We’re all familiar with Ouija boards. The Ouija board is, simply put, a small, seemingly harmless cardboard game that has a planchette (pointer) that is supposed to be directed by the dead to spell out messages from beyond the grave on a board covered in the alphabet with a yes and a no message in the corners. These boards are supposed to be ancient tools of divination and spirtualism that come from Egypt, gypsies, Celtic shamans or any of a hundred other cultures, depending on who’s telling the story. However the Ouija board is not a great deal older than Wicca (more about the origins of Wicca here), and it barely predates most people’s grandparents at this point in history.
In the mid to late 1800’s it seemed as if the entire Western world was hit by a craving for the occult and spiritualism. Groups of learned occult personas like the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, which had famous members such as the occultist Aleister Crowley and the writer Oscar Wilde among it’s ranks, seemed to crop up everywhere. As a part of this craze, people wanted to explore the idea of contacting the dead and of tapping into the spirit world. Mediums, which worked as the middlemen between two worlds, were men and women who believed they had some connection to the “other side.” Many of them were fakes and frauds who were exposed ruthlessly, but that’s another story. Some of the methods used by these mediums were automatic writing, giving the spirit control of the hand, or channeling, where the spirit was invited to possess the medium. Another method was the so-called “talking board,” which became popular in the 1850’s right after it was invented. A talking board is basically the same concept as the current, cardboard form of Ouija… a board with letters and short phrases that a spirit will direct a small pointer towards for answers by tugging on the pointer while it’s held by a medium.
In the early 1890’s a man named Charles Kennard and his company officially invented the first Ouija board, which was supposed to be Egyptian for “good luck,” which it isn’t in case you were curious. See earlier comments about the rampant nature of fakes and frauds. In 1898 William Fuld, a business associate of Kennard’s, was placed in the lofty position of the head of the company from his former place as shop keeper for what was renamed the Ouija Novelty Company.
Fuld is potentially the reason that Ouija boards are still with us today. Not only did Fuld rename the company, but he reinvented the history of the Ouija board itself. For instance, Fuld claimed to have invented the Ouija board himself, and that the board’s name was the fusion of the French and German words for “yes.” Fuld also claimed that the Ouija board brought him inspiration and ideas for new products and successes, a great sales gimmick if ever there was one. Tales about the board originating in ancient Egypt are likely extensions of the original fake name, but more modern distortions have their part to play as well.
As with almost anything occult, the Ouija board has been cast as the dark force by Hollywood and by the religious right. The dabbling in spiritualism that was common place up until the 1920’s was vilified in a number of films, novels, horror comics (such as the E.C. Comics that were vastly popular) and other sources. Rumors got started, and as with the original “origins” of the Ouija board pretty soon the “common knowledge” that was built out of half truths and what someone’s older brother had once read about became renowned and accepted fact. These facts were distorted even further during the Satanic Panic in the 1980’s, where occult rumors and witch hunts ran wild and many supposed “facts” that are accepted today were spun out of whole cloth. Through it all though, sales of the Ouija board have sky rocketed, making it the greatest selling board game of all time, even beyond Parker Brothers’ (the company that currently owns the right to produce Ouija boards) own game Monopoly.
“History of the Talking Board,” by Anonymous at Museum of Talking Boards
“The Ouija and Talking Boards,” by Anonymous at Haunted Bay