How Ouija Boards Went From Spiritualist Tool to Children's Toy

iStock.com/M00Nkey
iStock.com/M00Nkey

With its inviting pastel packaging, the pink Ouija board for girls fit right in on toy shelves when it was released in 2008. The moon and sun symbols, normally depicted in a Victorian-era style, had been redesigned as generic cartoons. It came with a purse-like carrying case and cards with questions like Will I be a famous actor someday? and Who will call/text me next? From the opposite end of the game aisle, the new board could have been mistaken for Pretty Pretty Princess or Mystery Date—but it didn't fail to catch the attention of some sharp-eyed parents.

News of the product began spreading around the internet soon after its debut, with religious blogs accusing the toy's manufacturer, Hasbro, of marketing the occult to kids. There was a movement to boycott Toys "R" Us and Hasbro in 2010 because of it. "Hasbro is treating it as if it's just a game," Christian activist Stephen Phelan told Fox News. "It's not Monopoly."

But despite the sudden public reaction, Ouija boards had in fact been marketed as a game for a century by the time "Ouija for girls" hit toy stores.

Pink Ouija board on toy store shelf.
Tim Deering, Flickr // CC BY-NC 2.0. Cropped

Ouija boards, or "talking boards," are a fairly recent invention. They were an outgrowth of Spiritualism, a 19th century religious movement that believed in communicating with the dead. Among other types of early technology they used to try and reach the deceased, Spiritualists would sometimes paint the alphabet onto a table and use a rolling pointer, or planchette, to spell out otherworldly messages letter by letter. Soon other elements, like a Yes and No in the top corners, the word GOODBYE at the bottom, and the numbers 0 through 9 beneath the alphabet, became standard in the design. The components were simple enough that anyone with curiosity in the supernatural could assemble their own board at home.

In 1890, three entrepreneurs named Elijah Bond, Charles Kennard, and William H.A. Maupin decided to monetize the parlor game. They secured the patent for the Ouija board (Kennard claimed the term ouija was an ancient Egyptian word for good luck) and started selling the wooden games for $1.50 a pop. Even though the board sold well, the original team dissolved after several years due to internal conflicts, and an employee of their novelty company, William Fuld, took over the rights. He was instrumental in transforming Ouija into an iconic toy brand—by the time of his passing in 1927, Fuld held over 21 Ouija-related patents and copyrights.

Fuld—and after his death, the Fuld family company—weren't afraid to play up the sense of mystery surrounding the boards in order to sell games. A 1920 advertisement in The Metropolitan magazine featured promises of a talking board that "Prophesies—Forewarns—and Prefigures, Your Destiny" beneath an eerie illustration of a disembodied face floating behind a player's shoulder—an image that would become part of the board's design. In 1938, the Fuld company sent out a mailer that read: "Call it a game if you like—laugh at the weird, uncanny messages it brings you if you dare, but you'll have to admit that mystifying Oracle Ouija gives you the most intensely interesting, unexplainable entertainment you've ever experienced."

Fascination with Spiritualism was still strong in early 20th century America, and Ouija board sales reflected that, with Fuld personally making $1 million from the game before he died in 1927. Ouija boards allowed members of the general public to dabble in mysticism without fully committing to hiring a medium. Guiding the planchette also provided a way for courting couples to touch and flirt discreetly, as Norman Rockwell's May 1920 cover for The Saturday Evening Post showed.

Ouija continued to be a money-maker for the Fuld family until it eventually caught the attention of one of America's largest toy companies. Parker Brothers bought the manufacturing rights to the Ouija board in 1966, and instead of giving it a family friendly-makeover in keeping with the other games in their stable, the board game company decided to maintain the darker marketing style that had worked for the product in the past. Boxes displayed a mysterious shrouded figure waving a hand as if casting a spell. The packaging advertised that games were made in Salem, Massachusetts—the town where Parker Brothers was founded as well as the site of America's most infamous witch trials.

Vintage Ouija game.
Jonas Forth, Flickr // CC BY-ND 2.0. Cropped

The Ouija brand turned out to be a savvy purchase for Parker Brothers. The New Age movement was starting to form in the mid- to late-1960s, and the public was more interested in Spiritualism and the occult than it had been since the beginning of the century. In 1967, the year after Parker Brothers bought Ouija, the game outsold Monopoly.

Even the board's frightening appearance in 1973's The Exorcist and the Satanic Panic of the 1980s weren't enough to keep people from buying the game. By the 1980s and '90s, it had gone from a Spiritualist activity for adults to a game that kids and teenagers broke out at get-togethers. "Back then Ouija boards were still a staple of sleepover parties," Mitch Horowitz, author of the book Occult America, tells Mental Floss. "Kids gathered in basements to smoke pot and listen to Led Zeppelin IV and play with the Ouija board."

