The Strange and Mysterious History of the Ouija Board

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In February, 1891, the first few advertisements started appearing in papers: “Ouija, the Wonderful Talking Board,” boomed a Pittsburgh toy and novelty shop, describing a magical device that answered questions “about the past, present and future with marvelous accuracy” and promised “never-failing amusement and recreation for all the classes,” a link “between the known and unknown, the material and immaterial.” Another advertisement in a New York newspaper declared it “interesting and mysterious” and testified, “Proven at Patent Office before it was allowed. Price, $1.50.”

This mysterious talking board was basically what’s sold in board game aisles today: A flat board with the letters of the alphabet arrayed in two semi-circles above the numbers 0 through 9; the words “yes” and “no” in the uppermost corners, “goodbye” at the bottom; accompanied by a “planchette,” a teardrop-shaped device, usually with a small window in the body, used to maneuver about the board. The idea was that two or more people would sit around the board, place their finger tips on the planchette, pose a question, and watch, dumbfounded, as the planchette moved from letter to letter, spelling out the answers seemingly of its own accord. The biggest difference is in the materials; the board is now usually cardboard, rather than wood, and the planchette is plastic.

Though truth in advertising is hard to come by, especially in products from the 19th century, the Ouija board was “interesting and mysterious”; it actually had been “proven” to work at the Patent Office before its patent was allowed to proceed; and today, even psychologists believe that it may offer a link between the known and the unknown.

The real history of the Ouija board is just about as mysterious as how the “game” works. Ouija historian Robert Murch has been researching the story of the board since 1992; when he started his research, he says, no one really knew anything about its origins, which struck him as odd: “For such an iconic thing that strikes both fear and wonder in American culture, how can no one know where it came from?”

Written By: Linda Rodriguez McRobbie
continue to source article at smithsonianmag.com

13 COMMENTS

  1. I control ALL ouija boards with my mind. Yes, I am OUIJA, the god of novelty items. Pay me and I’ll make sure tat when you use a ouija board, you get to talk to you dead relatives and pay me a little more and if there are any money issues with a will or something, i will make sure it settles in your favor.

    • In reply to #2 by Stafford Gordon:

      The clue lies in the fact that these items are sold in toy and novelty shops.

      Yes, and at “Toys ‘R Us” they are in the same isle and on the same shelves right next to “Chutes & Ladders,” “Candy Land” and “Uncle Wiggily.” Given a choice between the four, I would say that the Ouija board is the better value, as it is (or at least was, when I was a lad) made out of fairly sturdy plastic, and makes a very good breakfast food tray. The other three all contain boards that are made out of flimsy cardboard and thus, the moment milk is accidentally spilled on any of them, they get all soggy.

  2. I had one when I was a child (late 40s-early 50s), I played with it with my mother and with my friends. We had no idea how it worked and didn’t care. We all thought it was fun and no one took it seriously.

  3. The late 1800s, especially 1870-1890s, was a boom for all sorts of woo and alternative religions. Not only was there growth in Spiritualism, but the foundation of Unity, Christian Science and several other books (sorry I am at a loss – something like OSHO??-very odd views about us being descendants of outer space aliens ) that brought about some of the roots to some very far far out thinking that is still used today by certain groups. I’d really like to know what was going on during this time period (1830-1900) that brought this about. Was there something related to travel or some sort of medical/psychological development??? I realize photography could have something to do with it – namely spirit photos (double exposures) such as those by Mumler in the 1860s. Or maybe psychology branching out from philosophy in the 1870s had something to do with the changes in spiritual views??? Any thoughts? I realize we can all fluff this article off, but I think there is an important lesson here on how advancements – technological, medical, psychological, are framed within or fitted into religious beliefs. Perhaps this is just another way for the God concept to survive in a rapidly changing world that was being bombarded with new discoveries and advancements.

    I am very pleased that this article touched on the history of the Spiritualist Church in upstate NY. I have been there a few times and have had different experiences with each visit. I was able to identify a clearly taught formula to the “art of playing psychic.” You know how there is a clear pattern with Christian BS? Spiritualists and new agers have their own shhtick too. One time, I decided that I wanted a reading at at outdoor cold call/psychic session and observed what I need to do to be recognized and get a reading. Sure enough, I got a BS reading in front of the whole group. The entire setup is very predictable – complete with calling out the skeptic (man) and feeling the presence of someone having difficulties walking. During one visit, two sessions both mentioned someone who died in a motorcycle accident. Some guy from the UK realized the game and turned to me to express his shock and amusement. (How did he pick me out?) If anyone ever plans on visiting the place, let me know and I’ll meet you there – it’s a day trip for me. I speak “space cadet new age” and will guarantee you have a bizarre day of playing fly on the wall.

  4. I can’t quite understand why people believe in “shit” like this. It’s a joke or gimmick! It’s sold in toy stores. NONSENSE.

    [Formatting fixed by moderator. Please don't add spaces to the start of paragraphs, as it distorts the formatting. Thanks!]

    • In reply to #8 by Atheist2458:

      I can’t quite understand why people believe in “shit” like this. It’s a joke or gimmick! It’s sold in toy stores. NONSENSE.

      It’s not a joke or a gimmick. People believe in it because it genuinely works.

      • In reply to #9 by Katy Cordeth:

        In reply to #8 by Atheist2458:

        I can’t quite understand why people believe in “shit” like this. It’s a joke or gimmick! It’s sold in toy stores. NONSENSE.

        It’s not a joke or a gimmick. People believe in it because it genuinely works.

        Quite right, Katy, and the interesting question is how it works. I hope Dr Rensink and his fellow researchers obtain the funding they need to continue their research with the ouija board into ideomotor effects and nonconscious knowledge. As the article suggests, findings may be useful in areas such as mental health care and understanding how information is stored and can be recalled in our brains.

      • In reply to #9 by Katy Cordeth:

        In reply to #8 by Atheist2458:

        I can’t quite understand why people believe in “shit” like this. It’s a joke or gimmick! It’s sold in toy stores. NONSENSE.

        It’s not a joke or a gimmick. People believe in it because it genuinely works.

        Yes, it told me I would die 22 years ago. It told me I would marry someone named Frank. It also admitted it was the devil and scared the wazoo out of me.

        Tarot cards and other divination is sold as toys as well.

  5. During my student days we were all swept up with this new-to-us phenomenon.We didn’t use the commercial version, but improvised with a glass and letters made from bits of paper ( we were all desperately poor at this time). We actually had the Ouija officially debunked by a psychology lecturer.

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