Ouija boards have been around for decades and decades, even Hasbro has gotten in on the Ouija-Board, creating a speciality toy and boxset for the strange, alleged portal to the dead. But, Ouija's didn't just appear out of the ether one day...so how did they rise to such an intense popularity and cultural awareness?
First, for the uninitiated, a ouija board is a flat board (not dissimilar to an actual board of a board game) made of wood or, in toy reproductions, some kind of cardboard-like material. At the top of the board are "Yes" and "No" in the corner, underneath in a curved half-circle are the numbers 0-9, underneath the full alphabet, and, finally, 'goodbye' printed at a bottom. The board also has a 'planchette' which is a teardrop-shaped item with a small window in the point to view the letters/numbers/words. This is what the spirt uses to communicate with the users. It is used by two or more people who place their fingertips lightly on the planchette, ask questions, and allow the planchette to move freely across the board.
There were some pre-cursors to the actual Oujia board - people had been wanting to communicate with the dead for a long time. The most common way was to call out of the alphabet over and over again and wait for a knock or bang on the letter. This was tedious, took a long time, and, well...it was boring.
Kennard Novelty Company wanted to changed that. Although the board may appear ancient in origin to some, it likely was invented during the 19th century craze surrounding spiritualism. In fact, the board DID appear to come straight out of the ether. Or, well, he Kennard Novelty Company. This company was the first to produce the Ouija board, at least that historians know of.
But how did the company choose such a strange name? Well, the creator's sister-in-law was a known, powerful medium and she said the name "came to her" thus, history was made. Although I have to admit that the popular explanation that it is a mash-up of the French (Oui) and German (Ja) words for "yes" is more interesting.
So, from the 1860s on it enjoyed an interesting importance in American spiritualism as a way to communicate with death. There were few negative associations of it and only a few horrifying accounts of use. That is, until, The Exorcist (1973) and following movies brought it to the culture icon of fear, wonderment, and a door to our world for the dead that we know it to be today.
The above image is from NY Public Library's public domain project.