Ouija Boards: a History

To some, it's a harmless parlor game or children's toy. Others call it a tool of Satan. For still others, it is a tool for reaching the subconscious mind or the spirit world. "It" is flat board imprinted with the letters of the alphabet, the numbers from 0 through 9 and the words yes and no. It comes with a little plastic heart-shaped table with a window cut out of its middle. You probably know it as the Ouija Board, manufactured and sold by Parker Brothers, but the Ouija Board has been around for a lot longer than that.


Spiritualists have always employed tools of some sort to help interpret messages sent from the 'Other Side'. One favorite method was 'glass writing'. The medium would place an upside down glass on top of a piece of paper on which was written the alphabet. The medium would then place his or her fingers on the glass, and it would move to cover certain letters, spelling out words.


In 1891, the U.S. Patent Office awarded a patent for the Ouija Board to Elijah Bond (with Charles Kennard and William Maupin), three Baltimore businessmen. The Ouija board may not actually have been their invention - there is at least one published account of a session using an alphabet board and a planchette that appeared in the New York Tribune in 1886 - but it was Kennard who first marketed the Ouija Board to the public. His Kennard Novelty Company continued to manufacture and sell Ouija Boards until the patent and all rights were sold to the Parker Brothers game company in 1966. Parker Brothers continued to sell the Ouija Board nearly exactly as it was originally created until 1990, when it discontinued the traditional Ouija Board, and introduced a smaller, glow-in-the-dark version which is still available.


Kennard himself, though, left the company less than a year after the patent was granted. The Kennard Novelty Company was taken over by William Fuld, a long-time employee. It was Fuld who declared that the name 'Ouija' was a combination of the French and German words for yes, in contradiction of his former boss' statement that it was the Egyptian word for 'good luck', and that the board itself had given him the name. Fuld marketed the board for years with fantastic claims of its abilities to contact the spirit world and facilitate communication with the dead. A typical ad was this one, which appeared in newspapers in 1891:


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.


Since its introduction, the Ouija Board's popularity has waxed and waned. Because it is so simple to use, it has always been a favorite 'toy' among those who have a passing interest in the occult. Its popularity sparked warnings from spiritualists and from religious figures that it was dangerous - that meddling with spirits was not a game for amateurs, that opening yourself to communications without preparation could open the door to possession by evil spirits and worse. Given human nature, these warnings only sparked further interest in experimentation with the Ouija Board. In fact, even J.B. Rhine, most well-known for his interest in ESP and his experiments using Zener cards, conducted experiments using the Ouija Board.


Do Ouija Boards work? That's a subject that has always been open to debate. It's certain that they often spell out intelligible and intelligent messages - but whether those messages are communications from beyond the grave or from the subconscious of the users is a subject that is still undecided.

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