Advertisements from this period targeted kids directly. One early '90s commercial shows a group of boys asking the board questions like "Will I ever be tall enough to slam dunk?" and "Will my parents let me go to the concert?" while zany music plays in the background.

Hasbro acquired the rights to the game when it absorbed Parker Brothers in 1991, and Ouija board commercials aimed at children have since disappeared from airwaves. Today, even though the Spiritualist movement that spawned the board has faded from public consciousness, the game's connection to the era is still part of its appeal—even if users aren't fully aware of it.

"It really is the one and only object from the age of Spiritualism that's still part of American life," Horowitz says. "Ask most people 'Have you attended a seance?' and you'll get looked at funny, but if you ask them 'Have played with the Ouija board?' and most people will say, 'Oh yes, I had a scary experience,' or 'My kid had a scary experience with something of that nature.' It's not too far off from asking someone if they've been to a seance—it just happens to be product-based."

The game has also proven harder to modernize than other classic board games; it's a tactile experience, Horowitz points out, which makes it tricky to digitize. But that doesn't mean Hasbro hasn't tried to bring the game into the 21st century: Past attempts included a Ouija board that glowed in the dark and a pink board that fit every stereotype about what young girls like—the same one that drew ire from religious groups.

But none of these reinventions have successfully replaced the classic Ouija board most people are familiar with. If you look up Ouija on Hasbro's website today, you'll find a game that resembles the same weathered, wooden tables mediums used to create their first talking boards in the 19th century—a design that may be enough to make users forget they're playing with a copyrighted board game meant for kids, and not an occult artifact.

5 Facts About Edgar Allan Poe on His 210th Birthday

You’ve read Edgar Allan Poe’s terrifying stories. You can quote "The Raven." But how well do you know the writer’s quirky sense of humor and code-cracking abilities? Let’s take a look at a few  things you might not know about the acclaimed author, who was born 210 years ago today.

1. He was the original balloon boy.

You probably remember 2009’s infamous “Balloon Boy” hoax. Turns out the Heene family that perpetrated that fraud weren’t even being entirely original in their attempt at attention-grabbing. They were actually cribbing from Poe.

In 1844 Poe cooked up a similar aviation hoax in the pages of the New York Sun. The horror master cranked out a phony news item describing how a Mr. Monck Mason had flown a balloon flying machine called Victoria from England to Sullivan’s Island, South Carolina in just 75 hours. According to Poe’s story, the balloon had also hauled seven passengers across the ocean.

No balloonist had ever crossed the Atlantic before, so this story quickly became a huge deal. Complete transatlantic travel in just three days? How exciting! Readers actually queued up outside the Sun’s headquarters to get their mitts on a copy of the day’s historic paper.

Poe’s report on the balloon was chock full of technical details. He devoted a whole paragraph to explaining how the balloon was filled with coal gas rather than “the more expensive and inconvenient hydrogen.” He listed the balloon’s equipment, which included “cordage, barometers, telescopes, barrels containing provision for a fortnight, water-casks, cloaks, carpet-bags, and various other indispensable matters, including a coffee-warmer, contrived for warming coffee by means of slack-lime, so as to dispense altogether with fire, if it should be judged prudent to do so.” He also included hundreds of words of excerpts from the passengers’ journals.

The only catch to Poe’s story was that it was entirely fictitious. The Sun’s editors quickly wised up to Poe’s hoax, and two days later they posted an understated retraction that noted, “We are inclined to believe that the intelligence is erroneous.”

2. He dabbled in cryptography.

If you’ve read Poe’s story “The Gold-Bug,” you probably know that he had a working knowledge of cryptography. But you might not know that Poe was actually a pretty darn good cryptographer in his own right.

Poe’s first notable code-cracking began in 1839. He sent out a call for readers of his Philadelphia newspaper to send him encoded messages that he could decipher. Poe would then puzzle over the secret messages for hours. He published the results of his work in a wildly popular recurring feature. Poe also liked to toss his own codes out there to keep readers busy. Some of the codes were so difficult that Poe professed utter amazement when even a single reader would crack them.

Poe was so confident in his abilities as a cryptographer that he approached the Tyler administration in 1841 with an offer to work as a government code cracker. He modestly promised, “Nothing intelligible can be written which, with time, I cannot decipher.” Apparently there weren’t any openings for him, though.

3. The "Allan" came later.

It would sound odd to just say “Edgar Poe,” but the famous “Allan” wasn’t originally part of the writer’s name. Poe was born in Boston on January 19, 1809 to professional actors, but his early childhood was fairly rotten. When Poe was just two years old, his father abandoned the family—leaving the toddler's mother, Elizabeth, to raise Edgar and his two siblings. Not long after that, Elizabeth died of tuberculosis.

Poe actually had a little luck at that point. John and Frances Allan, a well-to-do Richmond family, took the boy in and provided for his education. Although the Allans never formally adopted Poe, he added their surname to his own name.

