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.

13 Surprising Facts About George Orwell

Cassowary Colorizations, Flickr // CC BY 2.0
Cassowary Colorizations, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

Before he assumed the pen name George Orwell, Eric Arthur Blair had a relatively normal upbringing for an upper-middle-class English boy of his time. Looking back now, his life proved to be anything but ordinary. He's best known for penning the dystopian novel Nineteen Eighty-Four—regarded as one of the greatest classics of all time—but writing novels was only one small facet of his life and career. In remembrance of Orwell, who was born on June 25, 1903, here are 13 facts about his life that may surprise you.

1. George Orwell attended prep school as a child—and hated it.

Eric Blair spent five years at the St. Cyprian School for boys in Eastbourne, England, which later inspired his melodramatic essay Such, Such Were the Joys. In this account, he called the school’s proprietors “terrible, all-powerful monsters” and labeled the institution itself "an expensive and snobbish school which was in process of becoming more snobbish, and, I imagine, more expensive." While Blair's misery is now considered to be somewhat exaggerated, the essay was deemed too libelous to print at the time. It was finally published in 1968 after his death.

2. He was a prankster.

Blair was expelled from his "crammer" school (an institution designed to help students "cram" for specific exams) for sending a birthday message attached to a dead rat to the town surveyor, according to Sir Bernard Crick's George Orwell: A Life, the first complete biography of Orwell. And while studying at Eton College, Orwell made up a song about John Crace, his school’s housemaster, in which he made fun of Crace’s appearance and penchant for Italian art:

Then up waddled Wog and he squeaked in Greek:
‘I’ve grown another hair on my cheek.’
Crace replied in Latin with his toadlike smile:
‘And I hope you’ve grown a lovely new pile.
With a loud deep fart from the bottom of my heart!
How d’you like Venetian art?'

Later, in a newspaper column, he recalled his boyhood hobby of replying to advertisements and stringing the salesmen along as a joke. “You can have a lot of fun by answering the advertisements and then, when you have drawn them out and made them waste a lot of stamps in sending successive wads of testimonials, suddenly leaving them cold,” he wrote.

3. He worked a number of odd jobs for most of his career.

A photo of Orwell with a BBC microphone
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Everyone’s got to pay the bills, and Blair was no exception. He spent most of his career juggling part-time jobs while authoring books on the side. Over the years, he worked as a police officer for the Indian Imperial Police in Burma (present-day Myanmar), a high school teacher, a bookstore clerk, a propagandist for the BBC during World War II, a literary editor, and a war correspondent. He also had stints as a dishwasher in Paris and as a hop-picker (for breweries) in Kent, England, but those jobs were for research purposes while “living as a tramp” and writing his first book about his experiences, Down and Out in Paris and London. (He chose to publish the book under a pseudonym, George Orwell, and the name stuck.)

4. He once got himself arrested. On purpose.


The National Archives UK // Public Domain

In 1931, while investigating poverty for his aforementioned memoir, Orwell intentionally got himself arrested for being “drunk and incapable.” This was done “in order to get a taste of prison and to bring himself closer to the tramps and small-time villains with whom he mingled,” biographer Gordon Bowker told The Guardian. At the time, he had been using the pseudonym Edward Burton and posing as a poor fish porter. After drinking several pints and almost a whole bottle of whisky and ostensibly making a scene (it’s uncertain what exactly was said or done), Orwell was arrested. His crime didn’t warrant prison time like he had hoped, and he was released after spending 48 hours in custody. He wrote about the experience in an unpublished essay titled Clink.

5. He had knuckle tattoos.

While working as a police officer in Burma, Orwell got his knuckles tattooed. Adrian Fierz, who knew Orwell, told biographer Gordon Bowker that the tattoos were small blue spots, “the shape of small grapefruits,” and Orwell had one on each knuckle. Orwell noted that some Burmese tribes believed tattoos would protect them from bullets. He may have gotten inked for similarly superstitious reasons, Bowker suggested, but it's more likely that he wanted to set himself apart from the British establishment in Burma. "He was never a properly 'correct' member of the Imperial class—hobnobbing with Buddhist priests, Rangoon prostitutes, and British drop-outs," Bowker wrote.

