Behold the power of the Ouija board. For more than a century, it’s prompted obsessive debate. Is it just a silly adolescent slumber-party board game, leftover from those superstitious Victorians? Is it truly a tool for connecting to spiritual worlds we don’t understand? Is it harmless, helpful, or dangerous? Of course, we’re as fascinated as everyone else with the strange history of these “talking boards.”
Show & Tell regular, Lynda Abbott, known as Vestaswind and a blogger at Appraise Your Junk, piqued our interest when she posted a couple of great vintage “talking boards” from her collection. She explains, “My obsession with Ouija really started in 1999, when Parker Brothers stopped making the old boards and went to the glow-in-the-dark version. It was an end to an era, making even the newest of old Ouija boards in demand.
“At the time, a friend of mine showed me her collection of Ouija boards, and that’s when I realized I had no idea just how many were out there,” she continues. “From that moment on, I knew I had to have them all. Now, I have about 20 boards. I even wrote to Raymond Buckland who wrote ‘Ouija, Yes! Yes!’ and designed his own board. He sent me his book, autographed. For me, the appeal isn’t just the mystery of the board, but the art and the history. In truth, I only get them out to use them if a girlfriend or my sister asks.”
The origins of the modern-day American Ouija board are quite mysterious, though, with many disputed tales about who the actual inventor of the board was, and how he came up with it. According to our Hall of Fame site, Museum of Talking Boards, in the mid-1800s, two sisters claimed to talk to the spirit of a dead salesman, and that sparked a craze for communicating with the dead, called Spiritualism, that spread like wildfire across the U.S. and Europe. Some “mediums” even took down messages via “spirit writing,” using a pencil attached to a small basket, which eventually became a heart-shaped “planchette.”
Other means of talking to ghosts were much more inefficient, requiring taking down notes from Morse Code-like knocks, taps, and rattles of a shaking table. It wasn’t long before crafty inventors came up with devices that let supposed spirits leave alphabetic messages much more readily. Those included dial-plate instruments, psychographs, and, finally, talking boards.
A 1920 article in the New York World Magazine had this piece of folklore about Chestertown, Maryland, cabinet-maker Ernest Charle Reiche inventing the board in 1890: “Mr. Reichie, although not a spiritist, noticed sympathetically that a large table was a heavy thing for a frail spirit to juggle about. His meditations, attuned to cabinetmaking, took a practical form. He devised a little table – the ouija board.”
Another legend, found in the same article, says the same year, Charles W. Kennard, a Chestertown entrepreneur who had previously started ventures in fertilizers and real estate, “sat idly in the kitchen of his Maryland home. … In this blissful state he reached out and took his wife’s breadboard and placed it on his lap, and then placed a saucer on the bread board. The saucer began to move, as though on its own volition. Mr. Kennard was amused, frightened, interested, impressed, inspired and delighted. He saw both spooks and commercial possibilities.” Yet another article, appearing in the New York Daily Tribune in 1886, says the handmade “talking board” craze was spreading across Ohio, four years prior to its supposed invention.
In fall 1890, Kennard went into business with fellow Masons Harry Welles Rusk, William H.A. Maupin, Col. Washington Bowie, and John T. Green as the Kennard Novelty Company in Baltimore. Early in 1891, Kennard and Maupin acquired the rights to the first U.S. talking board patent, registered by Elijah J. Bond, and sold their interest in it to the company. It wasn’t long before Bowie dismissed everyone but Rusk, and put his close pal William Fuld in charge of the renamed Ouija Novelty Company. Some might call this a hostile takeover.
Kennard went on to patent and manufacture other talking boards, including the Volo (1892) and the Igili (1897), and other knockoffs soon followed. Over the decades, these often were printed with mystical images of pyramids, swamis and exotic locales or Halloween-themes like black cats, witches, and devils.
Abbott explained to me that Fuld also liked to brag he invented the Ouija. However, even before the Victorian craze of mysticism, similar talking boards had been in use much longer, the origins dating back centuries in China. In fact, some ancient Daozang scriptures are thought to be derived from “automatic planchette writing” or “spirit writing.” Be that as it may, Fuld was clever enough to notice the trend and capitalize on it, which paid off handsomely.
“Fuld also told the tale of the board giving him advice in business dealings,” Abbott says. “I guess it’s all in what you believe. I believe he was a smart business man—other than that who knows?”
If you believe that Fuld was actually taking instructions from his Ouija board—and not just hyping his product—you might be inclined to think an unfriendly spirit was giving out the orders despite his financial success. Fuld ended up in a long and bitter business dispute with his brother, Isaac, over the production of the Ouija board. Even his 1927 death is shrouded in mystery. One account states, “William Fuld was tragically killed by complications falling from the roof of his three story Harford, Lamont, and Federal Street factory. The iron support he was leaning on gave way, and he tumbled backwards off the roof.” However, some suggested the fall wasn’t an accident at all, and possibly suicide. In particular, those who believed the boards to be evil thought “the devil’s oracle” drove him to it.
After this death, the Fuld family held the patent until they sold it to Parker Brothers in 1966. In 1940s, companies like Haskelite Manufacturing Corporation, Gift Craft, and Lee stepped into the void, producing the Egyptian-themed Hasko Mystic Board and Mystic Trays, the Swami, and Lee’s Magic Marvel.
Parker Brothers happened to be located in Salem, Massachusetts, home to the famous Salem Witch Trials, when it took over the manufacture of the Ouija board, coining the tagline, “It’s just a game, isn’t it?”
For collectors, the game keeps getting better. “The boards I bought 10 years ago have tripled in price,” Abbott says. “It’s a fun part of our history when mystics and séances were all the rage. I see it as the rebellious fad of the 1800s, giving Fuld a rock-star status of his day.”
(Images courtesy Lynda Abbott)