Mission impossible: Capturing imaginations with Jeff Scanlan's Impossible Bottles

Sunday, March 6, 2005 Scanlan with his bottles

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Saturday. A summer afternoon. Nearly three years ago. Jeff Scanlan, better known as America’s Sports Magician, is on his seventh try to do the impossible: insert a brand-new deck of playing cards, still sealed and wrapped in cellophane, into an ordinary, small-mouthed glass juice bottle. When the impossible finally becomes possible, Scanlan lifts the bottle to see the unwrinkled deck of cards tucked snugly inside. He gently shakes the bottle, nods his head and sits back. “Not bad,” he says. “Not bad at all.”

And with his success, Scanlan joins an elite group of puzzle-makers numbering fewer than a dozen in the entire United States. As Scanlan notes, their jaw-dropping handiwork is inspired by Harry Eng, the grandmaster of Impossible Bottle making who died in June 1996.

In Case of Emergency

In Case of Emergency

“I never met Harry,” says Scanlan “But as strange as it may sound, I do feel like I know what he was like, especially when it comes to making bottles. With every new bottle, I always find myself thinking, ‘What would Harry have done?’”

Personalized message or greeting

Today, Scanlan creates a wide variety of Impossible Bottles. His juice bottles, crystal decanters and small salsa jars contain everything from playing cards and padlocks to heavy bolts and yellow tennis balls.

Multi item Bottle

Multi item Bottle

“I make Impossible Bottles because it’s challenging,” Scanlan says. The 39-year-old Chicago magician originally made the bottles to send to magic clients with whom he had done a lot of business. But because each Impossible Bottle also can include a personalized message or greeting, the demand for Impossible Bottles as gifts and unique conversation pieces has grown considerably. Everyone from the Major League Baseball Commissioner to Tony Snow of Fox News to Andy Lansing, President of Levy Restaurants, showcases one of Jeff’s Impossible Bottles on their desks or bookshelves.

Impossible Bottles as an art form

Baseball in Salsa Jar

Baseball in Salsa Jar

Scanlan, who earlier in life would amuse himself by solving Jig Saw puzzles, makes the impossible possible as America’s Sports Magician for trade shows, corporate parties, sporting events and private get-togethers. His work takes him throughout the country, but his thoughts are never very far from his passion. “Harry made over 600 bottles in his lifetime,” he says. “He created several bottles that no one has ever duplicated. Their secret remains a mystery.”

For his own work, Scanlan heightens the stakes with each new Impossible Bottle. He’s currently tackling the most challenging Impossible Bottle of his career – the multi-item gallon jug. Besides a still-wrapped deck of playing cards, each jug contains a still-wrapped pack of cigarettes, a 2-pack of Lava soap, a tennis ball, a golf tee holder featuring 12 white tees, and a boy’s size 1 gym shoe.

“There’s more to Impossible Bottles than I ever expected,” Scanlan says. “I’m at a point now where I’m looking at Impossible Bottles as an art form – and trying to pay respect to Harry Eng’s legacy.”

About the authors

Michael Burke's articles, book reviews and social commentary appear at He can be reached at

Jim Newberry has been working as a professional photographer since 1986. His studio is located in Bucktown, Chicago. He can be contacted via his website

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