The History of Ouija Boards

By Steffanie Holmes

Midnight Summoner planchette and board from Fiendies. They sell a selection of beautiful spirit boards and planchettes.

Spirit boards are such a powerful image in occult and supernatural circles. They appear in movies, books and images, and symbolise a connection with another, invisible world of spirits and demons. They often become plot devices in our favourite books, movies and shows. The familiar imagery of the half-circle of letters and numbers with the planchette flying every which way represents a very real human longing for a connection with "the other side".


I remember as a teen when I first began reading about the occult. We had a selection of books in the reference section of our school library on different occult and esoteric subjects - the 33 volume Time Life series: Mysteries of the Unknown. They have wonderful pictures and were on subjects like Ancient Wisdom and Secret Sects, Magical Arts, Hauntings and Spirit Summonings. For a kid with my imagination and pre-gothic leanings, they were a treasure trove of stories about a world that was very different from my mundane and unpleasant one. It was through these books that I first learned about talking to spirits through letter boards.


The book explained that you did not need a certain type of board in order to talk to the spirits - the board itself contained no secret power, no magical essence. It was simply a conduit. You could, in effect, create a board using a piece of paper and an upturned glass.


I knew my mum would never let me own a spirit board - and I wouldn't know the first thing about buying one - so I copied the ritual the book suggested into a notebook I kept for my musings on the occult, and the next time I had a couple of girls over for a sleepover, I suggested we try it.


I smuggled a small shot glass from the kitchen and hid it in my room. We waited until my parents were in bed, and then collected up everything we needed. I drew out a Ouija board design on paper with a purple highlighter. We lit candles and sat in a triangle, one finger each touching the upturned glass. And we chanted something to try and tempt the spirits to contact us. I was pretty excited, wondering if I was going to actually talk to a real spirit.


Nothing happened.


In hindsight, there could be many reasons for this. The glass was probably too heavy for a spirit to push. We did it directly on the carpet, further contributing to the difficulty in moving the glass. My handwriting is so atrocious, it was probably a struggle for any presence to actually decipher my makeshift board. My two girlfriends didn't believe enough. Or, simply put, no one was listening, and we were just three girls chanting nonsense with our fingers on a glass

What is the Ouija board?

The original Ouija board designed and manufactured by the Kennard Novelty Company of Baltimore.

The first Ouija Board appeared in a Pittsburg toystore in February 1981. The box promised hours of fun as the board answered questions from the past, present, and future with remarkable accuracy. The patent office had been convinced of its accuracy, and so they awarded the patent. The total cost for all this mysterious merriment? $1.50.


Businessman Charles Kennard, attorney Elijah Bond and surveyor Col. Washington Bowie did not invent the spirit board - which started popping up in around the late 19th century as a way to "shortcut" talking with the dead. But their firm, the Kennard Novelty Company, did find a way to profit from their growing popularity. Neither Bond nor Washington were part of the spiritualist movement, but they had seen a niche. They created the spirit board as we know it today - a wooden board with the alphabet written in a half-circle, the numbers 0-9 below, the words YES and NO in the corners, and GOODBYE across the bottom.


So why "Ouija"? Some people say it was a combination of the French and German words for YES (Oui and ja), but ouija historians (and there are such people) note that in letters written by the founders, they describe sitting down at the board with Bond's sister-in-law Helen Peters - a powerful medium - and asking what to call it. Helen saw the word "Ouija" - perhaps a misspelling of the name of a popular women's rights activist Helen liked - and when they asked the board what the word meant, it simply told them, "Good Luck."


The story goes that Bond took Helen along to the patent office and after the patent officer demanded a demonstration, Helen sat down at the board and it spelled out the officer's name (which neither Helen nor Bond were supposed to have known). With the patent in place on Feb 10, 1891, the Ouija Board could go to market.


"Ouija" is actually a trademarked term - Hasbro currently holds the rights to it. For this reason, when talking about boards that aren't made by Hasbro, we have to use the term 'Spirit Board.' 

Mysteries of the Spirit Board

But the founders of the Kennard Novelty Company didn't just pull the concept of the Ouija Board from thin air. It was born of the growing spiritualism movement of the mid-late 19th century. For the American psyche, spiritualism provided comfort in an age where lifespans were short. It fit perfectly within Christian dogma - conducting séances and attending Table Turning parties (where the guests would sit around a small table, which would move and shake of its own accord) were perfectly acceptable practices before church on Sunday. Spiritualists like the Fox sisters were almost celebrities, and they made the practice of talking to the dead mainstream.


The Ouija board was a solid seller, as spiritualism continued to sweep the nation. Despite the company's success, a few years after the Kennard Novelty Company began, Kennard and Bond fell out and the company had a new head - William Fuld. Col. Bowie - the one remaining original shareholder - granted Fuld the license to produce the boards, although there was much squabbling over the right to produce the boards, and many rival boards were produced.

Fuld built a new factory based on a message the Ouija Board gave him. He then proceeded to fall off the roof of this factory, and died in 1927.


The Spirit Board Becomes Evil

Screenshot from the Exorcist film, 1973.

The boards were marketed as toys - harmless fun with a spiritualist bent. They became even more popular in the 1910-20s, with the uncertainty over World War I driving many people to seek answers in spiritualist beliefs, and popularity surged again during the Great Depression. They were often talked about in the papers as an interesting and non-threatening novelty. Originally, the main detractors of the boards were actually spiritual mediums, who feared the boards put them out of business.


That was, until 1973, when The Exorcist came out.


