Childhood and career in illustration
Tarbell was born on February 23, 1890 in the Illinois town of Delavan, but spent his childhood in Groveland. Tarbell created cartoons for a newspaper in Morton when he was 12 years old. It was at this time that Tarbell received one of his earliest introductions to professional magic, when he hiked five miles along the railroad tracks to watch magician Harry August Jansen, aka Dante, perform at the Morton Town Hall.
In 1911, Tarbell moved to Chicago in order to pursue a professional career in illustration. His efforts attracted the attention of the magic company Read and Covert, which hired Tarbell to work on their Illustrated Catalogue of Superior Magical Apparatus. Tarbell continued to produce illustrations for Read and Covert until 1941.
During World War I, Tarbell served with the 24th Air Company in France, working with the medical department. He found time during his service to illustrate a military atlas and study with French impressionist Claude Monet.
Tarbell Course in Magic
Publishers T. Grant Cooke and Walter A. Jordan developed an interest in producing a correspondence course in magic in the mid-1920s. Cook and Jordan hired Tarbell and Walter Baker, another Chicago-area magician, to work on the project, but Baker dropped out of the project in its early stages to concentrate on his performances. A few months before his death, Harry Houdini was approached to author the course, but Houdini declined but recommended Tarbell. The publishers agreed, allotting Tarbell $50,000 for the course. Tarbell finished the course in 1928, producing 60 correspondence lessons with at least 3,100 illustrations.
Tarbell later discussed the philosophy behind his course: "There is a big difference between a magician and a man who does tricks...Fundamentally, the making of a magician is no different than the making of other professional people. One must be trained in the mechanics, the alternate methods and be skilled in the presentation in order to meet any conditions which may arise." Unlike other magic courses which placed a greater emphasis on self-working illusions, Tarbell began with fundamental drills and practice sessions involving body position, movement, and sleight-of-hand techniques which were to be incorporated into actual tricks in future lessons.
After selling 10,000 complete courses, Cooke and Jordan discontinued marketing the Tarbell Course in Magic in 1931, blaming the Great Depression for slumping sales. In 1941, however, magician Louis Tannen purchased the rights to the course, working with Tarbell and Ralph W. Read (of Read and Covert) to convert the correspondence lessons into book form.
- Tarbell Course in Magic Volume 1
- History of Magic, Magic as a Science, Sleight of Hand with Coins, Coin Tricks, More Coin Tricks, The Thumb Tip, Impromptu Tricks, Ball Tricks, Mathematical Mysteries, Effective Card Mysteries, Impromptu Card Mysteries, Mental Card Mysteries, Card Sleights, Novel Card Mysteries, Restoring Torn Papers, Rope & Tape Principle, Handkerchief Tricks, Knotty Silks, Eggs and Silks.
- Tarbell Course in Magic Volume 2
- How to Please your Audience, Magic with Wands, Double Paper Mysteries, Magic with Coins, Cigarette Magic, Sleight of Hand with Cards, Selected Card Mysteries, Rising Cards, Egg Magic, Billiard Ball Manipulation, Handkerchief Magic, Rope Magic, Ghostlite Mysteries, Illusions.
- Tarbell Course in Magic Volume 3
- Routining a Magic Show, How to Make People Laugh, Intimate Magic, Conjuring with Currency, Modern Coin Effects, Fundamental Card Sleights, Card Mysteries, Card Stabbing, Novelty Handkerchief Magic, Color Changing Silks, Rabbit and Dove Magic, Illusions.
- Tarbell Course in Magic Volume 4
- Novelty Magic, Thimble Magic, Swallowing Needle & Blades, Unique Card Magic, Novelty Rising Cards, Card Transition Tricks, Mental & Psychic Mysteries, The Thumb Tie, Chinese Linking Rings, Silken Trickery, Slate Tricks, Illusions.
- Tarbell Course in Magic Volume 5
- Unique Magic, More Unique Mysteries, Four Ace Effects, Modern Mental Mysteries, Hat and Coat Productions, Oriental Magic, Original Oriental Secrets, Tarbell Hindu Rope Mysteries, Modern Rope Magic, Magic of the Bambergs, Magic with Bowls and Liquids, Illusions, Publicity and Promotion.
- Tarbell Course in Magic Volume 6
- Novel Ball Magic, Unique Card Effects, Novelty Magic, Rope Magic, Mindreading Mysteries, X Ray Eyes and Blindfold Effects, Silk and Rope Penetrations, Escapes and Substitutions, Spirit Ties and Vest Turning, Modern Stage Magic, Stage Productions, Magic as Theatre.
- Tarbell Course in Magic Volume 7
- More Mental Magic, Card Magic, Rope Magic, Novelty Magic, Money Magic, Silk Magic, Illusions You Can Make, Late Arrivals.