One of the most enduring magic tricks, with which almost any magician, amateur or professional, has at least once played with, must be the “drawer box“, a wooden parallelepiped with a drawer which can be shown empty, closed, opened again, and shown to contain some objects that have mysteriously materialized. Today, this box is often found made in plastic, churned out in hundreds of thousands of copies by some company in China, and sold as a toy for children, as a commercial gadget to promote products, or as part of a magic set for aspiring magicians.
The object doesn’t really look like anything existing in this time and age, and it often looks like what it is: a suspicious magic device, hiding some clever mechanism to befuddle the unwary. On doing a quick search for images of contemporary drawer boxes on the Internet, one sees an interesting gallery of the most variegated, multi-coloured, collection of boxes.
The predominant colours of these boxes seem to be the reds and the yellows, making them different from what anybody not in show business would see as a “normal,” everyday household object. The use of these boxes seems to be obscure, only suitable to a magician on a stage, a cruise ship, or at a children’s birthday party. This was not always so, and this curious object has a long story behind it, a story and a justification which was well known to magicians of yesteryear and has since been forgotten. The recent acquisition of two such boxes, from the mid/late 19th century, has inspired me to share with you, my faithful reader, their story and the amazing workmanship that skilled artisans had put in them, something lacking in today’s mass-produced toys.
It is now time to explain that the first drawer boxes were not gaudy decorated, but, instead, looked like a normal jewellery box which may be found in the boudoir of the Victorian lady: a more or less substantial box, with a single or, generally, more drawers, in which to store bracelets, necklaces, rings, earrings, and the usual knick knacks women seem to be fond of as much as they are mysterious to most men. While jewellery boxes with a drawer were not the most common containers for these objects (as it is indeed easier to lift a lid rather than to pull out a drawer and rummage within to look for that pair of mother of pearl earrings), examples of jewellery boxes with a lid and one or two drawers can be found at specialist antiquarians, so they must have certainly looked familiar to Victorian audiences.
The trick is in the box!
The first description of the working of the “drawer box” in English language can be found in that classical text, Modern Magic, by Prof. Hoffmann, first published in 1876 and that quickly sold out its first printing (2,000 copies) to then go through many reprints until the turn of the new century. The drawer box quickly became a very popular object and entered in the repertoire of many conjurers, being widely available at the Victorian magic depots. The trick doesn’t require any skill, as the clever mechanical box can be used by any amateur without long and tedious practice sessions, and it allows showy productions of live animals (the classical bunny) or of large quantities of silks or collapsible items. So much so that already in 1900, Ellis Stanyon was lamenting:
The Drawer Box – This is one of the oldest pieces of apparatus designed for a magical production, but […] its secret is pretty generally known. 
As the secret (an inner drawer which can be held back with the help of a finger, while showing the outermost drawer empty) became increasingly known, inventive conjurers and mechanics devised more sophisticated boxes, able to withstand a more thorough examination by the hands of a knowledgeable audience (who may have read Hoffmann’s book), or to produce further effects, like a double production from the same box.
An exquisite “Dissecting Drawer Box”
In my collection a place of honour belongs to one of the best made boxes I ever had the opportunity to see, a superior model sold under the name of the Dissecting Drawer Box. This box allows a double magical production and, between the first and second production, it can be taken apart to be shown completely empty and apparently devoid of guile.
The box measures 25 x 16 x 12.5 cm (9.8 x 6.3 x 4.9 inches), it is of rosewood, with panels of parquetry decoration, inlays and studding. The studding is something that is hardly ever seen in these objects and it’s a sequence of metal circles (semi-spheres) and stars, alternating on the edge of the domed top of the box. While the box is aesthetically very nice and it may pass for a Victorian jewellery box, the mechanisms in it are where the magic lover wonders on the ingenuity and the skills of the builder.
The drawer can be removed completely and shown up close to the audience: it is not possible to see that it is actually double and there is an inner one. The only way to separate the outer drawer from the inner one is by depressing a tongue of wood on the base of the outer box: this raises a piece of wood which engages the inner drawer, preventing it from sliding out. In this way, the drawer is shown empty, the box is closed while pressure on the tongue is released and, on opening the box again, the audience will be amazed by the sudden appearance of the large number of scarves, or by a white rabbit.
