In the time of Halloween, the serious and not-so-serious often turn to parlor games that verge on the occult, in trying to contact ghosts and spirits that we don't think about during the rest of the year. The common Ouija board is one way to either pass the time, have a few laughs, or scare yourself silly. But where did it come from? Ouija historian Robert Murch found out over twenty years ago that no one had completely documented the history of the Ouija board, outside of the reason for its popularity.
The Ouija board, in fact, came straight out of the American 19th century obsession with spiritualism, the belief that the dead are able to communicate with the living. Spiritualism, which had been around for years in Europe, hit America hard in 1848 with the sudden prominence of the Fox sisters of upstate New York; the Foxes claimed to receive messages from spirits who rapped on the walls in answer to questions, recreating this feat of channeling in parlors across the state. Aided by the stories about the celebrity sisters and other spiritualists in the new national press, spiritualism reached millions of adherents at its peak in the second half of the 19th century. Spiritualism worked for Americans: it was compatible with Christian dogma, meaning one could hold a séance on Saturday night and have no qualms about going to church the next day. It was an acceptable, even wholesome activity to contact spirits at séances, through automatic writing, or table turning parties, in which participants would place their hands on a small table and watch it begin shake and rattle, while they all declared that they weren’t moving it. The movement also offered solace in an era when the average lifespan was less than 50: Women died in childbirth; children died of disease; and men died in war. Even Mary Todd Lincoln, wife of the venerable president, conducted séances in the White House after their 11-year-old son died of a fever in 1862; during the Civil War, spiritualism gained adherents in droves, people desperate to connect with loved ones who’d gone away to war and never come home.
Which explains why it became so popular, but the story of how the game came to market is even more fascinating. There were homemade boards to tell fortunes before the Ouija board was patented. The businessmen who rushed to patent the game knew they had to prove that it worked before they could secure a patent. And they did just that. Read that story, plus how the Ouija board really works, at Smithsonian.