As humans, we have an incredible fascination with death and what lies beyond the veil, has led us to create many tools or techniques to try and reach the other side. The Ouija board is perhaps one of the most infamous creations that aims to bridge our world and the one of the spirits, where we welcome portals to open and commune with others on the other side. The planchette board, with its numbers, letters and only a few words inscribed on its surface, has been used to traverse the realm between the living and the dead since the Renaissance period.
But, where did it come from? Who developed this board and how does it even work? We uncover the history of the Ouija board and how to use this fascinating tool.
How Does A Ouija Board Work?
This magical, mysterious talking board was and still is a flat board with the alphabet arranged in two semi-circles. The letters are arranged above numbers, going from zero to nine. Additionally, on the board, in the uppermost corners, are the words yes and no, and goodbye at the bottom. The board also has a device used to maneuver it; it is called a planchette, shaped like a tear-drop and a window in its body. Contrary to the first versions of the Ouija board, which had a wooden board, the modern boards are made of cardboard, and the planchettes are plastic.
How did it work? The idea was simple; two, three, or even more people sat around the board with their fingertips on the planchette. They would then pose a question and watch the planchette move from one letter to another, spelling out the answer.
The Patent Story
How it was proven to work before it was patented is an exciting story. At the patent office in Washington in the 19th Century, it was revealed how the board came to be in researcher Robert Murch’s interviews with descendants of those who founded the Ouija board. The founder of the Ouija board, Elijah Bond, knew they could only get a patent if they could prove that the Ouija board worked. So at the office, the chief patent officer wanted a demonstration.
The officer wanted to see if the board could spell out his name accurately (since none of them knew his last name) and only then would he allow the application to go on. The gentlemen sat down, got in communion with the spirits, and the planchette correctly spelled out the officer’s last name. The patent officer, shocked and shaken, awarded the patent for a new game or toy.
According to Robert Murch, it is still unclear whether Elijah Bond, a patent attorney, knew the officer’s name or if it was indeed the work of the mystical spirits. Either way, that was how the name Ouija became patented.
The Need for the Ouija Board
In the early 19th Century, Americans became obsessed with spiritualism. In 1848 in New York, the Fox sisters made spiritualism very prominent in the US. These sisters claimed they received messages from spirits who answered their questions by rapping on the walls. The mainstream media then broadcasted stories of the Fox sisters and other spiritualists, which helped spread spiritualism. By the second half of the Century, this belief had attracted millions. The upside to it was that it did not clash with Christianity; therefore, it worked well for many Americans. It was acceptable to contact séances and still go to church. People consulted séances through table-turning parties where participants placed hands on a small table and watched it begin to shake, declaring that they were not moving it, or through automatic writings.
Spiritualism provided solace for the Americans at that time when there were a lot of deaths due to war, childbirth, and diseases. Life was very fleeting and uncertain. Even the wife of President Lincoln, Mary Todd Lincoln, conducted séances in the White House after losing her son to a fever. Those desperate to connect with their loved ones who went to the Civil War and never returned also conducted séances.
During this time, when spiritualism was growing in American culture, people became very agitated and tired when it took a long to get messages from the spirits. The Fox sisters had mentioned that the spirits would rap on the wall; however, calling out a letter and waiting for that knock became boring. Can you imagine waiting for the spirits to rap a whole sentence or word on the wall? How long would it take to do that? People had made communication with others miles away possible, so why had they not yet made it easier to communicate with the spirits?
The Rise of The Ouija Board
The fledgling Associated Press reported a new phenomenon of talking boards in Ohio, with an article describing the device with letters, numbers, and a planchette in the spiritualists’ camps. Four years after, Charles Kennard’s Novelty Company acted on it and made it a success. Interestingly, neither Charles nor the other four investors were spiritualists; they were all businessmen who had just identified the gap and decided to make the most out of it. This company’s strategy in marketing the board really worked for them; they said very little about the talking board, and the lesser they said, the more mysterious it seemed, which attracted more sales.
The Origin of the Name Ouija
Even with the creation of this talking board by Kennard Novelty Company, there was not yet a name for the board, and the story of how the name came to be is also intriguing. Contrary to the belief that the name Ouija is a combination of the French word “oui,” meaning yes, and the German word “ja,” meaning yes as well, the word was from Elijah Bond’s sister-in-law. According to Robert Murch’s research, from the letters of the Ouija founders, Bond referred to Helen Peters, his sister-in-law, as a powerful medium. It was Helen who came up with the famous name that we recognize today. They sat around the table and asked the talking board what they should name. The name that came was Ouija, and on asking the meaning, the board responded, “good luck.”. Helen Peters acknowledged that the locket she was wearing had a picture of a woman named Ouija above her head. Others think the picture of the woman in the locket was that of a famous women’s rights activist and author Helen admires. The activist’s name was Ouida, and there is a possibility that Ouija was a misread.
