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Knife through Handkerchief

In two of my first blog posts just over a year ago I talked about a couple of very early paper tricks, one in Giovanni Battista della Porta's Magia naturalis (1558) involving "three Schroles of Paper", and another in Reginald Scot's Discoverie of Witchcraft (1584) under the title of "To transforme anie one small thing into anie other forme by folding of paper". The same tricks are repeated in many German magic books right up until the 19th century, often together with an effect that wasn't described by either della Porta or Scot, in which a knife is placed on a handkerchief, the handkerchief is rolled up around it, and when everything is unrolled the knife has apparently penetrated through the handkerchief and is underneath it. Outwardly this seems to be quite a different trick, but in fact it uses the same basic principle as both the Three Scrolls and To Transform by Folding Paper.


The earliest source I've found for the Knife through Handkerchief trick is Deliciae Physico-Mathematicae, Oder Mathematische und Philosophische Erquickstunden (1636) by Daniel Schwenter.

Deliciae Physico-Mathematicae,

Oder Mathematische und Philosophische Erquickstunden (1636)

Die XXXVI Auffgab Ein Messer in ein Wischtüchlein zu wickeln / wann mans wider auffwickelt / daß es ausserhalb des Tüchleins lige Leg ein Wischtüchlein zweyfach zusamm / und ein Messer in den Bug / wickel also das Tüchlein um das Messer : Nun kannst du machen daß im auffwickeln entwerder das Messer wider im Tüchlein ruhen bleibe / oder aber herauß falle. Wanns ligen soll bleiben / nimmet man beede ende des Wischtüchleins auff einmahl zusamm / und wickelts also auff / so es aber ausserhalb des Tüchleins kommen und fallen soll / nimmet man erstlich nur ein ende / und zwar das unterste oder äusserte des Tüchleins / wickelts einmahl auff / das andermahl nimmet man erst das andere ende darzu / so muß das Messer von aussen her kommen. Die demonstration ist leicht / und deßwegen unnötig zu setzen / so wol in dieser als vorhergehender Auffgab.

Experiment XXXVI To roll a knife in a handkerchief so that when it is unrolled it is outside the handkerchief Fold a handkerchief in two and place a knife in the fold, then roll the handkerchief around the knife. Now when you unroll it you can make the knife either remain in the handkerchief or fall out of it. If it is to remain inside, take both ends of the handkerchief together and unroll it; but if it is to come and fall outside the handkerchief, first take only one end of the handkerchief, i.e. the lowermost or outermost end, and unroll it; the next time take the other end at the same time, and in this way the knife must come from outside. The explanation is easy and therefore unnecessary, as in the previous experiment.

When Schwenter says (see above in bold) that the explanation is "as in the previous experiment", he's referring to Experiment XXXV, which was the Three Scrolls trick. This similarity is also noted in a later description of the same two tricks in the Onomatologia curiosa artificiosa et magica oder ganz natürliches Zauber-Lexicon (1759), compiled by Johann Christian Wiegleb (columns 152 and 153 in the images below).





Onomatologia curiosa artificiosa et magica

oder ganz natürliches Zauber-Lexicon (1759)

Aus eben diesem Grund nur mit verwechselten Umständen wird folgende Aufgabe aufgelöset: Ein Messer in ein Wischtüchlein zu wickeln, daß das Messer, wenn man es aufwickelt ausserhalb des Tüchlein liege. Man leget ein Wischtüchlein zweifach zusammen, (das Messer kommt in den Bug zu liegen) darauf wickelt man das Tüchlein um das Messer, will man nun aufwickeln, daß das Messer ausser dem Tüchlein liege, nimmt man erstlich nur ein Ende und zwar das unterste oder äußerste desselben, und wickelt einmal auf, das andere mal nimmt man erst das andere End darzu, so wird das Messer von aussen her kommen. Aus der Bestimmung der Aufwicklung kan diese Bewegung des Messers leichtlich erkannt werden.

For the same reason, but with changed circumstances, the following problem is solved: how to roll a knife up in a handkerchief so that when it is unrolled the knife is outside the handkerchief. Fold the handkerchief in two (the knife goes into the fold) and then roll the handkerchief around the knife. To unroll it so that the knife is outside the handkerchief, first take just one of the ends, namely the lowermost or outermost of the two, and unroll it, the next time take the other end as well and the knife will come from outside. This movement of the knife is easily understood from the way the rolling is done.

The explanations are slightly different, but despite what they both say about their being easy to understand I must confess to finding them a bit confusing, especially at the end. And yet the trick has managed to survive for all this time, so perhaps it's just me. Later descriptions offer a few improvements here and there, but it's not until we get to more modern sources that the trick is really properly explained.


Spoon to Knife and other variations


Most of the modern descriptions are in magic books written for children. The effect of a knife or other object passing through a handkerchief does not actually seem to be described very often. What seems more common nowadays is a version where one piece of cutlery changes into another when the handkerchief is unrolled. The earliest reference I've been able to find for this is Spoon to Knife in After the Dessert (1941) by Martin Gardner, which appears again along with a Colour Changing Pencil variation in Gardner's column in Hugard's Magic Monthly, Vol. XIII No. 12 (May 1956), and later in his Encyclopedia of Impromptu Magic (1978).


There are also a couple of versions where a chosen card penetrates up through a handkerchief, and just recently the August 2022 issue of Genii magazine had a routine called The Spork Chronicles by Leo Reed, where a plastic spoon and a plastic fork are rolled in a handkerchief and mysteriously "blend together" to form a spork.


Most of the books have illustrations showing the handkerchief or napkin being rolled up diagonally from corner to corner. This was never mentioned in the earlier sources, and the only one I've seen that provided any kind of illustrations is Kerndörffer's Der kleine Taschenspieler und Magiker (ca. 1810), which shows a sheet of paper being rolled up widthwise for the "transform by folding paper" trick; see below, and my post on To Transform by Folding Paper. See also my post on The Three Scrolls in the section on the Bill Roll trick, where the rolling is sometimes done widthwise and sometimes with the bills placed diagonally.



To Transform by Folding Paper

Der kleine Taschenspieler und Magiker (1810)



Coin Through Cloth

So You Want To Be A Magician? (1974)




Spoon to Knife

After the Dessert (1941)


Bibliography


As usual, this is not an exhaustive list - just some of the older references I've happened to find online in the editions cited, which are not necessarily the first editions. The more modern sources for the basic "object through handkerchief" effect and "spoon to knife" variations are not included.


Deliciae Physico-Mathematicae, Oder Mathemat. und Philosophische Erquickstunden (1636)

by Daniel Schwenter


Onomatologia curiosa artificiosa et magica (1759)

by Johann Christian Wiegleb


Die zehnmal hundert und eine Kunst (6. Teil) (1762)

by Albrecht Ernst Friedrich von Crailsheim


Verschiedenes zum Unterricht und zur Unterhaltung (1791)

by Karl von Eckartshausen


Das Buch der Zauberei oder Magie für das gesellschaftliche Leben (1839)

by Johann August Donndorff (5th edition)


Sammlung von 139 Kunststücken (1851)

(anonymous)


Der gewandte Zauberkünstler und Hexenmeister in Familien- und Gesellschaftskreisen (1897)

by Alexander Ortleb


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