Ouija, The Wonderful Talking Board– a Baltimore Original


Figure 1.   Metal game board spinner from the Aged Home for Colored Men and Women, Baltimore. Photo courtesy of the MAC Lab.

Winter is still upon us and what better way to spend a cold, dark evening than settled by the fire with a board game and a few friends?  Whenever I visit my 30-something nieces and nephews, we make sure to schedule time for a game night (which usually turns quite raucous as the evening progresses!).  Board and card game popularity has been on the rise over the last eight years, driven largely by millennials (Graham 2016).  It will come as no surprise to readers that this recent upsurge in interest is part of a long history of board games.

The period between the 1880s and the 1920s has been described as the “Golden Age” of board games in America (Hofer 2003).  Their popularity was enhanced by mass production, which made games inexpensive and easily available.  The game board spinner shown in Figure 1 was found among other artifacts from an 1870-1910 Methodist Episcopal retirement home for African American men and women. 

Not many people realize that Ouija, a board game still popular today, was invented in Baltimore in the late nineteenth century.  We’ve all come under its spell at one time or another – usually, I suspect, as young and impressionable children.  Who hasn’t fallen under the lure of a hushed candlelit room, a tingling spine and a table set with a Ouija board and its promise to put us in touch with the departed? 

Figure 2. The popularity of Ouija was celebrated on the cover of the
Saturday Evening Post in 1920.

The Ouija board was created by Elijah Bond, a Baltimore attorney, and produced by the Kennard Novelty Company.  Several years prior, spiritualists in the Midwest had begun using “talking boards” as a means to make communication with the deceased easier to understand (McRobbie 2013).  These talking boards were the precursors of the product Bond and his partners patented in 1891.  The Ouija board contains all the letters of the alphabet, numbers from 0 to 9, and the words “yes”, “no” and “goodbye”.  When players put their fingers on a small heart-shaped wooden or metal piece called a planchette, spiritual forces will guide them to letters and numbers spelling out a message from the beyond (Figure 3).  And Ouija was instantly popular: by 1892, the Kennard Novelty Company had gone from one factory to six: with two factories in Baltimore and the others in Chicago, New York and London. 

The invention of Ouija and its popularity can be attributed to the rise of belief in spiritualism in Victorian America and Britain (McRobbie 2013).  In America, this movement began in the late 1840s when the three Fox sisters convinced people of their ability to communicate with the deceased.  Adherents of Spiritualism believed such communication was possible and engaged in this activity through seances, automatic writing or gatherings where participants were seated around a table that would spin or shake through no apparent human intervention.  Some of the great intellectuals of the nineteenth century, including Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, evolutionary biologist Alfred Russel Wallace and Charles Dickens were believers in spiritualism.  Queen Victoria participated in seances after the 1861 death of her husband, Prince Albert, and was said to have received messages from him (Diniejko 2016).  Mary Todd Lincoln sought the assistance of spiritualists after the death of her son, William, in the early 1860s.

Figure 3. Players placed their fingers on the planchett and waited for spirits to guide it to spell out a message. Photo courtesy of Bettman/Corbis.

While the Spiritualism movement lost energy later in the nineteenth century as mediums were exposed as frauds, the popularity of Ouija board has waxed and waned over the years.  In times of economic uncertainty or turmoil, such as the years around World War I and during the Great Depression, the popularity of the Ouija surged.  Some people believed that the Ouija board was a bad influence and a court case was held in the 1920s to determine if it was a toy (Thorpe 2018). 

Unfortunately, no shaped wooden pieces that formed the earliest game planchets have been recovered to date from Baltimore archaeological sites, but it is surely just a matter of time before one is pulled from a privy or cellar.


Figure 4.  Elijah Bond’s Ouija-themed tombstone in Baltimore’s Green Mount cemetery. https://www.atlasobscura.com/places/elijah-bond-s-ouija-board-grave.

Although Elijah Bond divested himself of his interest in the Kennard Novelty Company by 1893 (McRobbie 2013), Ouija boards continued to be made in Baltimore until 1966.  Bond died in 1921 and was buried in a grave whose location was lost over the years.  Ouija board collector and founder of The Talking Board Historical Society Robert Murch spearheaded an effort to relocate Bond’s unmarked grave in Baltimore’s Green Mount Cemetery (Atlas Obscura 2019). Around 2007, Bond’s grave received a new and entirely appropriate head stone (Figure 4).

Interest in Ouija continues; in 2012 the Baltimore Museum of Industry held a temporary exhibit entitled “Let The Spirit Move You: Ouija, Baltimore’s Mystifying Oracle” and the Ouija board played a big role in the 2016 movie thriller Ouija, the Origin of Evil.

References

Atlas Obscura.  2019.  Elijah Bond’s Ouija Board Grave. Atlas Obscura. Website accessed February 26, 2019 at https://www.atlasobscura.com/places/elijah-bond-s-ouija-board-grave.

Diniejko, Andrzej.  2016.  Victorian Spiritualism.  The Victorian Web; literature, history & culture in the age of Victoria.  Website accessed February 27, 2019 at http://www.victorianweb.org/victorian/religion/spirit.html.

Graham, Luke.  2016.  Millennials are Driving the Board Games Revival.  CNBC.  December 22, 2016.  at https://www.cnbc.com/2016/12/22/millennials-the-board-games-revival-catan-pandemic.html. Hofer, Margaret.  2003.  The Games We Played: The Golden Age of Board & Table Games. New York:  Princeton Architectural Press.

McRobbie, Linda Rodriquez.  2013. The Strange and Mysterious History of the Ouija Board.  Smithsonian. com.  Website accessed February 27, 2019 at https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/the-strange-and-mysterious-history-of-the-ouija-board-5860627/.

Thorpe, J. R.  2018.  The History of Ouija Boards, Where They Come From, & Why They’re So Freaking Creepy.  Bustle.com. Website accessed February 27, 2019 at https://www.bustle.com/p/the-history-of-ouija-boards-where-they-come-from-why-theyre-so-freaking-creepy-12279291.

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