing during the middle or first part of the nineteenth century, may be of interest, I may mention the following :

VENTRILOQUISM AND LEGERDEMAIN EXPOSED. Amherst, 1834, p. 156. A curious little work, which while giving grotesque explanations of the feats of ventriloquists and “jugglers,” dwelt particularly on the futility of the experiments and their moral effect on the younger generation.

ENGSTROM, THE HUMOROUS MAGICIAN UN ­MASKED. Philadelphia, 1836, boards, p. 90, with 9 plates at the back. This book, while setting forth more pretentious feats, maintained the customary ambiguity in their explanation.

THE BOY’S OWN BOOK Boston, n. d. (1831), 2d. Amer. ed Boards, p. 316, ills. Contained several chapters on conjuring and legerdemain.

WHOLE ART OF LEGERDEMAIN; OR, HOCUS POCUS LAID OPEN AND EXPLAINED. Philadelphia, 1852.

COMPLETE BOOK OF MAGIC, Philadelphia, n. d. (1850). Boards, p. 172.

KIRBYE, THE ORIGIN AND HISTORY OF VENTRILOQUISM By Professor Kirbye. Philadelphia, 1861. Wrappers, p. 48.

HARTZ’S NEW BOOK OF MAGIC, New York, n. d. (1860). Wrappers, p. 24.

MASON, E., VENTRILOQUISM MADE EASY; ALSO AN EXPOSURE OF MAGIC AND THE SECOND SIGHT MYSTERY. Published by Wyman the Wizard, about 1860. Wrappers, p. 96, illus.

WYMAN’S HANDBOOK OF MAGIC, (2d. series). Published by Wyman the Wizard, Philadelphia, about 1860.

PRESTIDIGITATION, OR MAGIC MADE EASY. Hinsdale (N. H.), about 1865. Wrappers, p. 64.

HOCUS POCUS, OR THE ART OF CONJURING MADE EASY. Philadelphia, 1827. Issued in conjunction with “The New Valentine Writer.” Boards, 45p.p. 24mo.

As stated in the beginning of this article, due to the tireless energy of the early collectors and the great increase in the number of magical collections, there is a dearth of worth-while items for the present-day enthusiast. The building of a “working library,” that is, a reference library for the practical performer, is simple enough; but to put together a collection of historical importance, to pick up the little brochure or pamphlet that had its ephemeral existence fifty, seventy or one hundred years ago, is quite another matter. Along this line it is my pleasure to refer briefly to a number of present-day private collections in the United States, my unfamiliarity with British and Continental libraries making comparisons impracticable.

First and foremost is, of course, the justly famous collection of Mr. Harry Houdini, of New York City. Mr. Houdini has been an avid collector. For thirty years he has been adding to his constantly growing collection, and very few worth-while magical items escape his tenacious and discriminating search. Books from many lands, and in most languages, fill his shelves. But it is not alone with the accumulation of books that he has interested himself. The chief historical value of this remarkable collection lies in its programmes, lithographs, portraits, clippings, manuscripts and historical documents. For several years the arrangement of this vast accumulation of material was under the direction of a practical librarian, who carefully mounted the items, and indexed and cross-indexed them, with the result that information relating to magic or magicians, historical or bibliographical, is instantly available.

Another large collection is that of Mr. E. F. Rybolt, of Palms, California. His own individual efforts in picking up rare items over a long period have been amplified by the acquisition of other libraries, notably that of Dr. Wilson, editor of The Sphinx. This latter included many autographed books and association items. Mr. Rybolt’s collection also contains many valuable scrap books, con ­taining magical miscellany from all corners of the earth, gathered and compiled by the late H. J. Burlingame and others. However, in adding other collections to his own, Mr. Rybolt has accumulated a large number of items only remotely related to conjuring, many of which could not strictly be considered magical literature.

Another splendid collection belongs to Mr. John Mulholland, of New York City. Not inconsiderable in size, it is distinctive in that it consists almost entirely of books relating to Conjuring in the English language. Mr. Mulholland is a discriminating collector, and considering the fact he has been collecting less than a decade, his books rank in thee fore-front of magical libraries in this country. It is particularly rich in the older English pamphlets with coloured plates.

Dr. Milton A. Bridges, of New York, has a fine collection of magical literature. Like the Mulholland Collection, it is composed entirely of English books He, also, has hewn closely to the line in accumulating only items relating to Conjuring.

Another extensive collection, though with which I am less familiar, is owned by Mr. C. A. George Newmann, of Kenyon, Minn. Mr. Newmann is a professional hypnotist, and a close student of conjuring. He, like Mr. Houdini, has been collecting for many years. He belongs to the school of collectors that believe a library is incomplete unless it contains the literature of other lands, and to this end he has accumulated many rare and interesting works in Spanish, French, German, Italian and Dutch. While not as extensive as the Houdini Library, it yet ranks with the large collections of magical literature in this country.

Dr. J. E. Pierce, of Philadelphia, is the owner of a very fine collection. While I have never had an opportunity of examining it, it is my understanding that it comprises several hundred items, the majority in English.

The collecting of books is a hobby exemplifying many virtues – in particular patience, discrimination, foresight and energy. If these or similar virtues were practiced in the writing and production of books on the subject of Conjuring, magical literature would in time be accorded the respectful attention of bibliographers, and take its proper place in the writings of the day.

(reprinted from Harry Leat, U.S.A. Depot Magic, 1925)

%d bloggers like this: