In the year 1848,
something unusual happened in a Hydesville, New York cabin. 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 to letters called from the alphabet. Entire messages from
the spirits were spelled out in this way.
A less noisy technique
was a form of spirit writing using 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. This pencil basket evolved into
the heart-shaped planchette, a more sophisticated
tool with two rotating casters underneath and a pencil at the
tip, forming the third leg. According to some writers, the inventor
of the planchette was a French medium named M. Planchette.
This is unlikely
considering that no information on this individual exists and
that the French word "planchette" translates to English as "little
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 or impossible to read. It was a challenge
just keeping the instrument centered on the paper long enough
to get a decipherable message. Consequently, many mediums dispensed
with the spiritual apparatuses 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 it crucial to use
the right equipment if they were going to contact the spirit world
properly. These resourceful individuals built weird alphanumeric
gadgets and odd-looking table contraptions with moving needles
and letter wheels. Clearly, these early machines suffered from
over engineering if not lack of imagination. Called dial plate instruments or psychographs, a few of these devices
appeared in the marketplace under various names and incarnations.
American and European
toy companies actively peddled the planchette, making it immensely
popular, but virtually ignored the dial-plates. This was most
likely because planchettes were easier to make and market inexpensively
as novelties. In any event, both took a back seat in 1886 when
reports of an exciting new "talking board" sensation hit the newsstands.
Mentioned in the March 28, 1886 Sunday supplement of the New
York Tribune, the story quickly spread across the country.
Here is a reprint of the Tribune article in an Oakland,
California publication for Spiritualists, The Carrier Dove:
THE NEW PLANCHETTE.
All this was so amazing
because this new message board was simple to make and required absolutely
no understanding, skill, or mediumistic training from the participants.
When the message indicator "moved by itself" from letter to letter
to spell out a message, it looked genuinely magical and astonishing.
This really was a new invention. It didn't take long before
interested parties filed a patent for a device strikingly similar
to the "new planchette." This first patent,
filed on May 28, 1890 and granted on February 10, 1891, lists Elijah
J. Bond as the inventor and the assignees as Charles W. Kennard
and William H. A. Maupin, all from Baltimore, Maryland. Whether
Bond or his Baltimore cronies actually invented anything or merely
took advantage of an existing fad using their own design, is debatable
and open to conjecture, but there is no doubt that they were the
first to market the board as a novelty. Charles Kennard called the
new board Ouija (pronounced wE-ja) after the Egyptian word for good
luck. Ouija is not Egyptian for good luck, but since the board reportedly
told him it was during a session, the name stuck. Or so the story
goes. It is more likely that the name came from the fabled Moroccan
city Oujda (also spelled Oujida and Oudjda). This makes sense given
the period's fondness for Middle Eastern cites and the psychic miracles
of the Fakirs. Charles Kennard founded Kennard Novelty Company with
borrowed money and in 1890 began producing the first ever commercial
line of Ouija or Egyptian luck-boards. His advertisements in local
A Mysterious Talking
Board and Table.
is simply nowhere," said a Western man at the Fifth Avenue Hotel,
"compared with the new scheme for mysterious communication that
is being used out in Ohio. I know of whole communities that
are wild over the 'talking board,' as some of them call it.
I have never heard any name for it. But I have seen and heard
some of the most remarkable things about its operationsthings
that seem to pass all human comprehension or explanation."
