Many people believe the Ouija board has an exotic and mysterious past. Its real history is a modern tale of market dominance and brilliant promotion. The Wonderful Talking Board was invented in Maryland in the 1880s. The developers claimed the game named itself by repeatedly spelling "Ouija" during a session. They said the board told them Ouija meant good luck in Egyptian. Several archeologists and historians came forward, insisted the word was not part of an ancient language and accused the developers of inventing more than the game. But the public was not interested in the opinions of experts and the first Ouija legends began to spread. America was in the midst of a Spiritualism craze in 1892 when William Fuld acquired the rights to produce the Ouija board. Record numbers of people were consulting mediums, holding seances and using a variety of other methods to try to contact loved ones who had crossed over to the "Other Side." Fuld capitalized on the public's obsession by marketing Ouija as a parlor game that facilitated communication with the dead. The Wonderful Talking Board caused such a sensation that Fuld had to expand his Baltimore factory several times to meet demand.
In an attempt to duplicate Fuld's phenomenal success, dozens of other companies introduced talking boards with mystical sounding names such as "Genii," "The Wireless Messenger" and the "I Do Psycho Ideograph." Unlike the drab black and brown Ouija, the new boards included colorful images of turbaned swamis, pyramids, camels and crystal balls. However, none of them remained on the market long.
Fuld decimated the competition by suing anyone who dared to copy his design. He also intensified his marketing efforts. He spread outlandish rumors about Ouija's supernatural powers; obtained false testimonials; expanded the legend of the board's ancient origins; and concocted the story that Ouija was a combination of "oui," the French word for "yes," and "ja," the German word for "no."
Thanks in large part of William Fuld's relentless promotion, Ouija's popularity did not fade when the public lost interest in Spiritualism early in the 20th century. Parker Brothers purchased the Ouija trademark and patent from Fuld's heirs in 1966 and has produced the game ever since. The company introduced a deluxe, glow-in-the-dark version. Otherwise, Fuld's basic design has remained unchanged.
Not only has the board's reputation as a gateway to the spirit realm survived, many Ouija superstitions and tales have evolved into full-fledged urban legends. Defendants in court cases have testified that Ouija boards forced them to commit crimes, including murder. Others swear they won fortunes by playing lottery numbers revealed by the board. The game has allegedly reunited lovers, driven careless players insane and destroyed the lives of countless teenagers.
Parker Brothers' boxed sets include instructions for playing the game. However, a separate, unwritten set of rules also exists. Cleanse yourself before consulting the board or the spirits will be offended. If you burn a Ouija board, it will scream. Everyone who hears the scream will die within 36 hours. You are vulnerable to spirit possession if you play while you are sick. Never play alone and never, never ask Ouija when you are going to die. The list goes on. William Fuld would be proud.
Did Fuld know the Ouija board would still have the power to capture the public's imagination more than a century after its introduction? Did he realize the rumors he created would become part of American popular culture? Could he have predicted an army of teenagers would step in after his death and function as a de facto marketing force? We'll never know, but one thing is certain. The fact that we continue to play the game and repeat Ouija rumors is a testament to William Fuld's marketing genius and his ability to spin a timeless tale.