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Mystery Unlocked: Unraveling the Strange History Behind the Ouija Board

Oct 18, 2016 04:00 AM EDT
Ouija board
Imagine a magical device that could tell the past, present and future as well as give human a connection to the unknown. In 1981, Ouija, "The Wonderful Talking Board" as The Pittsburg Dispatch describes it, was introduced to the market. Now, a historian reveals the mysterious history behind this "magical" board.
(Photo : Mijail0711/Wikimedia Commons)

Imagine a magical device that could tell the past, present and future as well as give humans a connection to the unknown. In 1981, Ouija, "The Wonderful Talking Board" as The Pittsburg Dispatch describes it, was introduced to the market. Now, a historian reveals the mysterious history behind this "magical" board.

Spiritualism and the Birth of the Talking Board

Ouija historian, Robert Murch, who has been researching about the magical board since 1992, tells Smithsonian that the exact origin of the Ouija board is unknown.

The Ouija board is an offshoot of the Americans' fascination for spiritualism, which came from Europe and became prevalent in the US. The sudden obsession of Americans to the belief that the dead could contact the living could be traced to the popular Fox sisters, who claimed that spirits from the other world could speak and give them messages.

"Communicating with the dead was common, it wasn’t seen as bizarre or weird. It’s hard to imagine that now, we look at that and think, ‘Why are you opening the gates of hell?’” said Murch.

In 1886, Associated Press published an article about spiritualists in an Ohio camp using a talking board, which had letters, numbers and a pointer. Charles Kennard of Baltimore, upon hearing the news about the device, searched for investors, including local attorney Elijah Bond, to market these items through the Kennard Novelty Company; thus, the birth of the talking board.

circa 1950: A medium using a ouija board and glass to communicate with spirits.
(Photo : Orlando /Three Lions/Getty Images) circa 1950: A medium using a ouija board and glass to communicate with spirits.

Origins of the Word "Ouija"

Ouija, as Smithsonian clarifies, is not a term coined from the French word "oui" which means "yes" and the German word "ja."

Truth is, the one who created the puzzling word was Helen Peters, Bond's sister-in-law, who claimed to talk to the board and asked what its name was. When she asked what the meaning of Ouija was, it said, "Good luck."

Symbol of Hope in Uncertain Times

In a time where Civil War was happening and people had lifespans under 50 due to childbirth, disease and war, spiritualism's popularity heightened as it offered hope for people to, once again, contact their loved ones.

In fact, during the Great Depression, the demand for Ouija boards were so high that in 1944, a New York department store reportedly sold 50,000 boards in just over five months.

Now, after more than a century, the Ouija board has still fascinated the public as a source of curiosity and entertainment. It has made its way into movies, literature and has marked its place in the American culture.

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