The Ouija board is one of those things, like s’mores and ghost stories, now chiefly associated with pre-teen sleepovers and cottage weekends. It’s sold in every toy and games section, right beside Monopoly, Sorry, and other standard family amusements. There was a time not so long ago, however, when it was not considered a children’s game, but something much more serious.
People seem always to have been interested in foretelling the future, or in receiving guidance about difficult decisions, and in so doing they naturally looked to their gods and spirits for help (after all, who else would know the answers?) Divination was the name given to the practice of receiving messages from the gods or spirits. Using tools such as pendulums, the entrails of animals (I know, ewwww, right?), or cards such as the Tarot, the practitioner would attempt to communicate with the spirit world.
In the latter half of the 19th century, there was a vogue for spiritualism of all kinds in the kitchens and parlours of the middle and upper classes across Europe and North America. In large cities and small towns alike, people gathered in dimly-lit rooms for seances, where, with the aid of so-called “sensitives” or mediums, they tried eagerly to communicate with the dead. Sometimes the medium would call upon a “spirit guide”, whose persona was usually that of a shaman or other exotic holy man, and who would “possess” her (most mediums seemed to be women) and speak through her.
The Ouija board evolved from a different type of spiritualism called automatic or spirit writing. The attraction of spirit writing seemed to be that it did not require the services of a spirit medium; amateur participants could ask their own questions, and receive answers, in private and without the need for any intermediary. The craze for automatic writing really took off with the inventionn of a device called a planchette.
A planchette is a heart- or teardrop-shaped device, made originally of wood (hence the name, which is French for “little plank”), with two short wheeled legs at the round end and a hole in which to mount a pencil at the other. The seance participants would place the planchette over a piece of paper, then place their fingertips lightly upon its surface.
If this looks familiar, it’s because the planchette is the immediate ancestor of the Ouija board. Automatic writing, as provided by the planchette’s pencil, was often difficult to decipher and an exercise in frustration. In 1890, American lawyer Elijah Bond filed for a patent on a new and improved version of the planchette, in which the pencil was replaced by a circular glass lens, and a board containing the alphabet A to Z, the numbers 0 to 9, and the words “Yes”, “No”, and “Goodbye” was included. The combination of the so-called “talking board” and the planchette were named “Ouija” by a man named William Fuld, who took over production in 1901. The company’s claim was that the name had been disclosed to it by the talking board itself, and that it was an Ancient Egyptian word meaning “good luck”. The currently-accepted explanation is that the name was formed by hammering together the words for “yes” in French and German: “oui” and “ja” (no one really knows why).
The patents and production facilities were sold to Parker Brothers in 1966, which (although now owned by Hasbro Inc.) continues to manufacture Ouija boards to the present day.
It’s believed that the planchette’s motion around the board is provided by what is known as an ideomotor response, in which the participants’ fingertips resting upon the planchette’s surface exercise tiny, involuntary movements — movements so subtle that the participants are not themselves aware of making them (similar to the phenomenon of dowsing for water using a forked stick).
Finally — why does the Ouija board contain the word “Goodbye”? It has long been a staple of spiritualist belief that the veil between the worlds of the living and the dead, having been lifted during a seance, must be let fall at the end of the session — lest the spirits find themselves with a permanent pathway from their world to ours. Ouija board practitioners are cautioned to always “say goodbye to the spirits” by moving consciously moving the planchette to the word printed on the board, thus closing the connection.