Terracotta Angel, c.1896
Watts Chapel, England
Photo ©: Jeff Saward/Labyrinthos
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The Origins of Mirror & Wooden Panel Mazes
Plan of Castan’s mirror maze given in the 1895 USA patent
Reprinted from Caerdroia 37 -
(revised and updated, April 2012)
Early mirror mazes:
Top left -
Lower left -
Top middle -
Photos: Labyrinthos Archive
Pillars and mirrors of the Petrin mirror maze, Prague, Czech Republic
During the current revival of popularity of mazes, that has taken place since the 1970’s, two important categories of mazes, namely those constructed from mirrors and wooden fence panels, have figured prominently. Numerous examples, of both types, have been constructed at premier tourist attractions worldwide and have proved particularly popular with visitors. However, despite their apparent novelty, both of these maze forms have their commercial origins during a previous episode of enthusiasm for mazes, in this case during the late 19th century.
The potential for large full-
While such “Hall of Mirrors,” often creating grotesque reflections of the visitor, have long been a familiar fairground attraction, it would seem that the first formal attempt to create a specific arrangement of mirrors designed to form a maze in the strict sense, can be attributed to Gustav Castan of Berlin, Germany. With his brother Louis, Castan was owner of the Panopticon attraction in Berlin, first opened in 1873, and was granted a patent for a mirror maze in France in September 1888. This patent, subsequently also granted in Belgium in the same year, in England in 1889 and in the USA in 1895, contains both a description of the material construction and also plans of the resulting maze.(3) In the words of Castan’s patent:
…The primary object of my invention is to provide such an arrangement of mirrors in a room or inclosure as shall cause them, by their reflection of objects suitably located with relation to the mirrors, to present to the vision of a person in the apartment the illusion of a labyrinthian device composed of seemingly endless passages, which appear to him to be freely traversable until he is stopped in his course by an obstructing mirror, from which long passages seem to extend to the right and to the left.
The specifications that follow describe how mirrors are to be placed at precise 60-
It has long been assumed that the first mirror maze to be constructed was the example created in Prague, Czech Republic, in a pavilion in the grounds of the Jubilee Exhibition held in 1891. The maze was subsequently moved to Petrin Hill in Prague, where it survives to this day housed in a curious wooden building, said to imitate part of the fortress at Vyšehrad, alongside the Petrin Tower, a small-
However, a photograph exists of a mirror maze labelled “The Labyrinth of Pillars” at the “Palace of the Sultan in Constantinople (modern-
However, it would appear that Gustav Castan was not the only designer of mirror mazes active at this time. Although Castan was granted a patent for his design in the USA in September 1895, his application for that patent was originally filed in January 1891. In the interim, Gustav von Prittwitz Palm, who describes himself as “a subject of the Emperor of Austria-
Plan of Palm’s mirror maze in his
May 1893 USA patent
Clearly he was familiar with Castan’s earlier installations in Europe, as he refers in his May 1893 patent to installations “well-
With an eye on a wider market than the major national exhibitions that were popular at the time, he seems to have coined the term “Crystal Maze” for his creations, as evidenced by an announcement in the New York Times for the opening of a maze by this name as a public attraction at 38th Street and Broadway in New York on April 19, 1893.(10) Naming von Prittwitz Palm as the inventor, this may well have been the first maze installed by Palm, after his patents had been filed, but a few months before they were actually granted. Subsequent coverage of vandalism to four of the mirrors in the maze the following month, quotes Adolph Seeman, the manager of the maze as stating that “the mirrors here cost $25,000 and we can’t afford to have them spoiled.”(12) This high figure would seem to have been quoted for ‘insurance purposes,’ as another “Crystal Maze” opened on May 14, 1893, at Fairmount Park in Kansas City, Missouri, was built at a cost of $5,000.(13) Allowing for inflation over the past 115 years, that’s still the equivalent of around $100,000 dollars today. Clearly then, as now, a mirror maze was an expensive installation!
A handbill for a “Crystal Maze” in Philadelphia, USA, once again proclaims “Von Prittwitz Palm, Inventor and Patentee.”(14) Unfortunately undated, but presumably from the mid to late 1890’s, it gives numerous details of the maze -
Indeed, the success of Palm’s Crystal Mazes can be judged by the numerous examples that appear in early postcards, produced between c.1900 and the time of the First World War, especially at fairgrounds, coastal resorts and other attractions, in the USA, Canada and in Britain.(15) Unfortunately these photographs normally just show the frontage, not the interiors of the mazes. They were often built alongside roller coasters, water chutes, photograph booths and other sideshows, and were presumably constructed under licence from Palm’s design, to judge from the similarity of size and consistency of being named “Crystal Maze” -
Undoubtedly there may have been other designers and builders of mirror mazes working during this time, whose details still lie buried in archived documents from the events and attractions concerned, and some mazes that simply plundered their ideas, regardless of the patents.
