A short history of Devilstick

It’s  been a while since I wrote my first article about devilsticks and I plan to deprecate that old one now that this is published, because even if it was a good effort and it is partly correct, I studied the history of devilsticks quite a lot in the past year and I think I can do it better now.

Not as good as I’d like to and actually I tried writing this article several times over the past months but failed because I got lost in detail, trying to verify this date, looking for this picture I forgot to download, finding new stuff instead of writing down what I already know and going back to procrastination.

So I gave myself a deadline and just did it.

Not everything in this article is bulletproof and double-checked, and it’s not as complete as I’d like and I can not give a source for everything, because whenever I am looking for a source I get distracted and end up reading something like “Asmodeus, The Devil Upon Two Sticks” – a book that sadly has nothing to do with devilsticks at all – so if you find mistakes, would like me to add something, or need a source for science or anything else… just get in contact.

Additionally, I want to use this opportunity to thank David Cain, Erik Aberg and many more who supported me in my research, answered questions, shared pictures with me, or simply shared my excitement when I found out something new.

So lets get it started…

When it comes to the exact origin of the devilstick I only know that I basically know nothing. Even though the “common knowledge” or urban legends are so strong that it’s of Chinese origin, and that theory has found a place in literature and wikipedia. And even if I agree that a Chinese origin is possible and a general Asian origin is likely, if we stick to the pure facts, the first provable appearance of devilsticks is a picture of the brothers Mooty and Medua Samme printed 1820 in Prague. They announced to do “Chinese stickplay” but they themselves were of Indian heritage.

For more information about the Samme Brothers and Indian jugglers you can visit my previous article.

Indian Jugglers used to be highly influential between 1830 and 1850, and we can find several copycats including their student Carl Rappo (born May 14,1800 in Innsbruck, died in January, 1854 in Moskau) and others who may have been students.

They usually presented a mixture of traditional Indian style with European influences, as well as elements of strongman juggling, acrobatics, rope dancing, dance, and later also demonstrations of wild animals taming, foreign/primitive cultured people, freaks, and all kinds of entertainment. While the Sammee Brothers and Carl Rappo are the only performers I can verify to have been devilsticking there may have been other devilstickers in this time who’ve never been described performing it but may advertised it under vague descriptions like: various skill games, equilibristic demonstrations, Chinese, Indian (meaning India not Native Americans), or other malabaristic exercises.

Even if probably only a few jugglers actually trained or performed devilsticks, it is safe to assume that the knowledge of this prop spread among the general audience but especially among performers who used to be well connected and knew exactly what their contemporaries were performing even prior to juggling magazines or the internet.

The next artist is quite special… I couldn’t find much about him but it seems like he was playing a fire devilstick and he did so on a walking globe while juggling two torches. I wrote down that I estimate it’s from 1884 but I can’t find my source so this will have to wait for a future article.

From now on, devilstick history gets a little crowded.

In 1906 we have Adele Purvis Onri and Rosa Lee Onri, the First Ladies of Devilstick

The Onri Troupe, featuring two women devilsticking

Some of these artists performed in Australia after a successful career in America, and were the first devilstickers I found in Australia.

Youna was devilsticking at least as early as 1908. Below is a photo of him from that year. You can read more about Youna here.

I’d like to use Youna to mention the possibility of a devilstick-like performance in the Japanese juggling art of daikagura.

What we see here appears like a devilstick but is unusual in shape and decorations and reminds me more of the sticks used for stick and ball work than the classic flower or devilstick builds. Especially the unusual handsticks which look like traditional Japanese drumsticks are remarkable. My guess is that there have been some elements of balancing, throwing and catching sticks in the balance again similar to the ball and stick games predominant in daikagura. These likely fused with the devilstick styles of China, India and Europe in the early melting pots of America and Europe at the beginning of 20th century to create the basics of what we consider devilsticking today.

In 1920, none other than Rastelli himself performed devilstick while doing a head to head stand with his father (seen in the upper right corner).

The next performer is gentleman juggler George Latour in 1939.

This is the first time we actually have video evidence and it’s the first time we see don’t see a classical devil or flowerstick build but a billiard cue. Other performers performing with billiard cues were Felix Adanos,

Charles Career,

and many more…

Another prop often used for “sticking” was the hat. I believe that a lot of devilstick tricks between 1900 and 1950 were inspired by or were inspiring hat spinning performers of that time. What strikes me as particularly strange is that there are descriptions of a hat spinning propeller nearly 50 years before we find the first description of devilsticks in “Manual of Juggling” by Max Holden.

Another hint for the relationship between devilsticks and hat spinning is the similar handstick design which used to be rather long with a clear grip section at one end and a sticky end at the other. To learn more about hat spinning, click here.

This brings us to the famous juggling Duo, the Peiro Brothers, who have been known to be skillful hatspinners, devilstickers, and entertainers.

If you want to learn more about them David Cain wrote this wonderful article.

The important thing for this article is that they were the first to perform a two devilstick double propeller and might also have been the first to incorporate passing in a devilstick routine.

A video of them can be seen here.

Other performers in America who used devilsticks in the 50s were Betty Gorham, Marion Drew, and Lou Folds.

Betty Gorham


Marion Drew

Lou Folds

The other important change that started in the 50s was that devilsticks weren’t exclusive for performing anymore, and they started to be practiced by hobbyists. This was a trend that could be seen in the whole juggling community and many aspects may have influenced it.

Here’s one example of a hobbyist tennis sticking at an early Jugglers Convention:

Exchanging the devilstick with a tennis racket or other “funny” props is a popular act sometimes still performed today. Here it can be seen again in a tv act from 1977 using a tennis racket

But as I said, devilsticks were no longer exclusive to professionals. The hobbyist scene exploded in the early 70s, especially after the first flowersticks appeared in the alternative scene surrounding Greatful Dead concerts. From there it spread in many parts of society where “stickplay” evolved into several different directions.

Predating the term Flow-Arts, alternative flowerstickers developed a style based on steady helicopter tricks with a lot of focus on movement and style.

Technical jugglers were looking for and finding new tricks and techniques and the general skill level got higher.

Youth circuses would happily teach flowersticks as an funny prop to kids.

And then there was my most favourite devilstick performance of all time:

The incorporation of dance and the clever use of rhythm was not only revolutionary to juggling but really brought devilstick to a new level.

In the 90s devilsticks became an undoubtable part of juggling culture. There are many instructional videos, descriptions, articles, etc, which all show that the devilstickers started to become well-connected and worked together to not only figure out new tricks but to find better ways to teach, describe, talk, and present devilsticks.

In 1990 Todd Strong published his Devilstick Book which became the “new devilstick standard.”

And then things got crazy.

There remains more than enough topics for another article that I intend to write next year: devilstick acts on tv, Cirque de Demain, Markus Furtner, the Internet, Youtube, Facebook, EJCs, battlestick, led sticks, 3 flowersticks/devilsticks, 3 handsticks, insane devilstick at the recent JJF Competitions, toss juggling elements, contact devilstick, magnets, departable devilsticks, waterproof devilsticks…

Leave a Reply