This was really the first time that contacting spirits using the boards had been associated with evil and malevolent demons. Suddenly, people saw the boards in a new light, and the Ouija Board was now a thing of evil, a thing to be feared, a tool of the occult.


Ouija boards are still popular, but they have never again been seen in the same light. Now they are a dark and dangerous curio - warned of by the Catholic church, feared by well-meaning parents (hi Mum!). The proviso is that when you cast out into the spirit world, you have no idea who is listening.


Spirit Boards as a tool for writers

It was inevitable that the popularity of spirit boards would eventually lead to written works derived from the messages received by mediums. There are hundreds of books, poems and stories claimed to have been written by spirits through the boards. Here are some of the more famous ones:


In 1916, Mrs. Pearl Curran started claiming that the stories and poems she was writing were actually dictations through the Ouija board. Their true writer was a 17th century Englishwoman named Patience Worth.


Curran used to hold Ouija board sessions with her friend, Emily Grant Hutchings. The first message she received from Patience Worth was, "Many moons ago I lived. Again I come. Patience Worth my name. Wait, I would speak with thee. If thou shalt live, then so shall I. I make my bread at thy hearth. Good friends, let us be merrie. The time for work is past. Let the tabby drowse and blink her wisdom to the firelog." Mrs. Curran also received visions of Patience - describing her as about 30 years old with dark red hair, brown eyes, a firm mouth, and of small stature, with small feet. Together, Pearl and Patience wrote several novels, including Hope Trueblood, The Sorry Tale, and The Pot Upon the Wheel.


Curran described the sensation of working with Patience. "I am like a child with a magic picture book. Once I look upon it, all I have to do is to watch its pages open before me, and revel in their beauty and variety and novelty....When the poems come, there also appear before my eyes images of each successive symbol, as the words are given me....When the stories come, the scenes become panoramic, with the characters moving and acting their parts, even speaking in converse. The picture is not confined to the point narrated, but takes in everything else within the circle of vision at the time....If the people talk a foreign language, as in The Sorry Tale, I hear the talk, but over and above is the voice of Patience, either interpreting or giving me the part she wishes to use as story."


Not to be outdone by her friend, Emily Grant Hutchings claimed that her book, Jap Herron, was actually communicated to her through a spirit board by Samuel Clemens (Mark Twain).


In 1982, the Pulitzer-Prize-winning poet James Merrill was awarded the National Book Critics Circle award for his Ouija-inspired dictation - The Changing Light at Sandover. He did claim later that the board was more of a magnifier of his own thoughts, rather than a literal conduit to the spirit world.


And, of course, the famous psychic / medium Jane Roberts first contacted the spirit Seth through the Ouija board, which led to the creation of her Seth Material texts.

Do Spirit Boards Really Work?

Although my limited experience has definitely been in the negative, I never like to dismiss any kind of supernatural phenomena. The simple fact is that the world is a strange and fascinating place, no one really knows what happens to us after death, and there are definitely a lot of things that can't be explained. If spirits really do exist, and they happen to be hanging around waiting for a line to the living world to be opened, then why not speak through a board?


Planchettes jumping around spirit boards is a well-attested occurrence. Science has sought to explain it, and has come up with a few fascinating explanations. The truth is: Ouija boards DO work ... just not the way we'd like to think. (At least, according to the studies).


Scientists who've studied the boards call it the ideometer effect - involuntary movements of the participants. In 1853 the famous physicist Michael Faraday conducted a series of experiments on table turning, showing the phenomena was caused by the participants themselves.


The ideometer effect doesn't just come into play on Ouija boards. Recently, a series of fake bomb detection kits powered by the ideometer effect fooled high government officials across the world. Because it takes only a small movement to cause a large impact on one of these implements, and because the movements are involuntary and unnoticed, it's easy to see how we can become convinced that we're of course not causing the movements at all.


Although the ideometer effect is a well-documented occurrence, many spirit board enthusiasts claim that it cannot explain away all occurrences while at the board. There have also been some fascinating studies (lots of detail in this Smithsonian article on the Ouija board) demonstrating that the board when used as a conduit can actually give rise to the non-conscious mind. People answer questions via the board that they could not correctly answer consciously when asked directly.


So where does that leave spiritualism? Well, in all the thousands of recorded accounts of hauntings and channellings and spirit visitations and other goings-on, how much can simply be put down to the odometer effect and the non-conscious mind? How much is simply your friend moving the pointer to scare everyone? How much is real discussions with spirits? There's probably no way to truly know.

Further Reading - History of William Fuld, the Ouija Board, and his parlour games company.


Strange and Mysterious History of the Ouija Board - a thorough article from the Smithsonian that looks at many factors associated with the Ouija Board.

How the Ouija Board got its sinister reputation - journalistic piece from The Conversation.

Occultopedia - an encyclopedia of the occult containing lots of info about spirit boards and other spirit-channelling tools.

How Ouija Boards work (hint: it's not ghosts) – about the ideomotor effect.

Ouija: The Most Dangerous Game - Stephen Hunt's classic book on the dark side of spirit boards, containing many first-person accounts. Can all these boil down to the ideometer effect? I'm not so sure ...

23 Terrifying True Tales of People Messing About with Ouija Boards - A Thoughtcatelog piece, so take with a grain of salt.

Witchboard Central - everything you ever wanted to know about spirit boards but were too afraid to ask.


Has anyone had any interesting experiences using a Ouija or spirit board? Do you think your experiences can be "explained away" by the ideometer effect, or were you definitely talking to a spirit?



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© Copyrights 2020 Steffanie Holmes / Steff Green. All Rights Reserved.