Card Magic: A History

Card Magic: A History

by Alex J. Coyne © Gifts for Card Players

Great magicians like Cardini, Harry Houdini, Dynamo and David Copperfield (just to name a few!) have been practicing the art of card magic for decades – but just where did card magic start? Here’s a closer look at the origins and history behind cardistry.

Magic on the walls

Stage magic finds its origins in ancient Egypt, where tomb walls were adorned with depictions of captivating performances, including the timeless cup-and-ball trick. Meanwhile, the early beginnings of card magic can be attributed to the inadvertent contributions of cheating gamblers.

In the realm of gambling, where deceit often prevailed, skilled cheaters sought an advantage through techniques like card manipulation, palming, and false shuffling. Unbeknownst to them, these techniques eventually formed the foundation of card magic as performers adapted and transformed them into captivating illusions.

As card games gained popularity, magicians incorporated sleight of hand and card manipulations into their acts, captivating audiences with their dexterity. Notably, Jean Eugène Robert-Houdin, known as the “father of modern magic,” drew inspiration from the gambling culture of his time to pioneer numerous card tricks and illusions.

Thanks to visionaries like Robert-Houdin, card magic gradually gained recognition as a legitimate and respectable form of entertainment, captivating audiences worldwide with its ability to deceive and astonish.

What was the very first card trick?

The exact origins of the first card magic trick are difficult to pinpoint with certainty due to the ancient and diverse nature of playing cards. However, the practice of using playing cards for magical effects can be traced back several centuries.

One notable early mention of card tricks can be found in a book called “Histoire de la Magie” (History of Magic) written by French magician Jean-Baptiste Ponsin in 1854. In this book, Ponsin describes a trick called “La Carte Ambitieuse” (The Ambitious Card), which involves a selected card repeatedly rising to the top of the deck despite being placed in the middle.

It is important to note that the concept of card tricks and manipulations likely predates written records, as they were often passed down through oral traditions and the secretive world of magicians. Ancient conjurers might have performed rudimentary card illusions for entertainment or even to demonstrate supernatural powers.

De viribus quantitatus

Luca Pacioli was a mathematician and monk born in the 1400’s, and might be better known – or not – for being called the father of accounting after having authored the first-ever text on double-entry account.  Before that or possibly somewhere in the middle, he authored a text called De viribus quantitatus (which translates to On The Powers of Numbers), which contained information on mathematics and common magic tricks – including, of course, one of the earliest mentions of card tricks ever.

The book was translated into English in 2007, just in case you don’t speak Latin.

 The Discoverie of Witchcraft

 Wait… Witchcraft?

Yup. The Discoverie of Witchcraft was published in 1584 by Reginald Scot, a man who set out to prove – more or less – that what was then known as witchcraft was just plain old conjuring tricks of the day. He’s the historical version of James Randi. The book contained a section devoted only to card tricks – pretty far back – and you can find the full text of the book still available from The Internet Archive.

The first name in lights

Giovanni Giuseppe Pinette (sometimes known in France as Chevalier Joseph Pinetti) was born in Tuscany somewhere in the 1700’s, and is one of the names you’ll find in books on magic history: He was, after all, entertaining royalty as the official magician of the court of Louis XVI.

A master of theatrics and apparently one of the first to advertise himself as a magician to the public, Pinetti was knows as a Roman Professor of Mathematics. Great superhero name too, don’t you think?

 The oldest magic shop

Cards and magic tend to go hand-in-hand. According to Guinness World Records, the world’s oldest (family-run) magic shop was founded back in 1898 in the UK by Lewis Davenport. The shop called Davenports Magic was open and run by his granddaughter  before the pandemic. Today when we search online, Google has marked the shop Permanently Closed.

 Who did what?

Want to find out who invented a specific card or magic trick? has a handy “Who invented it?” page which should be able to tell you

What was the first card trick you ever saw or heard of? Do you have any facts about historical card tricks, magic trick history or famous historical card magicians to add? Get in touch!

PHOTO: Inside of Davenports Magic Shop


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