The Interesting History of the Ouija Board
Ouija boards are the stuff of blockbuster horror Halloween traditions, and grade school sleepover seances. It has been part of the public collective for over a century, and even though your great-grandparents might have experimented with one, they’re just as popular today as they were a millennia ago. The Ouija board has stayed relevant throughout generations, mainly because people can’t get enough of its spooky possibilities — especially around Halloween time.
While the first advertisement for a Ouija board hit newspapers in 1891 (and promised to provide a link “between the known and unknown, the material and immaterial” according to an article published in the Pittsburgh Dispatch), America’s curiosity over the veil that separated the living and the dead peaked way before then. The early 1800s ushered in a new spiritual awakening, one that involved psychic healers, mesmerists, and mediums according to Brandon Hodge, a collector, historian, and prevailing authority on planchettes and Ouija boards, who talked to Apartment Therapy about the history of the Ouija board.
The movement began to really pick up steam in 1848 when sisters Maggie and Kate Fox claimed to communicate with a “spirit” in their home in Hydesville, New York, through a series of raps and knocks. People were gripped, and the girls quickly became celebrity mediums who convened with spirits in theaters housing thousands of audience members.
Hodge said that table tipping, dial plates, alphabet calling, and talking boards became fashionable parlor pastimes, with guests calling out letters of the alphabet between martini sips, and the spirit tapping out a word. By 1851, one Philadelphia newspaper reported that some 50 to 60 séance circles were operating in the city, and a Cincinnati newspaper estimated that over 1,200 mediums were gathering in town.
The Ouija board was basically a commercialized talking board — which already existed on the market — but with a few improvements. Table tipping and alphabet calling were very laborious, but the Ouija made the process faster by including letters and phrases right on the board. Two rows of letters sat above the numbers 0 through 9, with “yes” and “no” sitting at the top corners and “goodbye” at the bottom. The board came with a “planchette,” which is a teardrop shaped tool that moves one’s hands across the board.
The board got its curious name through Helen Peters, the sister-in-law of one of the original investors. She fancied herself a strong medium, and when she asked the board what it would like to be called, her hands spelled out the word “Ouija.” When asked what that meant, the board replied “good luck.” Seeing how that was sufficiently creepy, the name stuck.
The Ouija board flew off of the shelves and became the “must-have Christmas gift of the season,” according to Hodge, much like the Tickle Me Elmo doll in 1996. The alphabet board then continued its success in waves for over 125 years.
History shows that the Ouija board boomed in popularity during times of loss. “We find that interest in spiritualism, and more specifically these commercial devices, waxes most heavily after great loss of life,” Hodge says. “It’s really no coincidence that it first became popular after the Civil War. Three quarter of a million Americans died in that conflict, so you have a lot of people who lost loved ones, who are then turning toward the consolation and comfort of knowing that their loved ones have persisted after life.”
The Ouija board hit peak popularity in the 1920s, soon after over 116,000 soldiers perished in World War I and over 675,000 Americans died during the 1918 Spanish Flu. It then peaked in popularity again during World War II, and it outsold Monopoly in 1967, right at the height of the Vietnam War.
And over the decades, the Ouija board has remained a staple in literature, movies, and TV shows, which Hodge says has kept its popularity alive and cemented its its spooky reputation. The cardboard game appeared in everything from “The Exorcist” to “I Love Lucy” to “Breaking Bad,” spanning all mediums and genres.
It has helped people cross the veil, and it remains popular today because of that reputation. “I think there is something visceral about it. “There’s just something iconic about that. Those letters on a board, and the mysterious movements of the planchette,” Hodge says. “It continues to draw people.”