They show up in movies, in literature and at very often at slumber parties, but do you really know the history behind and the story of Ouija Boards? Few other inanimate objects elicit the kind of powerful reactions and emotional responses from people around the world like the Ouija Board does. Some call it a harmless board game while others claim it is a tool of the Devil.
Still others claim that it can allow evil spirits and demons entry into this world to torment those foolish enough to open the gates of hell and welcome spirits into this world through the use of the board.
Given that it is such a familiar and ubiquitous object in familiar culture, it is surprising how little most people know about the creation and history of the Ouija Board.
Here, we'll pull back the veil surrounding this common yet mysterious item and give you the background and history so you can make an informed decision for yourself.
When Did Ouija Boards First Appear?
First showing up in newspaper advertisements in Pittsburgh in February of 1891, Oujia Boards as we know them were first introduced and sold at toy shops. Marketed in New York papers as a “magical tool” that could answer questions about the past, present and future with surprising, otherworldly accuracy, advertisements promised the Ouija Board was mysterious and interesting and provided hours of endless entertainment for everyone.
The Ouija Board was first introduced and advertised at a time in Amercian history when a movement called Spiritualism was at its zenith. Popular in Europe for many years prior, the Spiritulaism movement centered around the belief that the dead were able to communicate with the living and it captured the attention of millions of Americans in 1848. Spiritualism was introduced to the United States largely by two sisters claiming the ability to communicate with the dead, the Fox sisters.
The Fox sisters claimed they could receive information and messages from spirits who tapped and knocked on walls to answer questions. The Fox sisters took their act across the country and channeled spirits for amazed audiences and received national press attention and notoriety.
In a time when the average life expectancy was less than 50 years, women dying in childbirth was common, the Civil War was claiming the life of thousands of men and children frequently died young of diseases, seances offered people suffering with loss and grief much sought after solace and conducting them became commonplace. In fact, First Lady Mary Todd Lincoln conducted seances in the White House in an effort to contact her son who died at age eleven from a fever.
Though today it may seem extremely strange that communicating with the dead was so widely accepted, Spiritualism was seen as a wholesome, completely acceptable practice to reconnect the living and the dead. There was no concern about inviting in demons and evil spirits and people who held seances on Saturday night proudly went to church together on Sunday morning.
One of the major drawbacks to seances, however, was how long they took to conduct and how very boring waiting for answers could be. After all, when spirits had to rap, tap or knock on walls to get messages their through, counting out each noise and assigning its letter meaning could take hours. While people desperately wanted to make contact with their loved ones who had passed, they wanted a quicker, more efficient way to communicate with them.
The need for a quick and efficient way to communicate with the dead was widely recognized by savvy entrepreneurs, but it took the initiative of the Chalres Kennard to hone in on the need and perfect a quick way to talk with the dead he could easily offer to the general public.
In 1886 after reading a widely circulated article about “talking boards” used by Spiritualists in Ohio Camps, Kennard saw and seized his opportunity to create a product that would fill the niche and allow people almost instant communication with spirits. Kennard quickly sought out investors and partnered with four other smart, albeit opportunistic, business men to create the Kennard Novelty Company. The Kennard Company was formed to create and market these “talking boards,” but the men knew the name needed an overhaul to be commercially successful.
One of the original investors, Eli Bond, had a sister in law named Helen Peters who was reported to be a strong medium herself. The men conferred with Ms. Peters about the name and when she consulted the talking board, the name Ouija appeared. When asked what the name meant, the board reportedly spelled out the words “good luck” and the name Ouija Board was adopted. The men were keen to keep the Ouija Board, and its profits, to themselves and so they sought out a patent to secure the sole rights to the manufacture and sell of the boards.
Knowing they had to “prove” the talking board worked, the men once more enlisted the help of Ms. Peters. Ms. Peters accompanied the investors to the patent office where they met with an incredulous patent officer. The patent officer said he would only approve their request for a patent if they could prove it worked.
For him, the proof needed to come in the form of the board accurately spelling and telling him what his name was. Whether the men were savvy enough to find out the name of the patent officer beforehand or whether Ms. Peters really channeled the other side to get the information, we will never know, but either way the group was successful. Ms. Peters accurately read and revealed the name of the patent officer using the board and the group's patent request was granted.
Once the men had a patent and a catchy name, they then began making and selling the Ouija Boards around the country for $1.50. The Ouija Board was successfully marketed as a way to quickly contact the dead without the need for or presence of a professional medium or channeler. Finally, people could hold seances in their own homes that gave them instant access to their departed loved ones. It was like having acces in their homes to a telegraph to the other side, and Americans loved it.
In fact, demand was so great for Ouija Boards that the men had to expand production to an extent that not one, but two factories were required to produce enough to keep up with demand. The boards were so popular that in May of 1920, Norman Rockwell created a cover for the Saturday Evening Post depicting a man and woman using the Ouija Board cementing their place in acceptable, everyday American life.
So Just What Is A Ouija Board?
The original Ouija Boards were flat, wooden boards with the letters of the alphabet imprinted in two semi circles above the numbers zero through nine printed at the bottom. The board also had the words “yes” and “no” printed in the upper corners with the word “goodbye” at the bottom. The Ouija board also came with a tear drop shaped wooden reading device called a planchette.
The planchette had a little hole, or viewing window, in the pointed end of it that allowed users to move around the board and “read” messages through the letters appearing through the hole. Today's Ouija Boards are much the same with the only real differences being the materials they are made from. Instead of wooden boards and planchettes, Ouija Boards manufactured today are made of cardboard and the planchettes are made from plastic.
How is a Ouija Board Used?
Usually used by a group of two or more people, users would sit around the Ouija Board and ask it questions while their hands were placed on the planchette. Once the question was asked, the planchette would answer by moving itself around the board, stopping on letters to spell out the answers they sought. Users would sit in awe and amazement while the planchette self propelled around the board, spelling out words and answering the questions posed by the group of users.
It was believed that spirits of loved ones who had passed on were directing the planchette in order to communicate with and deliver messages to the living. After years of ubiquity in popular culture, psychologists have studied the Ouija Board and some feel it is a way for the subconscious mind to reveal personal truths, though Ouija Board devotees still believe it is a path to the other side.
Whether the Ouija Board opens channels to another world or is simply a device controlled by the subconscious minds of users seems irrelevant when you examine the long standing cultural fascination with them. Rooted in the Spiritulaism movement of the late nineteenth century, the appeal of Ouija Boards remains strong today.
Whether it is a direct channel to another realm or simply an object used for fun and entertainment, the Ouija Board has earned a spot in Amercian history and culture few other “games” can claim.
Manufactured and sold today by the Parker Brothers company, if you're curious to learn more and experience or discredit the power of the board for yourself, you can get your own Ouija Board and see for yourself if it really opens otherworldly doors or if it is nothing more than a fun way to pass an evening.