top of page

Paper Ladder and Paper Tree

Updated: 18 hours ago

The Paper Ladder and Paper Tree are classic paper stunts found in almost every modern book on paper recreations. Both are made from a roll of paper (often newspaper) which is torn or cut a few times and then pulled open to give the final form. Paper tearing and cutting were quite popular among magicians in the early 1900s, and the Ladder and Tree were often featured in the context of more elaborate routines, as can seen from the cover of Simple Conjuring Tricks (1915) by Will Goldston.

The Ladder is often referred to as Jacob’s Ladder, which is also one of the names given to a completely different kind of toy made of wooden blocks taped together. The Tree is usually called a Fir Tree. And then there are a number of variations, particularly with the Ladder.

For some reason the Ladder and Tree seem to appear more often in English-language books than in French and German ones. Of course I can't claim to have seen all of them, but it does seem to be the case. Anyhow, in this post I’d like to mention a few more early sources I've come across, and also to note a few less common variants that can be obtained by making the tears or cuts in different ways, such as the Barber's Pole, Chinese Pagoda, Chinese Temple, Trellis and Cornstalk.

David's Mitchell's wonderful and extremely valuable Public Paperfolding History Project has pages on both the Newspaper Ladder and Newspaper Tree , which give a number of references that had escaped me. It wasn't my intention to replicate what David already has, but since this blog focuses on magic as well as origami I thought it would be a shame not to include some of the old magic books that he lists. So once again (you'd think I would have learned by now), what was supposed to be a fairly short post adding a few "new" references has expanded way beyond my original plan. Also, once you start looking it's amazing what you can find.

Early sources and variants

According to Denis Behr’s Conjuring Credits website, the first appearance of the Newspaper Ladder was in the children’s magazine St Nicholas in 1881, and the Newspaper Tree was first published in The Magician, a magazine for magicians, in 1904.

Another early source for the Ladder is Good Housekeeping magazine, Vol. 10, No. 1, dated 8th November 1889, which describes the method without illustrations.

Images from Hathi Trust

La Science Amusante (2ème série) (1892) by Tom Tit (real name Arthur Good)

L'Echelle en papier (= Paper Ladder)

Amüsante Wissenschaft (ca. 1905) by Hans Dominik

Leiter (= Ladder)

A wonderful book of magic tricks and scientific amusements that went through 26 editions between about 1905 and 1930, with a mixture of hand-drawn illustrations and photos, including some of magicians Charles Bertram and Harry Houdini.

Games, Pastimes and Amusements (1906) by Raymond H. Garman

Jacob’s Ladder

This is actually a variant referred to elsewhere as the Chinese Pagoda or Temple.

More Novel Notions (1907) by Robertson Keene

Jacob’s Ladder and Fir Tree

Only the Ladder is shown in the illustrations.

Das Buch der Probleme, Kunststücke und Gesellschaftsscherze (1909) by Hermann Pfeiffer

Katzentreppe (= Cat’s Staircase), i.e. the Ladder

The method here is slightly unusual. First roll the paper up around a pencil and make the cuts down as far as the pencil, then remove the pencil and cut the uppermost layer (rung of the ladder) and pull the two halves upwards to obtain the final result. See the drawings in the gallery below from the 4th edition of 1922.

Home Entertaining (1912) by William E. Chenery

Fir Tree only, again explained without illustrations.

Indoor Games and Recreations (1913) by Morley Adams

A Wonderful Paper Ladder

The Boy Mechanic 2: Selected tricks and stunts (1915)

Chinese Pagoda variation of the Ladder

With an idea for a rainbow tree made by joining multiple sheets of differently coloured paper.

The Boy Mechanic (1915)

Scientific Amusements (1918) by Tom Tit / C.G. Knott

Paper Ladder

A translation and adaptation by Cargill G. Knott of La Science Amusante (see above).

La science amusante (1892) and Scientific Amusements (1918)

Paper Tricks (1919) by Will Goldston

Jacob’s Ladder, Fir Tree and Twin Fir Trees

This is interesting for its inclusion of the Twin Fir Trees version (two trees side by side from the same roll of paper), which is not seen very often.

Paper Tricks (1919)

Paper Magic (1920) by Will Blyth

Ladder and Tree

This and More Paper Magic (1923) by the same author is an important early collection of tricks with paper and simple paperfolding designs.