Mirror mazes continued to be popular between the World Wars, and indeed after, especially at World Fairs, exhibitions and tourist attractions and simple versions, essentially little more than banks of distorting mirrors installed on trailers, were a common feature at travelling funfairs both in the USA and Europe. In recent years they have undergone something of a renaissance, with the splendid examples created by Adrian Fisher pushing the boundaries of the effects can be created by combining mirrors with modern technology.(16) Indeed, a number of other builders of mirror mazes are once again actively in competition, especially in the USA, a situation reflecting the time just over a century ago when this art form was first developed.
Crystal Maze handbill
Ladies stroll past the “Mystic Moorish Maze” at Rocky Point, Rhode Island, USA, on a postcard from c.1908
Above the entrance is a sign that promises “Many Merry Moments”
1. Kern, Hermann. Through the Labyrinth. New York & London, Prestel, 2000, p.187.
2. Pendergrast, Mark. Mirror Mirror: A History of the Human Love Affair with Reflection. New York,: Basic Books, 2003.
3. Patented in France, September 8, 1888, No.192868; in Belgium, September 12, 1888, No.83240; in England, Ocotober 21, 1889, No.16593 and in the USA, September 3, 1895, (filed January 6, 1891) No. 545678. The author has so far been unable to trace any earlier (German?) patent for Castan’s invention.
4. On a stereo viewer card, photograph by George Barker, 1889, in the Labyrinthos Archive. Possibly this was situated in the Şale Pavillion at the Yıldız Palace in Istanbul, extended in 1889 for Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany, in which case the Castan connection becomes more likely.
5. “Führer durch Castan’s Panopticum” brochure in the Labyrinthos Archive. Specifically for the exhibit at Friedrichstr. 165, Berlin, the brochure is undated as such, but has a date of 10 April, 1896 written on the cover (presumably the date that the original owner attended). The mirror maze, “Castan’s Irrgarten,” is detailed on pages 28-
6. “Attractions for Moorish Palace” Chicago Tribune, March 21, 1893. The article names Gustav Castan as the creator and also suggests that the mirror maze was fabricated in Berlin and then shipped to Chicago.
7. On a stereo viewer card, photograph by George Barker, 1893, in the Labyrinthos Archive.
8. “Its Fair Now Open” Chicago Tribune, January 2, 1894.
10. Patents granted by the United States Patent Office: No.498524, May 30, 1893 & No.507159, October 24, 1893.
11. “A New Entertainment – Something about the new Crystal Maze that is to astonish us” New York Times, April 16, 1893, p.13.
12. “Scratches on the Mirrors” New York Times, May 13, 1893, p.9.
13. Ulichne, John M. & Debra Topi. The Illustrated History of Fairmount Park
online at www.oldfairmountpark.com/1893.html
14. “Have You Seen the Crystal Maze?” handbill in the Labyrinthos Archive.
15. Examples in the Labyrinthos Archive include postcards of “Crystal Mazes” at Canobie Lake Park, Salem, New Hampshire (opened 1902) and Asbury Park, New Jersey (c.1900), in the USA; Dominion Park, Montreal (c.1907) in Canada and at the Bradford Exhibition (1904) and on Skegness Seafront (c.1907) in England.
16. Fisher, Adrian. “The Renaissance of Mirror Mazes” Caerdroia 37 (2008), p.13-
Merlin’s Magical Maze
Newquay, England -
Photo: Jeff Saward/Labyrinthos
Another possibility, and therefore the probable location of the first mirror maze, is in the Castan brother’s Panopticon in Berlin, which opened up at a new venue on the premises of the Pschorr brewery on Friedrichstrasse in 1888, the same year that their patent for the mirror maze concept was filed and granted. A guide book to the Panopticon describes a mirror maze on the premises in flamboyant style and detail, including the kaleidoscopic chamber, but omits to mention when it was first installed.(5)
What is certain is that a number of similar mirror mazes were soon built, and apparently to Castan’s specification. One that is certainly Castan’s work was installed on Congress St., Chicago, USA, as an attraction at the World’s Fair held in Chicago during 1893.(6) A photo of the interior of “The Mystic Labyrinth” shows almost identical pillars and ornament to the Constantinople example.(7) A “Mystic Moorish Maze” installed at the California Midwinter International Exposition, opened in Golden Gate Park, San Francisco, on January 24th 1894, was probably the same maze, shipped from Chicago after the 1893 fair ended.(8) The “Mystic Maze” at the 1895 Atlanta Exposition also appears to have been very similar. Another impressive example, constructed from 90 full-
Handbill for the Mystic Labyrinth mirror maze at the Chicago 1893 World’s Fair
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