Terracotta Angel, c.1896
Watts Chapel, England

 Photo ©: Jeff Saward/Labyrinthos



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The Origins of Mirror & Wooden Panel Mazes

Jeff Saward

Plan of Castan’s mirror maze given in the 1895 USA patent

Reprinted from Caerdroia 37 - 2008 - pp.4-12

(revised and updated, April 2012)

Early mirror mazes:

Top left - Constantinople, 1889

Lower left - Chicago, 1893

Top middle - Atlanta 1895

Right- Glacier Gardens, Lucerne, 1899


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-length mirrors to produce multiple reflections and trick the perception of those in front of them has been appreciated since they first became available during the 17th. century. Indeed, even before this period, Leonardo da Vinci sketched an octagonal chamber of mirrors in which a visitor could see all sides of their body, infinitely reflected, even thought the technology for creating such mirrors did not exist in Leonardo’s time.(1) The famous “Galerie des Glaces” – the Hall of Mirrors – created by Louis XIV at the Palace of Versailles, France, in 1678, was not a maze as such, although a “House of Mirrors” supposedly constructed in 1651 by Peter Stuyvesant in the newly founded town of New Amsterdam (New York, USA) was probably the first built as an attraction, with an admission fee of one Dutch Guilder.(2)

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-degree angles (or multiples thereof) around one or more sides of equilateral triangles that form various rhombic and hexagonal arrangements, to produce different reflective effects. Of particular interest are his suggestions that one section of the maze is to be decorated with pillars (marked ‘r’ on his plan of the design) to produce an effect “in imitation of the Lion Court of the Alhambra” (area L on the plan), and in another section (area P) the placing of palms and exotic plants around pillars (r) at the corners of the compartment, combined with a painted representation of the entrance to a Moorish temple placed on the back wall (H), will through multiple reflection give the impression of a mosque surrounded by a tropical garden. These features are found in some of the earliest photographs of mirror mazes, leading one to suppose that Castan’s patented design was indeed employed in their construction. He also gave plans for an ingenious kaleidoscopic chamber appended to his maze (area K), on a raised level, with entrance and exit via spiral staircases (w). A small group of people entering this section would appear to the visitors to be “an immense crowd.”

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-scale version of the Eiffel Tower in Paris. The maze itself is of a very simple design, quite unlike the floor plan specified in Casten’s patent, with only basic ornamentation around the mirror frames. The Petrin mirror maze has recently been extensively restored and is without doubt the oldest surviving mirror maze.

However, a photograph exists of a mirror maze labelled “The Labyrinth of Pillars” at the “Palace of the Sultan in Constantinople (modern-day Istanbul, Turkey), that is dated 1889.(4) Two years earlier than the example in Prague, and only a year after the patent was granted, this was surely modelled on Castan’s design. The photograph, originally published on a stereo viewer card, is sufficiently detailed to show the mirrors with pillars placed at their intersections and ornate decoration, reflected many times to produce the illusions that Castan describes in his patent. Where exactly this mirror maze was installed, and how long it stood for, is currently unclear.

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-Hungary, residing in New York,” filed several patents for mirror mazes between November 1892 and September 1893, resulting in two patents being granted by the United States Patent Office in May and October of 1893.(10) Although not dissimilar to Castan’s design, Palm utilises mirrors arranged in combinations of 45, 60 and 120 degrees to create specific effects, including the illusion of being able to see other visitors to the maze, but not yourself, in specific mirrors.

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-known under the name of mirror mazes” (and goes on to say) “…this invention belongs to the same class. By it new effects are obtained.” The patent gives a plan of his mirror maze and an ingenious arrangement whereby an object or “attraction” placed at a point (O) near the exit (E) can be glimpsed six times during the process of navigating the maze, apparently just ahead, but not elsewhere in the maze. His October 1893 patent also goes into great detail of construction methods and techniques for prefabricating sections of the maze for easy installation and transportation.

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 - it occupied a space 20 x 60 feet, had 150 feet of actual passageways, 31 mirrors, 35 pillars and 18 electric lights to illuminate it. It also describes the maze as an “entirely new and popular amusement, being open every afternoon as well as each evening, has speedily become a favorite diversion for Ladies and Children (who can visit the Crystal Maze without escort).” Apparently “a visit to Philadelphia is not complete without having seen the Crystal Maze” and for an admission fee of 10 cents, surely plenty did visit this wonderfully marketed attraction, and others that bear his hallmark.

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” - possibly one of the first examples of successful maze-marketing. However,  one might imagine that a healthy rivalry existed between Castan and Palm, as an example named the “Egyptian Labyrinth” built at Brandywine Springs, Wilmington, Delaware in 1903 and the “Mystic Moorish Maze” at Rocky Point, Rhode Island, on a postcard from c.1908, hint at Castan as the designer, in light of his patent specifications and apparent regular usage of Mystical and Moorish themes in the titles of his installations.

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

Labyrinthos Archive

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”

Next Page - Back to Caerdroia Archive

Notes:

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 28-30.

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.

9. “Orient-Labyrinth beim Gletschergarten” brochure, in the Labyrinthos Archive.

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.13-16. Online version here

Read Part 2 - Wooden Panel Mazes - here

Merlin’s Magical Maze
Newquay, England - a modern wooden panel maze

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-length mirrors, was created for the Swiss National Exhibition in Geneva in 1896. Subsequently moved and re-installed in 1899 at the Gletschergarten (Glacier Garden) in Lucerne, Switzerland, it survives to this day in excellent condition. Described in a 1903 brochure as the “Orient Labyrinth,”(9) and built in “Moorish style after the model of the Alhambra Palace at Granada,” it once again bears the distinctive design elements of Castan’s design, including the kaleidoscopic chamber described in his patent.

Handbill for  the Mystic Labyrinth mirror maze at the Chicago 1893 World’s Fair

Labyrinthos Archive