Perhaps the most infamous novelty item in existence, the Ouija board has been a subject of controversy for well over a century now. The board–also commonly referred to as a spirit board, witch board or talking board–made its debut on the market in the early 1890s during the height of the Spiritualist movement in America, a time when belief in the ability to communicate with the dead was highly popularized. Stories abound of strange and sometimes tragic incidents happening as a result of a person (or group of people) tampering with the world of the dead by way of this peculiar device. The Ouija board has been the subject of numerous horror movies, and it is often associated with witchcraft or occult activities due to its alleged ability to help humans engage in communication with disembodied spirits of all kinds. So what is it about this odd device that gives it such a fascinating reputation?
Interestingly enough, the board itself was introduced to the American public as little more than a novelty item with an intriguing product description. According to early catalog advertisements for the Ouija board (circa 1890-1930), it was touted as a type of “oracle board” that could answer questions “concerning past, present and future”. The emphasis of most Ouija board advertisements was on its ability to provide entertainment at parties, and it was commonly viewed as a fun parlor amusement.
The board itself was typically constructed of wood (although nowadays mass-produced Ouija boards are made of plastic), and could assume a number of different sizes. Many times the boards would be hand-painted with various elaborate illustrations and mystical iconography. Virtually all Ouija boards feature the letters A through Z arranged in an arc, the numbers 0 through 9, the words “Yes” and “No”, and the words “Good Bye” (typically placed near the bottom of the board). A triangular device known as a “planchette” is used to point out various letters and numbers that are supposed to spell out the answers to whatever questions are posed by the users. Participants are supposed to place the board in their lap or on a table, rest their hands lightly on the planchette, and then ask a question. The planchette will then allegedly “guide” the participant’s hands around around the board, pointing to the letters and numbers that will eventually spell out an answer the question. Ouija enthusiasts postulate that the movements of the planchette are being guided by spirits, making the practice somewhat akin to automatic writing, another popular paranormal phenomenon that emerged in the late nineteenth century.
Although early versions of Ouija boards or “oracle boards” were used in Europe in the early to mid-1800s, it wasn’t until the mid-1880’s that these curious devices began to appear in America. The first official patent for the Ouija board was granted to Elijah J. Bond, an attorney and the son of a prominent Maryland judge, on February 10th, 1891. It is not fully known how Bond first became interested in creating this novelty item, but it is well documented that he later assigned the patent for the board to William H. A. Maupin and Charles Kennard, both of whom helped to found the Kennard Novelty Company in Baltimore, Maryland. The other principals of the new company were Harry Welles Rusk, a prominent Baltimore lawyer; Col. Washington Bowie, a surveyor; Washington Bowie Jr., son of the Colonel and an attorney; John F. Green, a bookkeeper; and E.C. Reiche, a furniture and cabinet maker. In addition, it is also believed that William Fuld, the man who would eventually become known as the “Father of the Ouija board”, was a stockholder in the Kennard Novelty Company before he was hired to oversee production of the boards.
Skepticism may abound regarding whether or not the Ouija board does what it claims to do, but one thing that cannot be denied is that it was an instant commercial success. The Kennard Novelty Company quickly expanded from just one Baltimore factory in 1890 to seven total factories by 1892, including outposts in Chicago, New York and London. Only fourteen months after manufacturing began, the company experienced an internal shakeup due to personal conflicts, which prompted the departure of Kennard and Bond. This left a gaping hole in management, which with the consent of Col. Bowie (the majority shareholder), was filled by Fuld. An exceptionally skilled promoter, Fuld’s efforts would eventually make the Ouija board a household name. Some of the former Kennard shareholders who sold out early attempted to launch rival products, but none of them experienced any significant degree of success. This unfortunately led to several very public squabbles regarding who “really” invented the Ouija board. Eventually, an exasperated Col. Bowie sold his stake in the Ouija business to Fuld for only $1.
Unfortunately, Fuld’s life was cut short by a tragic and somewhat eerie accident on February 24th, 1927. He was supervising the replacement of a flagpole on top of their three-story Federal Street factory when the iron railing he was leaning against buckled, causing Fuld to tumble off the roof to his death. Fuld’s son William Andrew took over the business, but due to chronic health problems, he later opted to sell the entire business to Parker Brothers on February 24th, 1966, exactly 39 years after his father’s death.
The 20th century saw sales of the Ouija board reach stratospheric levels. Fuld’s company was one of the few businesses that thrived during the Great Depression; they actually had to build more factories to keep up with the demand for the boards. In 1944, 50,000 boards were sold by a single New York City department store in only five months. A year after the Fuld Company sold the business to Parker Brothers, over 2 million Ouija boards were sold in stores throughout the United States, outpacing Monopoly.
The phenomenal popularity of this novel device is hard to describe; it has remained a staple of American culture for over 120 years, and has successfully positioned itself as both a mysterious, otherworldly oracle and a lighthearted source of family entertainment at the same time. Many scientists and psychologists attribute the seemingly magical movements of the planchette to a phenomenon known as the ideomotor effect, which states that a person’s unconscious motor behavior (e.g., their hands moving a planchette) is heavily influenced by suggestion or expectation. Empirical research has turned up precious little in regards to the legitimacy of the board’s alleged ability to act as a medium between the living and the dead, but this has done nothing to detract from the board’s legendary popularity. As long as people desire to seek a little otherworldly entertainment, the Ouija board will serve as one of the top “go-to” devices for paranormal enthusiasts all over the world.