Like a lot of Poe’s fiction, his story with the Allans didn't have a particularly happy ending. Poe and John Allan grew increasingly distant during the boy’s teenage years, and after Poe left for the University of Virginia, he and Allan became estranged. (Apparently the root of these problems involved Poe’s tendency to gamble away whatever money Allan sent him to subsidize his studies.)

4. He had a nemesis.

Like a lot of writers, Poe had a rival. His was the poet, critic, and editor Rufus Griswold. Although Griswold had included Poe’s work in his 1842 anthology The Poets and Poetry of America, Poe held an extremely low opinion of Griswold’s intellect and literary integrity. Poe published an essay blasting Griswold’s selections for the anthology, and their rivalry began.

Things really heated up when Griswold succeeded Poe as the editor of Graham’s Magazine at a higher salary than Poe had been pulling in. Poe began publicly lambasting Griswold’s motivations; he even went so far as to claim that Griswold was something of a literary homer who puffed up New England poets.

Poe might have had a point about Griswold’s critical eye, but Griswold had the good fortune to outlive Poe. After Poe died, Griswold penned a mean-spirited obituary in which he stated that the writer’s death “will startle many, but few will be grieved by it” and generally portrayed Poe as an unhinged maniac.

Slamming a guy in his obituary is pretty low, but Griswold was just getting warmed up. He convinced Poe’s aunt, Maria Clemm, to make him Poe’s literary executor. Griswold then published a biography of Poe that made him out to be a drug-addled drunk, all while keeping the profits from a posthumous edition of Poe’s work.

5. His death was a mystery worth of his writing.

In 1849 Poe left New York for a visit to Richmond, but he never made it that far south. Instead, Poe turned up in front of a Baltimore bar deliriously raving and wearing clothes that didn’t fit. Passersby rushed Poe to the hospital, but he died a few days later without being able to explain what happened to him.

Poe’s rumored causes of death were “cerebral inflammation” and “congestion of the brain,” which were polite euphemisms for alcohol poisoning. Modern scholars don’t totally buy this explanation, though. The characterization of Poe as a raging drunk mostly comes from Griswold’s posthumous smear campaign, and his incoherent state of mind may have been the result of rabies or syphilis.

Some Poe fans subscribe to a more sinister theory about the writer’s death, though. They think he may have fallen victim to “cooping,” a sordid 19th century political practice. Gangs of political thugs would round up homeless or weak men and hold them captive in a safe place called a “coop” right before a major election. On election day—and there was an election in Baltimore on October 3, 1849, the day Poe was found—the gangs would then drug or beat the hostages before taking them around to vote at multiple polling places.

This story sounds like something straight out of Poe’s own writing, but it might actually be true. Poe’s crummy physical state and delirium would be consistent with a victim of cooping, and the ill-fitting clothes jibe with gangs’ practice of making their hostages change clothes so they could cast multiple votes. With no real evidence either way, though, Poe’s death remains one of literature’s most fascinating mysteries.

This post originally appeared in 2011.

The $13,000 Epiphany That Made Orville Redenbacher a National Popcorn King

iStock.com/NoDerog
iStock.com/NoDerog

Happy National Popcorn Day! While you’re no doubt celebrating with a bowl of freshly popped, liberally buttered popcorn, here’s something else to digest: Orville Redenbacher originally called his product Red-Bow.

In 1951, Redenbacher and his partner, a fellow Purdue grad named Charlie Bowman, purchased the George F. Chester and Son seed corn plant in Boone Township, Indiana. Though Redenbacher’s background was in agronomy and plant genetics, he had dabbled in popcorn, and was friendly with the Chester family.

Eventually, Carl Hartman was brought in to experiment. In 1969, when the trio had developed a seed they felt really confident in, they went to market. They dubbed the product “Red-Bow,” a nod to “Redenbacher” and “Bowman.”

The product was a hit regionally, but by 1970, Bowman and Redenbacher were ready for a national audience and hired a Chicago advertising agency to advise them on branding strategy. At their first meeting, Redenbacher talked about popcorn for three hours. “Come back next week and we’ll have something for you,” he was told afterward.

The following week, he turned to the agency and was told that “Orville Redenbacher’s” was the perfect name for the fledgling popcorn brand. “Golly, no,” he said. “Redenbacher is such a ... funny name.” That was the point, they told him, and they must have made a convincing case for it, because Orville Redenbacher is the brand we know today—and the man himself is still a well-known spokesman more than 20 years after his death.

Still, Redenbacher wasn’t sure that the $13,000 fee the agency had charged was money well spent. “I drove back to Indiana wryly thinking we had paid $13,000 for someone to come up with the same name my mother had come up with when I was born,” Redenbacher later wrote.

Hungry for more Redenbacher? Take a look at the inventor at work in the vintage commercial below.

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER