It's a hit at slumber parties, terrifying in horror movies, and one of the most controversial board games ever created. Some say it only works in the hands of hoaxers, while others believe it can summon the Devil himself. What is it? It's the Ouija board, a simple game board and pointing device surrounded by so many legends and so much lore that it's hard to know what to believe. Delve into Ouija board history to learn more about it so you can decide: is it child's play or something decidedly more sinister?
Ouija Board's History Starts With Spiritualism
To understand the history of the Ouija board, you must first understand Spiritualism, a Victorian-era religious movement centered around mediumship and contact with the dead. Spiritualism appeared in America in the late 1840s and gained tremendous popularity quickly. People flocked to mediums conducting séances, fascinated with and comforted by anything that might put them in contact with souls of their lost loved ones.
It's no surprise that Spiritualism caught on like wildfire. With a much shorter average lifespan than today, people sought comfort through the thought they could communicate with loved ones who had died. And while medium-led séances were de rigueur, even average Joes wanted to find a way they could easily communicate with their dead friends and family. Unfortunately, the methods available weren't exactly efficient and optimized. Rather, participants had to decipher a series of raps or other signals representing yes, no, numbers, or letters of the alphabet, so a typical communication session took a while. A long while.
In the 1880s, a group of Spiritualists in Ohio started using a homemade method that made it all so much easier; it was a simple board with letters and number on it and a pointer that could slide to the letters. If you think that sounds vaguely familiar, then you most certainly wouldn't be wrong. The Ohio Spiritualists had come up with a way to communicate with spirits more easily and quickly, but they lacked the vision to recognize the opportunity of their innovation.
Charles Kennard's Opportunity
Charles Kennard, on the other hand, knew a winner when he saw one. He read about the Ohio Spiritualist talking board in the newspaper and recognized the opportunity right away. With four other partners, he formed the Kennard Novelty Company. Kennard wasn't a Spiritualist, nor were any of his partners. But they were canny businessmen, and they smelled the potential for making money by capitalizing on the Spiritualist movement. Thus, they set their intention to make and market a talking board to bring spirit communication to the masses.
It was easy enough to design and manufacture a simple wooden board with a tear-drop shaped wooden pointer. The company's principles and their family members tested it out. In one session, when they asked what the board should be called, the response came back: "Ouija," which the board informed them meant "good luck," or so the story goes. Whether this is true or merely a good marketing backstory remains unknown, but the name became one of the most infamous in all of board game history.
Thus, the Ouija board was born.
The next hurdle was patenting the game, which Kennard and his business partners (including experienced patent attorney Elijah Bond) immediately set about doing. When Bond visited the patent office with another partner, the chief officer said he'd grant a patent if they could prove that the board worked. He asked Bond to demonstrate and have the board spell his last name, which he believed was unknown to Bond (it may not have been as Bond's main line of work was understanding the patenting process and the people involved). Under Bond's control, it did just that. Thus, a patent was granted, and the board received the extra marketing hook of being "proven at a patent office."
Ouija for Sale
With its shiny new patent, a great backstory, and a willing and eager public, the first Ouija boards went on sale for the hefty sum of $1.50. Kennard first marketed it in 1891 as a "link between the known and unknown." With the mystique surrounding it, a populace eager to connect with their dead, and a "patent proven" guarantee, Ouija was an immediate success. Within a year, the company required multiple factories both in the US and across the pond to keep up with demand.
Fuld Takes Over
In 1898, Kennard employee and stockholder William Fuld licensed the exclusive rights to manufacture the Ouija board, something that made him rich and successful beyond his wildest dreams. In the intervening years, the Ouija board has remained successful, enduring for more than 130 years as a popular game.
Across the decades, many companies tried to make Ouija copycats, and Fuld sued them all. He died in the late 1920s in a fall from the roof of a factory he claimed the Ouija board "told him" to build, but the exclusive rights to the brand remained with his estate until the mid-1960s, when Parker Brothers purchased it. In the early 1990s, Hasbro bought Parker Brothers, and they are the board's current manufacturers. While the materials and manufacture have changed over the years, the design remains virtually the same. Today, you can find a number of copycat boards, but none are as immediately recognizable and successful as the original.
A Cultural Icon
Over the years, the Ouija board has become a cultural icon steeped in lore and urban legend peppered with some interesting true tales. It has served as a vehicle for multiple well-known channeled spirits, such as Seth, Ephriam, and Patience Worth. It has also featured in the plots of a number of movies, including its notoriously demonic turn in The Exorcist, when the film's protagonist Regan uses the Ouija board to contact Captain Howdy, which ultimately becomes the source of her possession. More recently, it served as the source of a creepy haunting in the 2007 movie Paranormal Activity.
A Storied History
Regardless of whether you believe the Ouija board is a game, a parlor trick, or a direct channel to the Devil himself, you can't argue with its success. No matter who you ask, it seems everyone has an opinion about the Ouija board or a story to share about a friend of a friend who used one to their detriment. So, more than 125 years after it was first conceived by a group Spiritualists and co-opted by shrewd businessmen, the Ouija board has circled the globe and found its way into the homes, hearts, legends, and nightmares of millions of people around the world.