I’ve made it one of my endeavors in life to put together the best and most thorough collection of rare and innovative juggling clubs in the world. I believe I’ve been successful in doing so. Therefore, I want to share a history of this most iconic of juggling props. My discussion will only briefly touch on Indian clubs, which were usually considered exercise equipment rather than a performance prop. Juggling historian Erik Aberg has done great research on the development of swinging clubs and hopes to eventually publish his findings.
Hollow Wooden Clubs
While the history of knife and torch juggling goes back two thousand years, club juggling is a much more recent invention. In the latter years of the nineteenth century, jugglers began performing with clubs. The first club juggler was Ohioan James DeWitt Cook, who first juggled Indian clubs around the late 1870s. Here is a newly discovered picture of Cook from 1885.
It is believed that Cook used solid wood Indian clubs. However, there were some hollow Indian clubs, known as exhibition clubs. The walls of these clubs were quite thin and could easily crack if dropped. Here is an exhibition club from my collection, given to me by Erik Aberg.
Other jugglers followed Cook’s lead and began using clubs as well. Each act either used standard Indian clubs or made their own. One of these jugglers was another Ohioan, Edward Van Wyck, who performed for ten years under the name Eddie Evans. Van Wyck made his own hollow clubs, which caught the attention of other jugglers. These peers began asking Van Wyck to make clubs for them. Van Wyck retired from performing and went into the retail juggling business in 1895, working in a shop in Cincinnati, Ohio (USA).
Early picture of Edward Van Wyck
Van Wyck’s clubs were a three piece construction, featuring a body that was lathed out and then cut in half perpendicular to the handle direction, forming two cups after these were hollowed out. The end of one cup was drilled out for the handle, which was previously lathed. This was fitted in the hole and secured with a wooden nut, which was also glued. The two cups were then jointed and glued together. The body was then wrapped in a glue-impregnated linen. After this was dried, foil decorations were added. Previously, club decorations were often made of metal, which added a great deal to the weight of the clubs. The foil decorations were an important innovation. Van Wyck’s clubs initially weight 24 ounces but eventually he was able to bring the weight down to 18 ounces. His clubs sold for $1.50 each. Edward Van Wyck eventually passed on the club making mantle to Harry Lind in the 1920s, although he continued making clubs for a select few customers until 1942. Here is a drawing by IJA Founder Art Jennings showing the basic construction of Van Wyck’s clubs.
I have quite a number of Van Wyck clubs in my collection. Here are two early ones from the late 1890s.
Here are some of the other Van Wycks I have in my collection.
The next great maker of clubs was Harry Lind, of Jamestown, New York (USA).
Harry Lind started his juggling career in 1900 and retired in 1919. Van Wyck sold Harry some of his woodworking equipment at that time and Lind went into production making what would be the world’s finest juggling clubs for the next 30 years. Like Van Wyck, Lind made his wooden clubs with a three part construction. However, he improved on Van Wyck’s design by cutting the body lengthwise and then wedging the handle in between the two halves when they were joined. They were wrapped in gluey linen like Van Wyck’s and the handles were wrapped in cord to strengthen the attachment point. Lind had more woodworking experience than Van Wyck, so his clubs were stronger, lighter, and more uniform. Lind’s clubs weighed as little as 11 ounces.
Here is a drawing by Art Jennings showing the process of manufacturing Lind’s clubs.
Here are pictures are some of the many Lind clubs in the Historical Juggling Props Exhibit.
It should be noted that the Bobby May model of Harry Lind club was the first to have a flattened knob. This was so Bobby could better do chin rolls.
You can learn more about both Van Wyck and Lind by clicking here.
Similar wooden clubs were made by William “Doc” Crosby, the Jackson Brothers of Missouri, and Jack Miller of Missouri. Below is a Jack Miller club.
Both Van Wyck and Lind made “basket clubs”, hollow clubs with a wicker or basket weave body. Some of these were huge, as seen above. These had a metal rod going from the wooden handle to the opposite end. Here are some pictures showing these clubs and how they were designed.
Here are two pictures of Van Wyck and Lind with these clubs.
Other basket clubs of a normal size were also made in the early 1900s. An advertisement from 1921 in Rupert Ingalese’s book “Juggling” lists baskets clubs as “very useful for ladies and for juggling more than three. Very light.” Such basket clubs were used by John Breen, the first juggler to perform six clubs on stage. Breen was also able to achieve up to 70 catches with seven basket clubs in practice. He died in 1912 at the age of 21.
Here is a picture of a more modern club similar to these smaller basket clubs. The body portion of the club is completely hollow.
One idea for juggling clubs that never quite caught on were upholstered clubs. The earliest known clubs of this type were made by Arthur Mann (Karl Arthur Maus) in the 1940s. These clubs featured a dowel running throughout and a painted fabric body stuffed with horse hair. These clubs also featured a metal end cap, a metal band where the body connected to the handle, and a cork knob. Below are the only three such clubs known to still exist, which belonged to Roger Montandon. They are now in the Historical Juggling Props Exhibit. Please note that these are much more “European” in shape than previous clubs and are quite close to the standard multi-piece clubs that most jugglers use today, which consist of a dowel, softer body, and separate knob and end cap. They do, however, lack the cushioned handle and foam knob and end cap usually associated with modern multi-piece clubs. These are a very important predecessor to modern clubs, however.
Upholstered clubs weren’t successful in the 1940s, but they were given another chance fifty years later. In the early 1990s, Freaks Unlimited from the UK put out the Jester Club, a club / beanbag hybrid. Only 100 were ever made. Like the Arthur Mann clubs before them, they didn’t catch on with the juggling community. I’ve not been able to locate any existing examples of these, but below is a picture of them.
In future articles, I’ll examine skeleton clubs, cork clubs, fiberglass clubs, hollow plastic clubs, plastic toy bowling pin clubs, foam clubs, multi-piece clubs, and one of a kind clubs.