Why do magic wands look the way they do?
October 1, 2019 11:27 PM   Subscribe

The origin of the black-with-white-tip magic wand in stage magic is often attributed to legendary stage magician Robert Houdin, specifically via his book. Why did he decide to describe the wand as such?

In his book, Houdin says:
The magician's wand is generally a small ebony rod, with a rounded ivory tip at each end; its total length is about thirteen to fourteen inches.
He doesn't say why this is the case though. There's no sources, no explanation, no nothing. Just a very authoritative "the wand generally looks like this". Some people claim that the tips "represent polarity & energy", but I can't seem to find a reliable source for this.

Did Robert Houdin just come up with the design on the fly? Were other magicians at the time using something similar? Why did his version catch on (possibly because of how influential he is)? Is there any link in the design to other kinds of magic wands?
posted by divabat to Media & Arts (13 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
 
Given that magic is all about misdirection, my guess would be that for stage purposes it’s helpful to draw the audience’s eye to the end of the wand. But that’s just a guess.
posted by Bloxworth Snout at 12:24 AM on October 2 [1 favorite]


Sure, but why that design specifically? Why not, say, white with black tips? Or just one tip? Or a different colour entirely?
posted by divabat at 12:52 AM on October 2


This could be a complete red herring and it's just something that's occurred to me, but...

In Journey To The West, Monkey's staff, Ruyi Jingu Bang, is described as being a black iron rod with a gold ring at each end. It's sometimes drawn with the "rings" looking like rings, but it's often drawn so that the rings are more like caps, and in black and white illustrations it looks just like a big magic wand.

During the Victorian boom in stage magic there were some real* Chinese stage magicians and also fake Chinese stage magicians - I wonder if the famous magic staff crossed over into stage magic as a wand as part of the "mysterious of East" schtick?

*really Chinese
posted by BinaryApe at 1:29 AM on October 2 [3 favorites]


Sure, but why that design specifically? Why not, say, white with black tips? Or just one tip? Or a different colour entirely?

Sorry this is conjecture, but from a visual design perspective:
- a white wand with black tip would not be effective as a pointer to an object. Imagine a dark stage (which is how a lot of magician sets are designed). You’d just see a white rod but not the black point. You want the audience to look at what you are pointing at, not the rod.
- multiple tips, again not effective at pointing out a specific object or area. The audience would focus more on the wand as you would not know which end to focus on.
- a colour other than white could be lost in the dark background (for example blue or brown would be very difficult to see). Maybe yellow could work but, why? Just use white.

A black wand with a white tip is very easy to make and effective for its purpose. Perhaps it’s as simple as that?
posted by like_neon at 2:32 AM on October 2 [19 favorites]


I've always thought of magic wands as similar to a conductor's baton, so I just started at the wikipedia page and looky-here:

When Gaspare Spontini arrived in Dresden in 1844, Wagner had a baton made from a thick ebony staff with ivory knobs at either end. Spontini purportedly held the baton in the center with a fist, using it like a marshall's staff—not for beating time but rather for commanding the opera.
posted by Mizu at 2:47 AM on October 2 [8 favorites]


You know Audrey Hepburn’s dance scene in Funny Face? Even if you haven’t seen the movie, you’ve probably seen her outfit before: all black with white socks. Hepburn disagreed with the director over the socks, because who wears white socks with a black outfit? But the socks have the effect of really making her movement stand out.

I don’t know if that’s specifically why the black and white magic wand style was created, but that’s why it’s stuck around. It creates its own contrast to draw the eye, which is especially useful on a stage with a lot of different lights and colors and where everyone in the audience is watching from a slightly different angle. Similar to how yellow subtitles with black outlines are common in movies: the yellow stands out in most scenes, and the outline ensures it stands out in all scenes.
posted by Metroid Baby at 3:52 AM on October 2 [5 favorites]


You want the audience to look at what you are pointing at

… and more importantly, not look at the magician's hands. The visual separation of the hand by the black shaft to the white tip is a useful misdirection.
posted by scruss at 5:54 AM on October 2 [10 favorites]


multiple tips, again not effective at pointing out a specific object or area. The audience would focus more on the wand as you would not know which end to focus on.

Traditional magic wands are double-tipped, so that explanation doesn't hold water.