6. He knew seven foreign languages, to varying degrees.

Orwell wrote in a 1944 newspaper column, “In my life I have learned seven foreign languages, including two dead ones, and out of those seven I retain only one, and that not brilliantly.” In his youth, he learned French from Aldous Huxley, who briefly taught at Orwell’s boarding school and later went on to write Brave New World. Orwell ultimately became fluent in French, and at different points in his life he studied Latin, Greek, Spanish, and Burmese, to name a few.

7. He voluntarily fought in the Spanish Civil War.

Like fellow writer Ernest Hemingway and others with leftist leanings, Orwell got tangled up in the Spanish Civil War. At the age of 33, Orwell arrived in Spain, shortly after fighting had broken out in 1936, hoping to write some newspaper articles. Instead, he ended up joining the Republican militia to “fight fascism” because “it seemed the only conceivable thing to do.” The following year, he was shot in the neck by a sniper, but survived. He described the moment of being shot as “a tremendous shock—no pain, only a violent shock, such as you get from an electric terminal; with it a sense of utter weakness, a feeling of being stricken and shriveled up to nothing.” He wrote about his war experiences in the book Homage to Catalonia.

8. His manuscript for Animal Farm was nearly destroyed by a bomb.


Thomas D, Flickr // CC BY-ND 2.0

In 1944, Orwell’s home at 10 Mortimer Crescent in London was struck by a “doodlebug” (a German V-1 flying bomb). Orwell, his wife Eileen, and their son Richard Horatio were away at the time, but their home was demolished. During his lunch break at the British newspaper Tribune, Orwell would return to the foundation where his home once stood and sift through the rubble in search of his books and papers—most importantly, the manuscript for Animal Farm. “He spent hours and hours rifling through rubbish. Fortunately, he found it,” Richard recalled in a 2012 interview with Ham & High. Orwell then piled everything into a wheelbarrow and carted it back to his office.

9. He had a goat named Muriel.

He and his wife Eileen tended to several farm animals at their home in Wallington, England, including Muriel the goat. A goat by the same name in Orwell’s book Animal Farm is described as being one of the few intelligent and morally sound animals on the farm, making her one of the more likable characters in this dark work of dystopian fiction.

10. He coined the term "Cold War."

The first recorded usage of the phrase “cold war” in reference to relations between the U.S. and Soviet Union can be traced back to Orwell’s 1945 essay You and the Atom Bomb, which was written two months after atomic bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. In the essay, he described “a state which was at once unconquerable and in a permanent state of ‘cold war’ with its neighbors.” He continued:

“Had the atomic bomb turned out to be something as cheap and easily manufactured as a bicycle or an alarm clock, it might well have plunged us back into barbarism, but it might, on the other hand, have meant the end of national sovereignty and of the highly centralized police state. If, as seems to be the case, it is a rare and costly object as difficult to produce as a battleship, it is likelier to put an end to large-scale wars at the cost of prolonging indefinitely a ‘peace that is no peace.’”

11. He ratted out Charlie Chaplin and other artists for allegedly being communists.

Orwell self-identified as a democratic socialist, but his sympathy didn’t extend to communists. In 1949, he compiled a list of artists he suspected of having communist leanings and passed it along to his friend, Celia Paget, who worked for the UK’s Information Research Department. After the war ended, the branch was tasked with distributing anti-communist propaganda throughout Europe. Orwell's list included Charlie Chaplin and a few dozen other actors, writers, academics, and politicians. Other notable names that were written down in his notebook but weren’t turned over to the IRD included Katharine Hepburn, John Steinbeck, George Bernard Shaw, Orson Welles, and Cecil Day-Lewis (the father of Daniel Day-Lewis).