Paper Magic (1920)

Houdini’s Paper Magic (1922) by Houdini (ghost written by Walter B. Gibson)

Fir Tree and Jacob’s Ladder, and a ladder variation referred to as a Trellis.

Also described is a method by stage performer Harry Moore for climbing the finished Ladder.

Houdini's Paper Magic (1922)

Das Buch der Kunststücke, Gesellschaftsscherze und Probleme (1922) by Hermann Pfeiffer

Katzentreppe (= Cat’s Staircase), i.e. the Ladder

This is the 4th edition of Das Buch der Probleme, Kunststücke und Gesellschaftsscherze (see above) with a slight change of title but the exact same description of the Ladder.

La prestidigitation sans bagages (1936-1944) by Dr. Jules Dhotel

L'arbuste et la branche fleurie (= Bush and Flowery Branch)

Volume VI (published in 1942) of this 8-volume encyclopedia of "magic without apparatus" has a section on paper recreations. There's no mention of the Paper Ladder, but instead we have what Dr. Dhotel calls the "Flowery Branch", which seems to be the same as the Twin Fir Trees in Goldston's Paper Tricks (1919). Dhotel says it is "less appealing" than the Tree ("bush") but nevertheless describes two ways to do the tearing. As an extra bonus on the page before we have the One-Cut Paper Ladder, which is also in the Tom Tit books and one or two other other places.

La prestidigitation sans bagages (1936-1944)

Fun with Paper (1939) by Joseph Leeming

Jacob’s Ladder, Christmas Tree and Chinese Temple. Also a simple Barber’s Pole made from red and white strips rolled together.

Popular Mechanics magazine, February 1940

Cornstalk and Ladder

Popular Mechanics (1940)

Paper Magic (1941) by Percy Abbott

Jacob’s Ladder

A small booklet produced by the American magic dealer Percy Abbott, though the content was claimed by another magician by the name of U.F. Grant. Also includes a method for climbing the ladder at the end (slightly different from the one in Houdini's Paper Magic).

Amusing Yourself with Paper and String (1950) by Paul Bruton

Paper Ladder and Palm Tree (actually just the usual Tree)

Amusing Yourself with Paper and String (1950)

Plezier met papier (1950) by Aart van Breda

Jacob’s Ladder and Christmas Tree, with a Palm Tree variant not found elsewhere.

Pleasure with Paper (1954) by Aart van Breda

The English translation of Plezier met papier.

Phoenix No. 271, December 1952 (magic magazine)

Martin Gardner describes “Fir You”, a version of the Fir Tree that gets narrower towards the top to give you “the proper pyramidal shape”. It was reprinted in Martin Gardner Presents (1993) but I haven't seen it anywhere else.

Fir You by Martin Gardner

Hugard’s Magic Monthly, Vol. XIII, No. 4, September 1955 (magic magazine)

Martin Gardner's long-running column on impromptu tricks, later collected in a single volume as the Encyclopedia of Impromptu Magic (1978), includes Jacob’s Ladder and the Fir Tree along with details of some of the performers who used them and sources for some of the variations. There's a particularly nice illustration showing the different ways to cut the paper for the Ladder.

Hugard's Magic Monthly

Newspaper Magic (1968) by Gene Anderson

Fir Tree and Jacob’s Ladder

The main point of interest here is a presentation of the Fir Tree as a production of up to four trees from a plant pot.

The Art of Paper Tearing (1970) by Eric Hawkesworth

The Art of Paper Cutting (1976) by Eric Hawkesworth

There's some overlap between these two books, but both have some interesting minor variations on the basic Ladder and Tree.

Paper Ladder and Paper Tree gallery

It's interesting to see how the Ladder and Tree are illustrated in the various books. I wasn't going to include all of these, but I got a bit carried away and so here are most of the ones not shown separately above. Hover over the images to see the sources, and click on them to see a larger view.

Paper Tree Suspension

In the 1980s the German stage illusionist Hans Moretti baffled magicians everywhere with his incredible version of the classic Broom Suspension illusion, in which he suspended his assistant (and wife) Helga on two Paper Trees. A video of a performance on Spanish television in 1990 can be seen at The Morettis' version of the Sword Box on the same page is also worth checking out.

1 comment

1 Comment

Wow! That is certainly comprehensive! I don't think I was aware that the other variation of the Ladder was called the Chinese Pagoda.

bottom of page