The idea of conductor batons and Journey to the West being inspirations are very interesting!! Especially given the sheer amount of Orientalism in magic in those days!!
posted by divabat at 6:00 AM on October 2 [2 favorites]


I think magicians typically hold wands in such a way that their hand covers one of the tips, so there is only one tip that matters from the audience's perspective. Given that, I think you might as well make both tips white just so magicians don't have to spend an extra second making sure that they're pointing with the correct tip.
posted by J.K. Seazer at 6:43 AM on October 2 [15 favorites]


In addition to the practical benefits of the highest possible visual contrast and simplicity of use, men's formalwear is very often black and white in this period (and since) -- and a quick image search shows Houdin mostly in black suits -- if the wand is black and white it reads more like a gentlemen's accessory, part of the performer's nondescript outfit and less like a weird, special magic prop.

Which is good, because that gives you the option of hiding an aspect of the trick in the outfit while the audience is scrutinizing the prop. The first thing a magician does when they produce a wand is usually tap something with it, to assure everybody that, sure, I'm calling it a magic wand, but we all know it's just a stick painted black and white that I just need to use to help point and gesture, nothing suspicious here.

As a specific example, the wand matching the outfit also permits tricks like the classic levitating ring, where the wand, thread and outfit all need to be the same colour.

A double tipped wand also permits the design of a wand that appears to have two identical tips but in fact has two different tips, in case the performer wants one tip to be examined or have a special gimmick, like the magic flower.
posted by Homeboy Trouble at 9:49 AM on October 2 [2 favorites]


Ebony and ivory, not the song but the materials, are both sourced from Africa and were often combined in a variety of ways, like ivory inlays on ebony wood items. So the choice could have been influenced simply by the properties of those materials — strong, durable, pricey, highly-contrasting colors, goes well with the magician's black and white outfit.

Also, note that the choice itself was not Houdin's as you seem to imply ("Did Robert Houdin just come up with the design on the fly?") — the sentence you quote from his book makes clear that in his day the ebony rod with ivory tip was already traditional. He was just describing it, and may not have know the origin either.
posted by beagle at 9:59 AM on October 2 [1 favorite]


the sentence you quote from his book makes clear that in his day the ebony rod with ivory tip was already traditional. He was just describing it, and may not have know the origin either.

That's pretty much my question - like, who came up with it, how long has it been in vogue, etc etc.

(My guess was that Houdin just made it up because almost every professional magician claims he's the inventor and I'm also thinking of other situations where people make declarative statements like that that are taken as Truth but it's really not sourced from anywhere)
posted by divabat at 4:05 PM on October 2


Robert-Houdin probably got the idea for his magic wand from the major works of ceremonial magic published in the nineteenth century. The black ebony wand comes from Francis Barrett's The Magus, published in 1801: description here ('take your black ebony wand, with the gilt characters on it'), illustration here. But the double-tipped wand comes from the most famous and influential work of nineteenth-century occultism, Eliphas Lévi's Dogme et Rituel de la Haute Magie (1854-6).

It was Lévi who popularised the idea of the wand as the magician's principal instrument ('the true and absolute magical wand .. the verendum of the Magus'). And he laid down very strict and precise instructions for making it: cut from a perfectly straight branch, pierced through its length with a magnetized needle, and tipped at both ends, with a silvered prism at one end and a gilt prism at the other. (French text here; English translation here.) Modern practitioners of ritual magic will tell you that Lévi was drawing on ancient tradition, but he actually invented a lot of it himself, and I suspect that is the case with his description of the magic wand, as none of these details can be found in Barrett.

Robert-Houdin would undoubtedly have known Lévi's work, and he seems to have adapted Lévi's magic wand -- simplifying the details, but keeping the basic pattern of the wooden wand with a tip at each end -- and incorporated it into his stagecraft. The black-and-white wand fitted perfectly into the stage aesthetic described by Simon During in Modern Enchantments (2004), rejecting Orientalism in favour of bourgeois evening dress:
Robert-Houdin's unprecedented success resulted from the felicitous combination of his performance style, his mechanical skills, and his writings. He departed from the sartorial style of performers like Philippe, Döbler, and Anderson by wearing the standard evening-dress of the contemporary social elite. He brought to entertainment magic what historians of fashion have called the "great masculine renunciation" -- a rejection of exhibitionism, color, and extravagance in clothing which was a key moment in the unfolding of modernist style. Robert-Houdin did retain at least one accouterment of magic: he waved (and sometimes produced out of thin air) an elegant ebony wand with an ivory tip that became the staple of nineteenth-century magicians.
posted by verstegan at 5:03 PM on October 2 [31 favorites]


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