Friday, December 16, 2016

"When you play with Bicycle, You hold Good Cards"

The rise of color lithography during the golden age of magic proved a happy accident for collectors of fine, classic magic posters.   For throwing card enthusiasts, the rise of vaudeville stage magic during an explosion in playing card production around the turn of the 20th Century created a similar synergy. 

By the late 1800s, new printing technologies and methods brought about great improvements in the quality of playing cards.  The formation of the United States Playing Card Company in 1894, which soon acquired several other major manufacturers, created a worldwide industry leader. Beginning in approximately 1900, the Company embarked on a number of aggressive marketing campaigns, registered numerous trademarks for its new designs and slogans, offered free window displays to retailers, and invested heavily in national print advertising.

As part of US Playing Card Co.'s promotion of its products, the company hit upon an unusual idea: it offered free, custom-printed advertising cards to stage magicians.  Each card featured one of the Company's prized back designs, plus a slogan promoting Bicycle cards on the face.  The balance of the face was devoted for space featuring images and text about the magician.

"For a number of years, in the early part of this century, the United States Playing Card Company, and other manufacturers of playing cards would print a quantity of cards gratis for any magician requesting them." John Mulholland wrote in The Sphinx in June 1944.  "The playing card companies’ generosity to magicians to distribute cards bearing advertising of their products on one side of the cards."

It proved a brilliant means of cross-promotion.  Some magicians scaled the cards into the audience, ensuring that the Company's samples would be caught -- and often kept -- by eager audience members.   The results is that dozens of magicians, including some top names in the field, such as T. Nelson Downs and Frederick Powell, had Bicycle brand throwing cards printed.  (On another magic site, collector Jay Hunter put together a collage of nine different back designs that appear on Powell's cards.)  Bicycle cards also feature relative unknowns, such as ventriloquist/magician Ned Frailey.

US Playing Card Co. Ad from Life, February 1901

Each of the Bicycle cards are imprinted with the slogan "When you play with Bicycle, You Hold Good Cards," or some slight variant of this slogan.  The use of this slogan helps date these cards quite specifically.  Searching through various databases, it appears that U.S. Playing Card registered this slogan in various trademarks and used it in print advertising from 1900-1905, like the ad seen here.   This suggests that any throwouts bearing this slogan date from this around period.

It's worth noting that several other playing card companies employed a similar strategy, including Golf Playing Cards and the Canadian Playing Card Company.  In fact, one promotional card touting "National" and "U.S." playing cards as the best could well be considered the scarcest throwing card of all: its face features a young and not-yet-successful Harry Houdini as a magician offering instruction in sleight of hand.   (A very small image of this card can be seen in Ricky Jay's book Cards as Weapons, which is also a scarce collectible).

 "Throw-out cards should have great publicity possibilities," Mulholland concluded, "but in the past
most of the cards have either been poorly printed or carried designs which were inartistic and were printed from cheap cuts. Except for Thurston, and one or two others, the printing was never in colors. With the proper layout and pictures, good printing, and in colors, one good stock, throw-out cards might once again regain their usefulness as good advertising for magicians, and souvenirs the public would cherish."

Mulholland's critique has particular application to the playing card company promotional cards: designed primarily to sell decks, not magic, these pasteboards feature luscious back designs, but the fronts generally offer grainy photos and splotchy printing.   Nevertheless, they are highly collectible and interesting souvenirs of a bygone era.

To learn more about the importance of back designs in the study of throwing cards, check our Back Story page

 Readers interested in lithographic posters can find lots of great information and images at Ken Trombly's and Charles Greene's site,

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