Orwell’s intention was to blacklist those individuals, whom he considered untrustworthy, from IRD employment. While journalist Alexander Cockburn labeled Orwell a “snitch,” biographer Bernard Crick wrote, “He wasn’t denouncing these people as subversives. He was denouncing them as unsuitable for counter-intelligence operation.”

12. He really hated American fashion magazines.

A woman reads a fashion magazine in the '40s
Keystone View/FPG/Getty Images

For a period of about a year and a half, Orwell penned a regular column called As I Please for the newspaper Tribune, in which he shared his thoughts on everything from war to objective truth to literary criticism. One such column from 1946 featured a brutal takedown of American fashion magazines. Of the models appearing on their pages, he wrote, “A thin-boned, ancient-Egyptian type of face seems to predominate: narrow hips are general, and slender, non-prehensile hands like those of a lizard are quite universal.”

As for the inane copy that accompanied advertisements, he complained:

"Words like suave-mannered, custom-finished, contour-conforming, mitt-back, inner-sole, backdip, midriff, swoosh, swash, curvaceous, slenderize, and pet-smooth are flung about with evident full expectation that the reader will understand them at a glance. Here are a few sample sentences taken at random: 'A new Shimmer Sheen color that sets your hands and his head in a whirl.' 'Bared and beautifully bosomy.' 'Feathery-light Milliken Fleece to keep her kitten-snug!' 'Others see you through a veil of sheer beauty, and they wonder why!'"

In the rest of the column, he went on to discuss traffic fatalities.

13. He nearly drowned while writing Nineteen Eighty-Four.

One day in 1947 while taking a break from writing Nineteen Eighty-Four, Orwell took his son, niece, and nephew on a boating trip across the Gulf of Corryvreckan in western Scotland, which happens to be the site of the world's third-largest whirlpool. Unsurprisingly, their dinghy capsized when it was sucked into the whirlpool, hurling them all overboard. Fortunately, all four survived, and the book that later came to be called Nineteen Eighty-Four (originally named The Last Man in Europe) was finally published in 1949, just seven months before Orwell's death from tuberculosis.

This story has been updated for 2019.

Robert Friend, One of the Last Surviving Tuskegee Airmen, Dies at 99

Kevin Winter/Getty Images
Kevin Winter/Getty Images

One of the remaining original members of the Tuskegee Airmen—the first group of African-American pilots to serve in the U.S. military—passed away on Friday. Lieutenant Colonel Robert Friend was surrounded by family and friends when he succumbed to sepsis at 99 years old on June 21, according to CNN. His passing follows that of Dr. Granville Coggs, another Tuskegee veteran who died in May.

The Tuskegee Experience, an Army Air Corps program designed to train African-American pilots for combat, was established in 1941 by the Roosevelt Administration. The group, soon to become known as the Tuskegee Airmen, would eventually lead more than 15,000 air attacks during World War II and helped to persuade President Truman to desegregate the armed forces in 1948.

Born in South Carolina but raised in New York City, Friend took an interest in aviation while observing Zeppelin aircraft and constructing model planes. According to the Los Angeles Times, Friend himself flew 142 missions during the war, and would later see action in Korea and Vietnam.

His first wife's likeness can be seen in the form of the famous "Bunny" painting found on the side of the restored P-51 Mustang he once flew. He would retire as a lieutenant colonel after 28 years of service, although flying aircraft was not his only field of expertise: Friend directed Project Blue Book—a series of studies launched by the U.S. Air Force that dealt with UFO sightings. In a 2012 interview concerning the project, Friend told HuffPost, "I, for one … believe that the probability of there being life elsewhere in this big cosmos is just absolutely out of this world—I think the probability is there."

CNN reports that Friend's funeral will most likely be held the weekend of July 4.

[h/t CNN]

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