Once, when we were kids, we were sitting around Caroline’s bedroom and pulled out the Ouija board that had once belonged to our mother.
I’m not here to tell you if Ouija boards have mystical capabilities. All I know is that as we placed our fingers on the little plastic pizza and watched it move around the board, the wind — or an otherworldly spirit? — got ahold of a window shutter downstairs, cracking it against the outside of the house.
We all jumped a mile and laughed anxiously and decided to see if dessert was ready, because, like, we weren’t scared, or anything, just ready for dessert and the company of some adult authority figures, OKAY.
I haven’t often thought about Ouija boards since that day. I think we still have ours in a closet, nestled in between Clue Jr. and Guess Who. But it turns out that the real history of the Ouija board is at least as freaky as the lore.
In the late 1800s, spiritualism was all the rage. Women held seances the way we hold Tupperware parties today. (Or, in the 1950s. The way we hold…Snapchat parties? Does anyone socialize anymore?) The belief that you could communicate with the dead was comforting at a time when the average lifespan was only 50 years old.
The 1900 version of an Instagram Influencer was people who claimed they had direct access to “the other side.” For example, the wildly popular Fox sisters claimed they were able to communicate with the spirit of a dead peddler through knocking on the wall. Two freaky little British girls named Elsie Wright and Frances Griffith took photos with fairies only they could see. (They later admitted that the photos were faked, though Frances maintained until her death that the last one…only the last one…was real. Whatever you say, Franny.)
But the inventors of the Ouija board weren’t mediums or psychics. They were businessmen.
Frankly, in the year 1900, communication with the dead had a real problem: it took forever. With your run-of-the-mill carnival psychic, you had to endure all that knocking and waiting around for a response, and only asking yes or no questions. It was exhausting, and not to be insensitive, but life is for the living! You got stuff to do!
People had started using “talking boards” around the turn of the century which basically looked like the modern Ouija board. They used a little piece of plastic with a hole in it to ask questions and spell out written messages from the dead. But these weren’t yet in the mass market. You had to come across one at a spooky yard sale, or get it from your weird aunt.
Four investors saw an opportunity and got together to mass produce the talking board. First, they needed a name. According to the Smithsonian,
Contrary to popular belief, “Ouija” is not a combination of the French for “yes,” oui, and the German ja. Sitting around the table, [the four investors and one woman] asked the board what they should call it; the name “Ouija” came through and, when they asked what that meant, the board replied, “Good luck.” Eerie and cryptic—but for the fact that [Helen] Peters acknowledged that she was wearing a locket bearing the picture of a woman [with] the name “Ouija” above her head.
PUHRETTY CREEEEEPY. That alone would make this a good party trick, with a spooky little backstory. But the Kennard Novelty Company didn’t just want to sell this board as a joke. They wanted serious spiritualists to use it as a way to commune with the dead. And pay money for it.
If they lived today, they’d be the masterminds behind all these ~medium~ shows.
To hit the big time, they needed the government to approve their idea in an official manner. They needed a patent. And to get a patent, they needed to prove that the board did what it said it would do.
Obvs, the patent officer tried to trick the board, asking it to spell his name, which the inventors supposedly didn’t know.
The board got it right.
Ouija Historian Robert Murch has a theory that they actually did know the guy’s name, but just pretended that they didn’t. I have a theory that being a Ouija Historian is a great pick-up line at a bar. I guess we’ll never know the truth on either of these.
The Ouija board took off from there. Everyone had to have their own talking board, and your neighborhood seance simply wasn’t worth attending if you didn’t have one. As the board’s popularity grew, so did the business. They brought in other investors and businessmen, eventually selling the company to William Fuld, known as the “Father of the Ouija Board.”
Fuld grew the company, expanding into multiple factories across the United States. In 1918, he built one massive factory for the product, which cost a whopping (for the time) $125,000.
In 1927, Fuld died after a freak accident at that factory. He was overseeing the replacement of a flagpole (#micromanager) when the iron support he was leaning on gave way. He fell backwards off the third-story roof, trying and failing to stop his fall by grabbing a window.
The weirdest part? When he first built the factory, Fuld had told the press that the Ouija board told him to build it. Probably just good marketing… or was it?
On his deathbed, just before crossing over to the great beyond, Fuld told his children to never sell the company. (And probably to keep him up-to-date on the neighborhood. He was the man who invented a way to talk to the dead, so this whole death thing probably wasn’t too concerning for him, LET’S BE REAL.)