I’m learning about paper engineering, which is super-fun. I need a place to pop some information, so I’m going to use this post for that purpose.
Today, Kelli Anderson told us about Harry Houdini’s book called Houdini’s Paper Magic. Archive.org has a number of scans of the full book. Here is one, and if all goes well, it will open to page 130 automatically: the description of the “Trouble Wit.”
As Houdini explains, the “Trouble Wit” is a kind of storytelling routine with a prop: a piece of paper with a basic folding pattern (as far as I can tell, an accordion fold with two hinges). The performer tells a story, reshaping the paper to create the impression of a series of different objects that illustrate the action. The routine was sufficiently common, says Houdini, that magic stores sold the paper patterns for home use. (Houdini also refers to three other books already describing the routine. I’m in the process of tracking them down.)
In the later book Paper Magic, Robert Harbin traces the “Trouble Wit” routine hundreds of years back to China, then to Continental Europe (as the French “Papier Multiforme”) and on to England.
Stanyon Ellis’s Conjuring for Amateurs offers an early version of the three-section construction of the paper prop (and reinforces the Chinese associations of the trick by calling it the “Chinese Fan”). Steve Biddle’s The New Origami gets down to details, with all the steps and illustrations necessary to create the whole mechanism.