I’ve decided to go slightly off track with today’s Myths and Memes post. I do love the history behind a story as much as the story itself, so instead of telling a story, I’m looking at an element with a history that can be traced.
Showing up from everywhere from creepy pasta to Paranormal Activity, the Ouija board is just another item in a long line of items used to contact the dead. While Spiritualism only dates back to the late 19th century (and its roots run smack dab through the middle of Buffalo) humans have most likely been trying to come up with ways of talking to their dead for as long as there’s been a belief in the afterlife. However, the methodology of contact has changed over time as technologies and consumable goods have entered the market place; it’s hard to read tea leaves prior to having tea at your disposal.
The board as its used by modern teens was introduced in 1890 by Elijah Bond and Charles Kennard. The divination style that is used by the board has been in use in some form for at least a thousand years; the style of automatic writing or allowing a spirit to use the hands of an individual to spell out messages familiar to a board user has been in place since 1100 or later in China. The name Ouija was introduced in 1901. While there seems to be no direct implication that the board was intended as anything other than a party game when first introduced, the company producing the board did attempt to heighten the paranormal air surrounding it by claiming that the name came from the use of the board. It was later stated that the name came from blending several words for ‘yes’ into a single name. Hasbro currently holds the patent on the board.
The board made the jump from party game to occult tool with the help of an American named Pearl Curran. Curran claimed that over the space of several years (1913 to 1937) she channeled a spirit named Patience Worth through a board. Worth was a particularly talkative spirit and provided Curran with multiple plays, poems, and other works of fiction which Curran’s husband transcribed as Curran used the board. Curran’s use of the board helped to push the toy from simple game into occult territory (and is a a fully interesting case in and off itself, see the Smithsonian’s article on her controversy).