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The Three Scrolls

Updated: Jun 25

This is one of the first paper stunts that caught my attention when I started going through old magic books – probably because it often came with an interesting illustration. It’s survived through to the present day in a couple of different forms but doesn’t seem to have a standard name. I’ve been calling it “Three Strips Rolled Together”, but I much prefer David Mitchell’s idea of using the title “Three Scrolls” from the first English edition of Giovanni Battista della Porta's Magia naturalis (1558). This makes a lot of sense, and I wish I’d thought of it.

The effect is that you have three strips of paper (A, B, C) of different lengths (short, medium and long) which you roll up together, and when they are unrolled they have mysteriously changed places.

This wonderful and completely self-working little trick was first published in Magia naturalis (1558) by the Italian scholar Giovanni Battista della Porta. The full title seems to be Magiae naturalis libri viginti, or “Twenty Books of Natural Magic”, because it was divided into twenty sections, but it usually seems to be referred to in the nominative as just Magia naturalis (the -ae ending on magia makes it "of magic"). A lot has been written about this and I'm no expert, but suffice it to say that it was one of the first “books of secrets” or works on “natural magic”, as opposed to dark or occult magic, and was extensively reprinted, expanded and translated over at least the next hundred years. In the English edition Natural Magick (1658) the Three Scrolls can be found in Book XX, Chapter VIII. Below is a collection of the passages describing the trick in some of the different versions I’ve found online.

The Three Scrolls in Latin, English, French, German and Italian editions of Magia naturalis

Many later authors borrowed from Magia naturalis and included the Three Scrolls trick in their own books of “natural magic” feats. Their descriptions became a bit more detailed, but they all tend to say more or less the same thing. The following is from another early collection entitled Deliciae Physico-Mathematicae, Oder Mathematische und Philosophische Erquickstunden (1636) by Daniel Schwenter. See at the end of this post for his reference to Johann Jacob Wecker and also a list of other sources.

Illustrations in most of these works were fairly few and far between, but a number of them included helpful drawings to go with the text:

Bill Roll

The original trick with three strips of paper seems to have been largely forgotten, but it does survive in a number of more recent incarnations. The most common version is done with two banknotes (for example, a $1 bill and a $5 bill) placed one on top of the other at right angles, effectively recreating the long and short strips. Roll them up together and unroll them again, and the bills will have changed places. This is often known as the Bill Roll, and it seems to date back to the 1930s. The earliest published reference I've found is Jean Hugard's Money Magic (1937).

Update: My thanks to Michel Grand for pointing out an earlier appearance of the Bill Roll in the magic magazine The Jinx (No. 20, May 1936) under the title "Inflation", submitted by Monty Crowe. At the same time and by pure chance I also found it explained in The New Magician's Manual (1936) by Walter B. Gibson, and in the August 1935 issue of Popular Mechanics magazine, in an article on Impromptu Magic by Harry Blackstone.

Three Napkins

Another version uses three paper napkins, either of different colours or all the same but with an “X” marked on one of them. They still change places like the strips or scrolls, but it somehow feels like a slightly different trick. Martin Gardner mentioned this in one of his columns in Hugard’s Magic Monthly, Vol. 13, No. 3, August 1955 (later collected into book form as the Encyclopedia of Impromptu Magic (1978)), and it’s also nicely explained in Francis Rigney’s Cub Scout Magic (1960). In the revised edition of Gardner’s encyclopedia, under the title of Impromptu (2015), editor Todd Karr calls this the Rolling Switch, and the version with dollar bills is given as the Rolling Bill Switch.


Finally, for the record, here’s a list of books that include the Three Scrolls. Some of the authors mention where they got the trick from (e.g. “from Porta”), but in most cases the same description is just repeated with no credit given.

The dates are those of the editions I’ve found, which are not necessarily always the date of first publication. With all the different editions and revisions that many of these books went through the full publishing histories can get very complicated.

Magia naturalis (1558) by Giambattista della Porta (original Latin)

Natural Magick (1658) by John Baptista Porta (English)

Della magia naturale (1611) by Giovanni Battista della Porta (Italian)

Haus-Kunst-und Wunder-Buch (1680) by Johann Baptista Porta (German)

La magie naturelle (1680) by Jean Baptiste Porta (French)

De secretis libri XVII (1582) by Johann Jacob Wecker ("from Porta")

Les secrets et merveilles de la nature (1653) by Johann Jacob Wecker ("from Porta")

Eighteen Books of the Secrets of Art and Nature (1661) by Johann Jacob Wecker ("from Cardan")

Deliciae Physico-Mathematicae (1636) by Daniel Schwenter ("from Wecker")

Joco-seriorum naturae et artis (1666) by Gaspar Schott ("from Porta and Schwenter")

Das Zeit kürtzende Lust- und Spiel-Hauss (ca. 1690) by Eberhard Welper

Neueröffnete Raritäten- und Kunst-Kammer (1702) by Simon Witgeest

Natürliches Zauber-Buch Oder (1718) by Simon Witgeest

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

Unterricht in der natürlichen Magie, Vol. 2 (1786) by Johann Christian Wiegleb

Verschiedenes zum Unterricht und zur Unterhaltung (1791) by Karl von Eckartshausen

Mechanemata oder der Tausendkünstler (1831) by Dr Heinrich Rockstroh

Das Buch der Zauberei (1839) by Johann August Donndorff (5th edition)

1 comment

1 Comment

Dave Mitchell
Dave Mitchell
Dec 06, 2021

Great information. I love the way you have brought the history right into modern times. At least, modern to me!

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