The Initial Success of the Ouija Board
The production of the first Ouija talking board in 1890 was also not something weird, and it indeed sold well; in only two years, the company had significantly expanded from one factory in Baltimore to 7 companies; one in London, two in Baltimore, two in Chicago and two in New York. However, in 1893, Elijah Bond and Charles Kennard got out of the business, and William Fuld, who started as a stockholder and an employee, took over the business. Despite his obituary later on claiming that he was the inventor of the board, Fuld himself never claimed he was. William Fuld licensed exclusive rights to make the board in 1898 with the blessing of one of the remaining original investors and significant shareholders, Col. Washington Bowie. The years after saw very rapid and significant growth for Fuld, but on the other end, some people who had been on the board from the beginning were frustrated over the squabbling over who invented the board.
Additionally, there were a lot of inventions and failures of rival talking boards. Finally, in 1919, for $1, Fuld got all the remaining Ouija business interest from Col. Washington Bowie. William Fuld built a factory after the Ouija board told him to; unfortunately, Fuld died in 1927 in the same factory after falling from the roof.
The marketing of the Ouija talking board featured it as family entertainment and a mystical oracle. Therefore, it was also an element of fun for people to experience the joy and excitement that is out of this world. Ergo, it was not limited to spiritualists only; it appealed to those in various professions, academia, and of different ages. Funny enough, the talking board, designed to function well in communicating with spirits, was disliked by spirit mediums because they felt that their jobs would be deemed redundant.
According to Robert Murch, the need for people to believe there was something powerful out there drove people to believe in the Ouija board because it allowed them to believe there was something powerful. This need for belief made the Ouija board gain so much popularity in uncertain times when people ran to cheap oracles to find answers to their many questions. The surge was exceptionally high during the Jazz Age, prohibition, and WWI. An illustrator, Norman Rockwell 1920, depicted domesticity by an illustration of a woman and a man communing with the spirits with an Ouija board on their knees. Other than these uncertain times, the popularity of the Ouija Oracle board grew during the Great Depression. In five months, a department store sold 50,000 boards. So much so that Fuld opened more factories to curb the demands.
In 1966, the Fuld Company, which had taken over from Kennard Novelty Company, sold the game to the Parker Brothers. A year after this sale, the Parker brothers sold 2 million boards. This sale was more than what other board games like Monopoly had made. In 1967, there were race riots in Milwaukee, Detroit, Newark, and Minneapolis, more American troops in Vietnam, and counter-culture San Francisco Summer of Love.
Strange Stories Surrounding Oujia Boards
There were some strange tales about the Ouija boards in the newspapers and here are some that made headlines over the years:
- In 1920, a gambler was mysteriously murdered in New York, and while the police were trying to solve the case, there were “crime solvers” who were using the Ouija board to find clues regarding the case. This hindered the police, who could not do their work correctly without these “crime solvers” interfering.
- The following year, a woman in Chicago claimed that the board had told her to leave her mother’s dead body in the living room for 15 days and later bury it in the backyard. The woman was sent to a psychiatric hospital to explain to the doctors that she was not a manic patient.
- In 1958, a woman, Helen Dow Peck, in Connecticut who had an Ouija board will that stated her two former servants would have $1000 only while a spirit, John Gale Forbes, whom he had contacted through the Ouija board, got $152,000.
- In 1930, two women in Buffalo, New York, were encouraged by Ouija board messages to murder another woman.
- A 23-year-old from New Jersey who worked as an attendant in the gas station in 1941 said the Ouija board told him to join the Army, so he did.
All these incidents did not make people change their minds about still using the Ouija boards; however, all this changed in 1973 with the release of the movie The Exorcist. It was supposedly based on a true story; the 12-year-old girl played the Ouija board and was possessed by a demon afterward. The board’s depiction in various films before the Exorcist was kind of a joke, but with the Exorcist, everything changed, and it brought fear into the hearts of many. Many horror writers began to use it in scary movies, and the Ouija board was now seen as a way for some to communicate with malevolent spirits or demons. It became associated as a tool of evil, and people who used them were playing with powers that they should not be.
The Logic: A Scientist’s Explanation
For years, people have wanted to know how the Ouija boards work, and scientists say that the boards are neither powered by demons nor spirits, but the ideomotor effect that examined the automatic movements of the muscle that occur without a conscious will. A report published in 1852 by William Benjamin Carpenter, a physiologist, and physician, stated this and it was confirmed by physicist Michael Faraday in 1853. Faraday even did a series of experiments to understand the table’s movement in table-turning and discovered that the table movements resulted from the ideomotor actions of the people who had their hands on the table. This was very convincing as many scientists explained this effect in connecting to the Ouija board over the years.
What Can You Learn From a Ouija Board?
Scientists might have persuaded some to believe that there is no mystery in the Ouija boards; however, this does not mean that those who believe that the spirits are behind the working of the Ouija board are wrong. Everyone is entitled to their own beliefs and opinions, and if it works for you, it does not matter if it does not make sense to others. This iconic tool continues to make us curious about the realm beyond ours and will no doubt be around for years to come.
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