At this point, the drawer can be removed and the box opened. I have to confess that when I acquired the box, I spent a good hour trying to understand how to open it: of course, I wanted to avoid breaking it, but I could not find any secret button to depress to disengage the sides. The studs on the top deceived me, while I was pushing, pulling, prodding and cursing under my breath. To open the box it’s a matter of pushing the top of the sides, to unlock the lid, then to pull back the bottom part of the sides, to unlock the bottom, which will fall down, leaving the box completely open.
This solution is highly ingenious as it is simple: the closures are uncomplicated and, by operating in two different ways (outside and inside) keep the box solid all the time. The box can then be closed again, the drawer inserted, a magic gesture done over it and, on re-opening, another production will fill the drawer. This production was of course hidden inside the domed top and it is released by depressing a wooden slat in the back wall, which, when raised, pushes a hinged bar that is holding a fake top. On this bar tilting, the panel of wood will fall inside the drawer, releasing the load of compressible items hidden above it.
Who made me?
Who was the manufacturer of this box, when was it made, where does it come from? Unfortunately, the box doesn’t contain any label or mark that could identify the maker. As the measurements are exact in centimetres, my guess is that the box was made in continental Europe, perhaps in France, and then imported into England and sold by some of the magic dealers of the country, like Joseph Bland, of whom I’ve already talked about, or W. H. Cremer, both well known to Prof. Hoffmann. Indeed, Hoffmann describes this model of Drawer Box on page 346 of Modern Magic. Likewise, it is very difficult to date the box, not knowing the maker, and by not having any reference, I estimate it may be dated to around 1870, but other experts have suggested it may be older.
From where does this box come from? Sometimes, when knowing the provenance, one can reconstruct the story of an object, perhaps even identify a famous owner: I would be thrilled to learn if the box had belonged to such luminaries of the magic arts as Compars Herrmann, or to Professor Anderson (The Great Wizard of the North), or even to John Nevil Maskelyne. Alas! this is not something I have been able to ascertain. The box comes from the collection of Prof. Gerard L’Estrange Turner (1926-2012), an authority on the history of the microscope and of other scientific instruments. Indeed, Prof. Turner, as a researcher, from 1963, in the Museum for the History of Science in Oxford, had a vantage position to study and identify the provenance of old scientific instruments. He had a sizeable collection of antique scientific toys and described some of them in a chapter titled Recreational Science in his 1983 book Nineteenth-Century Scientific Instruments. The links will take you to the relevant pages on Google Books. Frustratingly, the Drawer Box is not listed in the book, which probably makes sense as it is well known as a magic trick, rather than a toy for “recreational sciences,” so my quest to identify its history has reached another stumbling block.
According to John Gaughan , the complexity of these boxes makes them very scarce: only half a dozen were built every year, and often they were custom built for some professional magician or wealthy entertainer. In fact, you don’t find many “Dissecting Drawer Boxes” offered for sale regularly: generally, you can find only the standard model of the trick. Indeed, at the time of this writing, I could find only two boxes as having sold in the recent past: the first one, quite similar to mine, by Bloomsbury in the UK in 2008 (apparently, it belonged to Jasper Maskelyne), while the second, an American one from the collection of Jay Marshall, not as elaborate as mine, sold in 2010.
Thinking about Magic
Is it important to know who used this box? Probably not: he may have been a performer or perhaps the box originally belonged to a collector who treasured it. The important thing, I think, is to know and to admire the subtle mechanism that causes the magic to happen, and to be amazed by the ingenuity and by the skill of the unknown artisan, whose name is now lost to history. Such an amount of ingenuity went into this box and it has now been lost in the bastardized version one can buy today for a few dozen dollars. To learn, to know and to study the history of magic can give joy to the student, giving a sense of wonder in discovering the lengths our predecessors went through to create the illusion of Magic.
- This post talks only about one box only: the second one is even more mysterious and, if I will receive sufficient requests, I will dedicate another post to it.
- Stanyon’s Magic, Vol. 1, n. 7, p. 54, April 1901
- Genii Magazine, Vol. 74, n. 4, p. 29, April 2011
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