In February 1891, the first advertisement for Ouija: The Wonderful Talking Board appeared in newspapers. It was described as a magical device that answered questions about the past, present, and future with marvelous accuracy. It promised never-failing amusement and recreation for all classes. It was described as: A link between the known and unknown, the material and immaterial.
The boards were similar to those in stores today. The only difference being that the modern boards are made of pressed cardboard and use a plastic planchette; whereas the original boards and planchettes were wooden.
The boards were designed to be used by 2 or more people. You would place your fingers on the planchette , ask a question, and then the planchette would move around and around and spell out the answers to your questions.
The original boards were sold out of a toy shop in Pittsburg, PA. The Kennard Novelty Company was the first to produce the board. They marketed it as both a mystical oracle and family entertainment. The idea for the board came out of America's obsession with the 19th century spiritualism movement. The movement had been popular in Europe for years, but didnt take off in America until 1848. This was around the time that the Fox sisters, from Upstate New York, were claiming to be communicating with spirits through knocks and rappings on the walls of their home.
People wanted faster results and an easier way to communicate with spirits, and thats how the board and the idea for it were born. Its been successful for over 120 years. In 1944, 50,000 of them were sold by one New York department store. When the Parker Brothers bought out the Novelty Company in 1967, 2 million boards were sold.
There are also strange stories surrounding the board.
- In 1920, the National Wire Service reported that people were using the boards to try and solve the murder of Joseph Burton Elwell, who was a New York City gambler.
- In 1921, the New York Times printed a report about a Chicago woman that was placed into a psychiatric hospital. She told the authorities that spirits in her board had told her to leave her mothers dead body in her living room for 15 days before burying it in the backyard.
- In 1930, there was a news report about two women that killed another woman because the Ouija board told them to.
- In 1941, a 23 year old gas station attendant told The New York Times that he joined the army because the board told him to.
- In 1982, James Merrill won the National Book Critics Circle Award for his Ouija-inspired poem The Changing Lights of Sandover.
Scientists dont believe that the board is powered by spirits. They believe it's the ideomotor effect, which is automatic muscle movements that happen without conscious thought. One example of this is crying when you see a sad movie.
Dr. Chris French, who is professor of psychology and anomalistic psychology at Goldsmiths University of London explains it as: It can generate a very strong impression that the movement is being caused by some outside agency, but its not. So, it is essentially our minds playing tricks on us.
Regardless of what you believe causes the phenomena associated with the Ouija board, it remains one of our great mysteries. Is it spirits communicating with us from beyond the grave? Is it our minds playing tricks on us? There are believers on both sides. Perhaps we will never truly know the answer, but the board remains a part of our history and a very fascinating one at that!
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