Conjuring Credits

The Origins of Wonder

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Breaking a Pencil with a Bill

This now familiar standard of beginners' magic texts, in which a pencil is apparently broken in half with a blow from a folded dollar bill or bank note, was originally described as being done with a pair of chop sticks and some strips of tissue paper. The trick, or at least this presentation of it, was Japanese and was described by Ishii Black in the December 1914 issue of The Magician Monthly, Vol. 11 No. 1, p. 4.

Almost nine years later, the Thayer Manufacturing Co. marketed the trick in its westernized form, using a pencil and dollar bill, as an instruction sheet, calling it “Biffo”: instruction sheet. (See The Sphinx, Vol.22 No. 8, Oct. 1923, p. 243.) Thayer gave no credit or provenance for the trick.

Within a year, B. L. Gilbert was selling it under the name of “Power of Money”. (See The Sphinx, Vol. 23 No. 7, Sep. 1924, p. 230.)

“Biffo” quickly moved into the public domain when it appeared in the Jan. 24, 1925 issue of the Brooklyn Daily Eagle, p. 5, in Thurston's syndicated newspaper column of tricks, ghosted by Walter Gibson.

However, the trick was still identified by many in the western magic community as being Thayer's in 1934, as shown in a controversy surrounding Harry Clapham's “Debunking Modern Magic” column in The Billboard. In the Sep. 22, 1934 issue of The Billboard, p. 26, Julien Proskauer, on behalf of the Society of American Magicians, accused Clapham of exposure and other matters in his columns. Clapham counter-attacked in the same issue, p. 55, by pointing out that Proskauer had, in a booklet of tricks Proskauer had written for Seagram's Whiskey, “exposed item No. 56 in Thayer’s magic catalog Biffo.” William Hilliar followed this up by reprinting a telegram from Joe Wilkes Kendall in the October 6, 1934, column, p. 46, stating that Biffo had been removed from the fourth printing of the Seagram's booklet. (Research by Bill Mullins.)