In February 1891, advertisements began circulating in North America for ‘Ouija, the Wonderful Talking Board’. It promised to answer questions about ‘the past, present and future’ by providing a link ‘between the known and unknown, the material and immaterial.’
The spiritualism craze was well and truly underway by the late 19th century, and the Ouija board emerged as one of the most famous items associated with the paranormal.
Feared by some and mocked by others, the Ouija board has a fascinating history and is still used and celebrated by its cult following to this day.
A timely invention
Spiritualism had been popular in Europe for years when the trend spread to North America in the mid-19th century. Far from being widely feared, spiritualist practices were regarded as dark parlour games, with advocates including President Lincoln’s wife Mary, who held séances in the White House after their 11-year-old son died of a fever in 1862.
In late 19th-century North America, the sorrowful aftermath of the American Civil War was keenly felt. More widely, life expectancy hovered at around 50 and childhood mortality remained high. The result was a generation who were desperate to connect with their lost friends and relatives, which made for fertile ground for spiritualism – and the opportunity to commune with the dead – to fully take hold.
The first patented talking board
The emergence of an ‘automatic writing’ form of spiritualism, whereby words are seemingly created by an external force, was not new. The first mention of fuji or ‘planchette writing’ dates to around 1100 AD in historical documents from the Song Dynasty in China. Before the formal invention of the Ouija board, the use of talking boards was so common that by 1886 the news reported the phenomenon taking over spiritualist camps in Ohio.
In 1890, Elijah Bond, a local attorney and entrepreneur in Baltimore, Maryland, decided to capitalise upon the craze, and so he formalised and patented a commercial talking board. The result was a board marked with the letters of the alphabet, as well as the numbers 0-9 and the words ‘yes’, ‘no’ and ‘good bye’. It also came with a small heart-shaped planchette which was used in seances whenever a spirit wanted to write a message on the board.
To use a Ouija board, a group of people gathers around a table with the board upon it, and each person places their fingers on the planchette. It is then possible to ask questions of the spirit, with the planchette moving to the letters, numbers or words to formulate a response. The board’s design and method remain the same to this day.
Parts of the Ouija board origin story have been debated. For instance, the word ‘ouija’ itself has been reported as being an ancient Egyptian word for ‘good luck’, while a contemporary etymological explanation is that the word is a combination of the French and German for ‘yes’.
However, it is more likely that it comes from Helen Peters, sister of Elijah Bond who reportedly had spiritual powers and was wearing a locket featuring the name ‘Ouija’ while sitting in the patent office.
The Kennard Novelty Company began manufacturing Bond’s patented Ouija boards en masse. They became instant money makers. By 1892, the company added another factory in Baltimore, then founded two in New York, two in Chicago and one in London. Marketed somewhere between mystical oracle and family parlour game, some 2,000 Ouija boards were being sold a week.
Over the coming century, the board experienced spikes in popularity during periods of uncertainty. The devastation of World War One and the manic years of the Jazz Age and prohibition prompted a surge in Ouija board purchases, as did the Great Depression.
Over five months in 1944, a single department store in New York sold 50,000 boards. In 1967, which coincided with more American troops being sent to Vietnam, the counter-culture Summer of Love in San Francisco, and race riots in Newark, Detroit, Minneapolis and Milwaukee, over 2 million boards were sold, outselling Monopoly.
Famed illustrator Norman Rockwell, who was known for his depictions of 20th-century domesticity, portrayed a man and woman at home using a Ouija board in their living room. The craze heightened, and even crimes which were supposedly committed at the request of Ouija board spirits were occasionally reported.
The Exorcist changed its reputation forever
Until 1973, Ouija boards existed as a popular yet largely non-threatening curiosity. This all changed with the release of cult film The Exorcist, which featured a 12-year-old who becomes possessed by a demon after playing with a Ouija board. As a result, the board’s occult status was forever cemented, and they have since appeared in more than 20 films and numerous paranormal-themed TV shows.
It continues to be regarded by some with anything from suspicion to outright condemnation. In 2001, Ouija boards alongside the Harry Potter books were burned by fundamentalist groups in Alamogordo, New Mexico, who believed them to be ‘symbols of witchcraft.’ More mainstream religious criticism has stated that Ouija boards reveal information that should be known by God alone, meaning it is thus a tool of Satan.
Conversely, extensive scientific experiments have pointed to the planchette moving due to the phenomenon of the ‘ideometer effect’, whereby individuals make automatic muscular movements without conscious will or volition, such as crying in response to a sad film. Newly emerging scientific research points to the idea that through the Ouija board, we are able to tap into a part of our unconscious minds that we don’t fully recognise or understand on a surface level.
One thing is certain: the power of the Ouija board has left its mark upon believers and non-believers alike, and will continue to fascinate us for time to come.