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Smoke and Mirrors Day
"Things are seldom what they seem,
Skim milk masquerades as cream;
Highlows pass as patent leathers;
Jackdaws strut in peacock's feathers."
~ "Things Are Seldom What They Seem", Pirates of Penzance", Gilbert & Sullivan, 1880
Today is an official day for deceit, deception, and misdirection - a celebration of illusionists, magicians, and general prestidigitation! The term "smoke and mirrors" has ancient Greek and Roman origins. Astronomer Johannes Kepler (1571-1630) coined the term camera obscura (Latin for “dark room”) to describe a room, tent or box with a lens aperture, which he used to safely view solar phenomenon. But this optical configuration had already been used for millennia in one of the oldest known illusions - spectral images cast upon the smoke of burning incense by performers using concave metal mirrors - hence the expression “smoke and mirrors.” Hocus Pocus! Abracadabra! Alakazam! 🎩 🐇
Smoke and Mirrors Day celebrates deceit, deception, and all other types of trickery and the art of fraudulent cunning.
The term "smoke and mirrors" has its origins in the early days of theater magic, of which Phantasmagoria was a popular early form. Phantasmagoria usually took the form of private performances for the elite in which illusionist creators used (among other techniques) used one or more magic lanterns to project frightening images such as skeletons, demons, and ghosts onto walls, smoke, or semi-transparent screens, typically using rear projection to keep the lantern out of sight. Some shows added all kinds of sensory stimulation, including smells and electric shocks! Popular in the late 18th century, these performances pioneered the way for future magicians to create illusionist entertainment for the masses.
John Henry Anderson (1814–1874) was a Scottish professional magician credited with helping bring the art of magic from street performances into theatres and presenting magic performances to entertain and delight the audience. At seventeen, he began performing magic and by 1837 put a touring magic show together which lasted for three years. In 1840, Anderson settled in London, opening the New Strand Theatre. Sir Walter Scott is said to have given him the stage name, The Great Wizard of the North.
Anderson is famous for a lifetime of successful performances of the bullet catch illusion. Although he did not invent the trick, he made it widely popular and several of his rivals copied Anderson's version in their own shows. Anderson is also credited to be the first magician to pull a rabbit out of a tophat. Again, the trick had existed before in different forms, yet, Anderson was the first magician that performed this classic trick on stage.
Magician Harry Houdini, who was born in the same year as Anderson's death, revered Anderson as one of his inspirations and in 1909 arranged for the upkeep of his gravesite, which had fallen into disrepair.
This tartan by designer Carol A.L. Martin, explores the greys and browns and shades of light and dark.
For more on the popular phantasmagorias which thrilled and horrified the public, click an illustration of a scene of one such by Belgian inventor and physicist, Etienne-Gaspard Robertson, who was known for his productions and was one the most imitated.