"What is the
"Give me a
pencil and I will show you. The first requisite is the operating
board. It may be rectangular, about 18 x 20 inches. It is inscribed
and the 'no' are to start and stop the conversation. The 'good-evening'
and 'good-night' are for courtesy. Now a little table three
or four inches high is prepared with four legs. Any one can
make the whole apparatus in fifteen minutes with a jack-knife
and a marking brush. You take the board in your lap, another
person sitting down with you. You each grasp the little table
with the thumb and forefinger at each corner next to you. Then
the question is asked, 'Are there any communications?' Pretty
soon you think the other person is pushing the table. He thinks
you are doing the same. But the table moves around to 'yes'
or 'no.' Then you go on asking questions and the answers are
spelled out by the legs of the table resting on the letters
one after the other. Sometimes the table will cover two letters
with its feet, and then you hang on and ask that the table will
be moved from the wrong letter, which is done. Some remarkable
conversations have been carried on until men have become in
a measure superstitious about it. I know of a gentleman whose
family became so interested in playing with the witching thing
that he burned it up. The same night he started out of town
on a business trip. The members of his family looked for the
board and could not find it. They got a servant to make them
a new one. Then two of them sat down and asked what had become
of the other table. The answer was spelled out, giving a name,
'Jack burned it.' There are, of course, any number of nonsensical
and irrelevant answers spelled out, but the workers pay little
heed to them. If the answers are relevant they talk them over
with a superstitious awe. One gentleman of my acquaintance told
me that he got a communication about a title to some property
from his dead brother, which was of great value to him. It is
curious, according to those who have worked most with the new
mystery, that while two persons are holding the table a third
person, sitting in the same room some distance away, may ask
the questions without even speaking them aloud, and the answers
will show they are intended for him. Again, answers will be
returned to the inquiries of one of the persons operating when
the other can get no answers at all. In Youngstown, Canton,
Warren, Tiffin, Mansfield, Akron, Elyria, and a number of other
places in Ohio I heard that there was a perfect craze over the
new planchette. Its use and operation have taken the place of
card parties. Attempts are made to verify statements that are
made about living persons, and in some instances they have succeeded
so well as to make the inquirers still more awe-stricken."New
Dove (Oakland) July, 1886: 171. Reprinted from the New-York
Daily Tribune, March 28, 1886: page 9, column 6. "The New
'Planchette.' A Mysterious Talking Board and Table Over Which
Northern Ohio Is Agitated." Article courtesy John Buescher.
Unfortunately for him,
Charles Kennard was not long for the Ouija business. Unhappy with
the way things were going, Kennard's financial backers withdrew
his authorization to produce the Ouija board. William Fuld, a former
Kennard employee, became the new maker, and with that single stroke
of fate, came to be the one that history would forever designate
as the father of the Ouija board. Although Kennard continued in
the toy business and even produced and patented other talking boards,
he is scarcely remembered today.
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
St. Theatre program, November 7, 1891, Boston, Massachusetts
William Fuld embarked
successfully on his new venture, and with his brother and business
partner Isaac, manufactured Ouija boards in record numbers. Nevertheless,
this business partnership was not to last. After an investigation,
Isaac was fired from the company for accounting misconduct. This
not only ended the union but it engendered a bitter family split
that was to last for generations. Isaac went on to produce and
sell Ouija facsimiles, called Oriole talking
boards, and pool and smoking tables out of his home workshop.
William became 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 talking 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. He may have thought apocryphal
tales a fun way to sell Ouija boards and to poke fun at a gullible
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. Following his death, William's children took over
and marketed many interesting Ouija versions of their own, including
the rare and marvelous Art Deco Electric Mystifying Oracle. In 1966, they retired and sold the
business to Parker Brothers. Parker Brothers produced an accurate
Fuld reproduction and briefly even made a Deluxe Wooden Edition Ouija. They own all trademarks and
patents to this day.
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 with legal threats and
by marketing a second, less expensive talking board, the Mystifying
The 1940s saw a
virtual cornucopia of artistic and colorful talking boards. Perhaps
the most beautiful were Haskelite's Egyptian themed Mystic Boards and Mystic Trays. Other major players were two Chicago novelty companies,
Gift Craft, and Lee Industries. Adorned with everything from wizards
to cannibals, these talking boards were wonderful departures from
Fuld's simple number boards. Gift Craft's popular Swami
featured a flying carpet scene and a genii consulting a crystal
ball. Lee's Magic Marvel, done in eye-catching
red and yellow, had four turbaned soothsayers, the zodiac, and
a couple of grumpy demons thrown in just for luck. Love them or
not, no one could call them boring.
Today, as in the
past, there are companies who produce interesting variants of
the talking 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.
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 gameisn't it?"
Copyright © 1996-2003. the
Museum of Talking Boards
All Rights Reserved.
retained by their respective owners.