History of the Ouija

In the year 1848, something unusual happened in Hydesville, New York.
Two sisters, Kate and Margaret Fox, contacted the spirit of a dead
peddler, became instant celebrities and sparked a national obsession
that spread all across the United States and Europe. It was the birth
of modern Spiritualism.

The whole world it seemed, was ripe for communication with the
dead. Spiritualist churches sprang up everywhere and persons with the
special gift or “pipeline” to the “other side” were in great demand.
These unique individuals, designated “mediums” because they acted as
intermediaries between spirits and humans, invented a variety of
interesting ways to communicate with the spirit world. Table turning
(tilting) was one of these. The medium and attending sitters would rest
their fingers lightly on a table and wait for spiritual contact. Soon
the table would tilt and move and knock on the floor in a code to
represent the different letters of the alphabet. Entire messages from
the spirits could be spelled out in this way.

Another less noisy technique was a form of spirit writing employing a
small basket with a pencil attached to one end. The medium simply had
to touch the basket, establish contact, and the spirit would take over,
writing the message from the Great Beyond. The pencil basket quickly
evolved into the more sophisticated planchette,
a small heart shaped table with two rotating casters underneath. A
pencil at the apex formed the third leg. Legend has it that the
inventor was M. Planchette a French medium, but this is doubtful
considering the fact that no information on such a person exists and
that the word “planchette” in French means “little plank.”


The problem with table turning was that it took far too long to spell
out messages. Sitters became bored when the novelty of a rocking table
wore off and the chore of interpreting knocks began. Planchette writing
was often difficult if not impossible to read. Just keeping the thing
centered on the paper long enough to get a decipherable message was
often a challenge. Consequently, many mediums simply dispensed with the
spiritual apparatus altogether, preferring to transmit from the spirit
world mentally in an altered state of consciousness called “trance.”
Others eliminated the planchette but kept the pencil, finding the hand
a more precise and less troublesome writing instrument. But
there were also those who felt that utilizing the right equipment was
of paramount  importance if they were going to contact the spirit world
properly. These resourceful individuals built interesting new
alphanumeric gadgets (left), and bizarre looking table and pulley contraptions with moving needles and letter wheels (right).
Thus was born the “talking board” or “talking table” depending on your
perspective. It is clear that these early machines suffered from
over-engineering if not lack of imagination. Called dial plate talking boards,  a few made it to the marketplace where they appeared under a variety of names and incarnations. 

By the 1880’s, the planchette was a popular parlor game
actively marketed by many US and European toy companies. The dial plate
talking boards were virtually ignored. This was probably because
planchettes were easier to make and could be sold inexpensively as
novelties. Anyway, an interesting compromise was just around the
corner. Three enterprising Americans: E.C. Reiche, Elijah Bond, and
Charles Kennard came up with a concept that would bring it all
together.
Borrowing from the archetype of the earlier dial plate talking boards,
they created an all new alphanumeric design. They spread the letters of
the alphabet in twin arcs across the middle of the board. Below the
letters were the numbers one to ten. In the corners were “YES” and
“NO.” They used a planchette like table (shaped more like a paddle) but
instead of casters, used padded wooden pegs to permit a smooth glide
over the surface of the board. All you had to do was connect to the
spirit world
and let the planchette move from letter to letter and spell out a
message. According to some sources, Charles Kennard called the new
board Ouija (pronounced ‘wE-ja) after the Egyptian word for good luck.
Ouija is not really Egyptian for good luck, but since the board
reportedly told him it was during a session, the name stuck. He
subsequently founded Kennard Novelty Company with borrowed money and in
1890 began producing the first ever commercial line of Ouija boards.
His advertisements in local
periodicals read:

OUIJA
A WONDERFUL TALKING BOARD

Interesting and mysterious; surpasses in its results second sight,
mind reading, clairvoyance; will give intelligent answer to any
question. Proven at patent office before patent was allowed. Price
$1.50. All first-class toy, dry goods, and stationary stores. W. S.
Carr & Co., 83 Pearl street; New England News Co., 14 Franklin
street; H. Partridge & Co., Hanover and Washington streets; R.
Schwarz, 458 Washington street: R.H. White & Co.; Houghton
& Dutton.

Hollis St. Theatre program, November 7, 1891, Boston, Mass.

Unfortunately for him, Charles Kennard was not long for
the Ouija business. A hostile takeover in 1892 by his financial backers
forced him out of the company. Kennard’s former shop foreman, William
Fuld became the new owner and with that single stroke of fate came to
be the one that history would remember as the father of the Ouija
board.

William Fuld changed the name of the firm to Ouija Novelty
Company and with his brother and business partner Isaac, began
manufacturing Ouija boards in record numbers. Isaac was subsequently
fired from the company for alleged bookkeeping misdeeds, and the Ouija
Novelty Company became finally the William Fuld Company. Isaac went on
to produce and sell Ouija facsimiles called Oriole talking boards,
along with pool and smoking tables out of his home. William went
on to become the most successful Ouija manufacturer of his time,
selling millions of Ouija boards, toys and other games. In addition to
his toy business, he kept a job as a US customs inspector and later in
life became a member of Baltimore’s General Assembly.

One of William Fuld’s first public relations gimmicks, as
master of his new company, was to reinvent the history of the Ouija
board. He said that he himself had invented the board and that the name
Ouija was a fusion of the French word “oui” for yes, and the German
“ja” for yes. He also made other unlikely claims. Whether he took
himself seriously is a matter lost to history. In all likelihood he
simply thought apocryphal tales were a fun way to sell Ouija
boards and to poke fun at a gullible press.

Almost from the beginning, William Fuld’s Ouija board
suffered fierce competition from other toy makers. Everyone wanted to
make a variation of the Wonderful Talking Board. Ouija imitations with
names like “The Wireless Messenger” and “I Do Psycho Ideograph,”
flooded the market. Some companies, like J.M. Simmons and Morton E.
Converse & Son even used the Ouija name and the identical board
layout. Fuld responded aggressively with lawsuits and by marketing a
second, less expensive talking board, the Mystifying Oracle.

For thirty-five years William Fuld ran the company through
good times and bad. In February 1927, he climbed to the roof of his
Harford Street factory in Baltimore to supervise the replacement of a
flagpole. A support post that he was holding gave way and he fell
backwards to his death. Several eyewitnesses testified that it was
nothing more than a tragic accident but rumor mongers eager to create a
sensation suggested that William was despondent and had
actually committed suicide.

After
his death, William’s children took over and developed many interesting
Ouija versions of their own. In 1966, they retired and sold the
business to Parker Brothers. Parker Brothers continued to produce an
accurate Fuld replica and briefly even made a Deluxe Wooden Edition
Ouija. They own all trademarks and patents to this day. In early 1999,
Parker Brothers stopped manufacturing the classic Fuld Ouija board and
switched to a smaller less detailed glow in the dark
version. Gone is the faux bird’s eye maple lithograph and gone is the
name William Fuld. Although some of us may morn its passing, we must
remember the Parker Brothers slogan: “It’s only a game – isn’t it?”


Today, as in the past, there are other companies who produce
interesting variants of the Ouija board. Prevailing designs largely
reflect current trends in New Age sentiment and manufacturers make
every attempt to avoid any negative connotations. Some of these designs
are simple letter boards, while others incorporate complex astrological
and Tarot symbolism. With a few exceptions, manufacturing costs usually
limit these boards to the folding cardboard
variety.

See also: Ancient Ouija Boards: Fact or Fiction?

Copyright 1996-2000 Museum of Talking Boards All Rights Reserved. Reprinted here by permission of the author.

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