In A Nutshell
It’s long been said that the strange name of the Ouija board came from a combination of the French and German words for “yes”—oui and ja. But those who created and patented the board tell a very different story. According to them, the board named itself, spelling out “Ouija” and then giving the explanation that it means “good luck.”
The Whole Bushel
Whether or not you believe in the powers of the Ouija board (and many Spiritualists do), its popularity is undeniable. It wasn’t long after its patent in 1891 that the company expanded to factories in New York, Chicago and London, churning out board after board for Spiritualists and skeptics alike. It wasn’t long after the Civil War, of course, and many, many families in the United States had suffered devastating losses. The possibility of reconnecting with their loved ones was a powerful one, whether they truly believed in the board or not.
The universally accepted story about how the board got its name was that it was a combination of two words, both meaning “yes”: oui in French and ja in German.
There’s another story, though, that’s only been uncovered fairly recently. It starts in 1890s Ohio, when Spiritualists bored with how long it took spirits to communicate invented a makeshift board with letters and numbers on it that would allow the spirits to spell out their communications. And it wasn’t long before five men from Baltimore, led by Charles Kennard, got together to patent their own device and sell it.
(And it wasn’t because they believed in the spiritual side of things. They believed they could make money.)
But they needed a name for their board. So they decided to ask their board what it wanted to be called in a seance led by the sister-in-law of one of the investors, an attorney named Elijah Bond. This sister-in-law (and medium), Helen Peters, spelled out the word “ouija” on the board. When they asked the board what the word meant, it responded with “good luck.”
Obscure and mysterious, right?
It was also the word inscribed inside Helen Peters’s locket, above the picture of a woman. According to letters that were found that had been written between investors, that woman in the locket was, conveniently, a women’s rights activist named Ouida.
Before the Ouija board could be patented, it had to be proven. No records have ever been found on just how that happened, but early Ouija boards were advertised to have been proven in front of the United States Patent Office, lending to their credibility.
And as time went on and the company grew along with the board’s popularity, several of the original investors dropped out and sold their shares. Eventually the Kennard Novelty Company remained in the hands of William Fuld, who had invested in it from the very beginning and now had been able to buy out the other shareholders, rising through the ranks from employee to owner.
While the original goal of the company wasn’t so much rooted in Spiritualism as it was in capitalism, accounts say that William Fuld began consulting the Ouija board on at least a semi-serious basis. It was rumored in the late 1920s that the Ouija board told Fuld to go ahead and build another factory. It was that factory that Fuld later fell off the roof of, and died in an untimely accident. His children took over the business and sold it only 39 years later to Parker Brothers, amid chronic health problems.