The Origins of Wonder
Use of one-way backs as a method for card tricks is far younger than the use of one-way faces (aka pointer cards), for the simple reason that modern playing cards with printed backs are a relatively recent commodity. Cards arrived in Europe (from precursors in Asia and the Middle East) in the fourteenth century. Card faces were either rendered by hand or via woodblock printing. These being time-consuming processes, typically the backs were left blank. Back patterns on decks existed in some locations by the early eighteenth century but they did not become standard until the nineteenth, enabled by advances in mechanical printing such as the rotary press, c. 1840.
There are published descriptions at least as far back as the mid-eighteenth century regarding gamblers noting imperfections on backs of cards; either specks of dirt, or imperfections on printed backs. Some of that work was abetted by tracking a blemished card when its orientation was reversed, but given the diversity of cards in use, this does not seem to have been a generalized principle.
Stripper or Biseauté decks use a related one-way principle, although they are tactile in operation, rather than visual. Descriptions of these trimmed decks can be found in the 1700s. First devised by card cheats, the Stripper deck was later adopted for card tricks, and shortly afterward some of the ideas using reversed stripped cards were applied to one-way backs.
The principle of one-way backs, using all the cards excluding the diamonds, as a method for finding a chosen card was exposed to Boston newspaper readers in Flag of Our Union, on Dec. 22, 1866. (This article was discovered by Bill Mullins.)
In The Art of Magic, 1909, p. 169, John Northern Hilliard, ghostwriting for T. Nelson Downs, offered a chapter of tricks using one-way backs: Chapter VIII: “A Series of Card Tricks Based On a New and Original System”. These included some reasonably sophisticated applications. In the January 1939 issue of The Jinx, No. 52, p. 360, Annemann writes that Hilliard had told him he had first learned the principle from a gambler in Skagway, Alaska. During the ensuing quarter-century, effects using the one-way-back principle were published by C. O. Williams, Charles Jordan, Walter Gibson, Joseph Ovette, Al Baker, Theo Annemann and others.
In 1935, U. F. Grant released a booklet, Tricks With a One Way Deck. The following year, Glenn Gravatt’s Encyclopedia of Self Working Card Tricks, 1936, included two chapters Chapters 8 & 9, p. 190, on the principle, which was retained (in modified form) in the Hugard revision, Encyclopedia of Card Tricks, Chapter IX, p. 138, the year after that.
See also: One-way Pointer Card Principle and Stripper Deck