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 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 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:

A Mysterious Talking Board and Table.

    "Planchette 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 operations—things that seem to pass all human comprehension or explanation." 
    "What is the board like?" 
    "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 like this:

     "The 'yes' 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 York Tribune.

Carrier 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.

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 periodicals read:


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, Massachusetts

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.

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 press.

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. 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 Oracle.

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 game—isn't it?"

Copyright © 1996-2003.
the Museum of Talking Boards All Rights Reserved.

Individual copyrights retained by their respective owners.