The second half of the 19th century was the golden age of the Occult Arts. Spiritualist practices were introduced among the wealthy and fashion-driven classes, and tea tables quickly became surfaces from which to invoke the deceased and open portals to the other side.
There were several means, and among the most common were the “talking boards”, which allowed for easy communication with the spirits, and which some claimed were originally invented by the Egyptians. By the mid-century, the first recognizable model was designed in France, it was a board with a pointer to which a pencil was attached, writing answers as it slided.
An American entrepreneur saw it and immediately recognized it as a great business opportunity. Elijah Bond was a veteran of the Civil War, where he fought with the Confederates. He was born in 1847 in Maryland, was a Mason, and on May 28, 1890 he introduced the first-known patent for what would soon be universally known as “ouija”. The origin of the name remains unclear but the most widespread explanation suggests it’s the combination of “oui” and “ja”, the French and German words for saying “yes”, however this theory has many detractors. The patent was granted on February 10, 1891.
The American ouija as we know it today, consists of a board containing the letters of the alphabet appear alongside “YES” and “NO”. Ssome also include numbers to speed up communication, and even a “GOODBYE” message to end it. Devised originally for two people, nothing prevents them from being used by several participants, or even a single person. Those who intervene are supposed to touch the pointer using only the tip of their fingers before asking a question. The pointer will glide across the board from one letter to another giving an answer.
What is surprising about the patent number US446054A (which Bond also registered in Canada) is that the device appears classified as “toy or game”, without any mention of its possible esoteric uses. And in fact it maintained that taxonomy in the following versions commercialized by the International Novelty Company.
The company started to market the ouija, making it something very desired. The most disturbing version may be the one registered in 1907 under the name “Nirvana”: its logo shows a swastika crossed by that word. The company itself adopted the name “The Swastika Novelty Company”. Despite the fact that the symbol was still innocuous, the board was starting to be used by anti-Semitic groups.
Bond died in 1921. At that time, his patent, like other similar ones that appeared in later years, was acquired by William Fuld, an entrepreneur from Baltimore who began to be known as the true father of the ouija by the media because it was under his name that as the board became a real phenomenon. William Fuld grew a small empire sustained mainly by Ouija boards and pool tables. His death was quite unfortunate: in 1927 he fell from the roof of one of his factories, where he was overseeing the installation of a flagpole, and died from injuries when he was being transferred to the hospital.
That was the end for Fuld, but not at all for the ouija. Always labeled as an entertainment device, it was sold by several companies until it was finally commercialized by the Parker Brothers. And the story goes on: Today, the board’s patent is owned by the multinational toy maker Hasbro, the owner of such universal games as Monopoly, Battleship, Twister or Transformers, and a few years ago they raised great controversy when introducing a ouija board specifically designed for girls, in pink.
As for Bond, his tomb remained a mystery for decades, until it was finally located in 2007 at Green Mount Cemetery in Baltimore. A group of enthusiasts managed to raise money to place a dignified tombstone: In the back, it incorporates a Ouija board. A recognition of his legacy and, perhaps, also a way to make things easier for anyone who wants to establish contact with his creator. Too bad that its vertical position doesn’t really help.