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May 17th 1959
The Baltimore Sun
(Copyright © Reprinted with permission from the Baltimore Sun)
By Ralph Reppert
William Fuld’s ‘Talking Board’
It was in the 1920’s that the Ouija board first became really popular. Our artist pictures a typical scene of a young couple putting their questions to it.
It Was in 1889 that the Baltimore Man Invented Ouija — Millions Have Since Been Sold
IN 1889 a Baltimorean named William Fuld, a quiet-spoken, mustached fellow resembling a shy Ernie Kovacs, patented and put on the market a strange new invention, a “talking board” which he called Ouija. The board was destined to become famous because of the claims of some purchasers that with it they could communicate with the spirit world.
The Ouija board (usually pronounced wee-jee) is a simple thing — stiff and smooth, almost as large as a newspaper, and covered with cabalistic designs, the alphabet, figures 1 to 0, and the words “Yes” and “No.” A small heart-shaped table that stands on three felt-shod feet comes with the board.
Any number of people can consult the board at any time, but the ideal number is two. They “reach the spirit” by sitting in facing chairs with the board on their knees. They put the little table on the board and rest their fingertips on it lightly. Then they ask questions.
Nothing happens for a few minutes, usually, but then the table begins to move, perhaps jerkily, perhaps smoothly and strongly. It — somehow — pauses at various letters and numerals, then moves on. Sometime sit spells out gibberish. Sometimes it makes words for its fans.
Sometimes it stirs up trouble. In Cumberland it told a man his wife didn’t love him. He asked her about that, she said it was true, and they were divorced.
In the Midwest a woman claimed the board spelled out the name of a woman who had stolen some groceries from her. She accused the woman publicly, and was sued for $10,000 for slander.
OUIJA fans are still trying to figure out how the board works. (Pick your argument — subconscious muscular direction, body electricity, supernatural forces.)
Mr. Fuld himself never said much about it. He was making his living in the 1880’s as a custom’s inspector, dividing his spare time between tinkering in his home workshop and holding parlor musical soirees (he played the violin) with his wife and five children. His tinkering produced the Ouija board. The word is now part of the language and dictionaries define it as a combination of the French oui (yes), and the German ja (yes). Mr. Fuld’s only comment was that he asked the board to name itself, and it obliged.
The inventor devoted his spare time to promoting the board, but for several years broke little better than even in the small factory he established near his home on North Central avenue.
Then in 1915, in St. Louis, Mrs. John H. Curran, a woman with a grammar school education, was amusing herself and a friend with the board one night when, she said, the table began to move briskly about. “Many moons ago I lived,” said the board. “Again I come. Patience Worth is my name.”
PATIENCE WORTH’S subsequent talks with Mrs. Curran, through the Ouija board, were as startling as the recent revelations of Bridey Murphy. Patience had been a poet in the mid-1600’s. Mrs. Curran said that from 1915 until into the 1920’s the spirit dictated poetry, prose, witty sayings, even long novels to her through the board. The novels were published, and some of the poetry was considered good enough to be included in serious anthologies. In 1918 Patience was invited to a literary reception attended by such notables as William Lyon Phelps, Amy Lowell and Rupert Hughes. She sent her regrets, through the Ouija board.
As a result of all of this Mr. Fuld’s factory hummed, and so did Mr. Fuld.
After Patience Worth came World War I, which gave Ouija another boost. Relatives of service men bought boards and used them in an effort to communicate with the men overseas. The inventor was reported in 1920 to have told a friend he had sold some 3,000,000 boards.
He left the customs service and built a bigger factory, which was finished in time for Ouija to cash in on the postwar wave of spiritualism that swept the country.
Several movie stars took the Ouija board seriously, and some of them published their talks with friends and lovers in “the spirit world.”
The inventor enjoyed his prosperity quietly, patented a marketed a number of toys, and took off enough time to represent the Third district in the Maryland Legislature. He dies in 1927 in a fall from the roof of his factory, where he had been overseeing some workmen.
The business was taken over by two sons, William A. And Hubert H. Fuld. Two years later came the depression — and with it another nation-wide Ouija revival. The board (the two sizes of it sell for $3.50 and $2.50) always sells best in times of stress — wars, depressions, recessions.
TODAY the Fuld brothers run the business as quietly as their father did. Few of their Towson neighbors know anything about their business; the brothers are better known as musicians — both of them play instruments, all have good choir voices, and a sister Katherine, composes popular music. Both brothers are active in the United States Power Squadron. Hubert has a 37-foot sedan cruiser named Ouija.
The brothers direct operations from an unpretentious office on Charles street. How many boards they have sold is something known only to the family. There is a steady demand throughout the country. A New York firm has exported them for years. The brothers have had several requests to turn out boards in French and Spanish. But Ouija continues to “talk” only in English.
How the boards are made, and where, are secrets. The factory has been moved again. The brothers smile at queries and reply only: “Out of town.”
One advantage of secrecy, William explains, is that it eliminates the dealing with a constant stream of visitors, which hampered production at former factories. New Ouija fans with questions must write them, and several do every day. A woman in Detroit wants (confidentially, now) a good system for picking horses. She’ll pay for the advice out of her winnings.
A GIRL in New York claims to converse nightly with the spirit of James Dean, the tean-age movie idol who died in an automobile crash in 1955. She wants to know the “amazing secret” of the board and promises to keep it confidential.
Many Ouija board fans claim they are holding conversations with beings in the spirit world. Some of them, in distress because they cannot get in touch with departed loved ones, write for advice. The Fulds, good Presbyterians always suggest prayer.
On the West Coast a man and his sister claim to have been in communication for a year, through the Ouija board, with beings from outer space. They’d be willing to write a book about it, they write to suggest, if Ouija will divide some of his profits with them.
The Fulds answer most of the letters. Briefly they point out that the board is merely a device for amusement.
A letter that arrived not long ago is the type they like best to get.
“We had Ouija at a party at my house.” a woman from New England wrote. “We caught him up in some fibs, and at times he was even a little fresh, but he was a lot of fun.”