February 1891: There it is, tucked between rights granted to Hans Bittinger for his Dust-Collector and Marcelin Castelnau’s Ore Concentrator: the Ouija board, patent No. 446,054 for Toy or Game, filed by Elijah J. Bond.
The Ouija board road to popularity on a wave of American spiritualism that some trace back to sisters Kate and Margaretta Fox. The Fox girls helped kick off the craze in 1848 when they claimed to speak with the dead in their haunted home in Hydesville, NY.
Forty years later, the sisters owned up to being frauds—those spirits people heard knocking were actually the Fox girls cracking their toe joints. But the confession did nothing to dampen the enthusiasm for séances and other otherworldly communications or the entrepreneurial spirit of a cadre of savvy Baltimore businessmen who saw a chance to cash in. And in 1890, Elijah Bond filed their patent request for a new device:
“My invention relates to improvements in toys or games, which I designate as an ‘Ouija or Egyptian luck-board;’ and the objects of the invention are to produce a toy or game by which two or more persons can amuse themselves by asking questions of any kind and having them answered by the device used and operated by the touch of the hand, so that the answers are designated by letters on a board.”
As for how the Oujia board was supposed to work, here is Bond’s completely noncommittal non-answer (the “table” is the planchette, or pointer):
“The operation is as follows: The table is placed upon the board, and the hand of the operator is lightly laid or held on the table, when in a few moments the table will move and point to certain letters on the board, spelling and forming sentences, answering questions put by the operator or any other person that may be present at the time.”
The talking board was a hit, and imitators and innovators tried to follow up on its success. J. F. Simonds received a patent for a pseudo-electric version in 1899.
J. B. Randall’s 1905 idea replaced the planchette with a pointer and a rolling board that moved beneath it.
However, Bond’s original, with slight modifications, remained the basis for boards we see today. By the turn of the century, the Ouija board was showing up in the Sears catalog as just another parlor game. It appears in 1900 with an ad for an automatic-writing planchette underneath.
So when did the “Egyptian luck-board” go from harmless curiosity to spooky cellphone to the netherworld? According to Ouija historian Robert Murch, you don’t need a floating planchette to spell out the answer. It was all fun and games until 1973—the year the Exorcist came out in theaters.