The Ouija board, also known as spirit board or talking board, is a product of the American 19th century obsession with spiritualism, the belief that the dead are able to communicate with the living.
Around for years in Europe, spiritualism hit America hard in 1848 with the sudden rise in interest of the Fox sisters from upstate New York. The sisters claimed to receive messages from spirits who knocked on the walls to answer the questions they were asked.
While spiritualism grew in American culture, so did the frustration with how long it was taking the spirits to convey a meaningful message. During this drawn out process the medium would call out a letter of the alphabet and wait for a knock on the wall signalling a “yes” or “no” answer to whether or not that letter was correct.
After its commercial introduction by businessman and patent attorney Elijah Bond on July 1, 1890, the Ouija board was seen as an innocent parlor game that was unrelated to the occult until the American Spiritualist Pearl Curran popularized its use as a forecasting tool during World War I.
The modern Ouija board
The modern Ouija board is a flat board marked with the letters of the alphabet, the numbers 0-9, the words “yes”, “no”, “hello” and “goodbye”. Included, is a moveable indicator, called a planchette (a small heart-shaped piece of wood or plastic).
The planchette is used to indicate a spirit’s message by spelling it out on the board during a séance. The participants place their fingers on the planchette, which is then moved, by the spirit, to spell out words.
It’s all in the name
It’s a popular belief that the name “Ouija” is the combination of the French word for “yes”, oui, and the German word, also for “yes”, ja. However, research shows that it was Bond’s sister-in-law, Helen Peters (who, according to Bond was a “strong medium”), that supplied the name.
Sitting around a table the two asked the board what they should call it and the name “Ouija” was spelled out. When they asked the board what the name meant, it replied “Good Luck.”
Proving it worked to the patent office
Elijah Bond knew that if he couldn’t prove the board worked, he wouldn’t get the patent for it. So, Bond took Helen Peters and went to the patent office in Washington to file the application.
There, the chief patent officer demanded they prove to him the board actually worked by spelling out his name, which was supposed to be unknown to the pair. They all sat down at a table and began talking to the spirits. The board faithfully spelled out the man’s name and Bond was granted the patent for the Ouija board.
It is, however, a little unclear if the mystical spirits actually helped Bond obtain his patent, or if Bond, being a patent attorney, already knew what the man’s name was. Either way, on February 10, 1891, a visible shaken and convinced patent officer handed over a patent for the Ouija board and people have been communicating with the other side ever since.
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