Starting with the automatic writing method planchette, we begin a series about Ouija boards. We’ll dig into the strange history of the much admired and maligned method of communicating with spirits and/or having fun at parties.

Before Ouija, there was planchette. Invented in Paris in the 1850s, planchette was a method of automatic writing. Much like the planchette we recognize from today’s Ouija boards, it was a heart-shaped plank of wood. But it was much larger than today’s planchettes, rested on wheels or casters, and had a slot to put a pencil through. One or several people would rest their hands on the planchette, and see what messages come through.

Highlights include: The Spiritualist movement, weird personifications of “Planchette,” plenty of alarmist rhetoric about this popular parlor game/occult technique, and the story of a young woman in New Orleans who supposedly died as a result of her obsession with planchette

This is the first of ?? episodes about Ouija boards. We’ll be back next week to talk about the invention of Ouija boards and spirit boards!

 

 

Episode Script for Planchette and Automatic Writing (Ouija Boards Part 1)

DISCLAIMER: I’m providing this version of the script for accessibility purposes. It hasn’t been proofread, so please excuse typos. There are also some things that may differ between the final episode and this draft script. Please treat the episode audio as the final product. 

Planchette is the name of a curious machine, whose ability, without any voluntary action on one’s part, to write down on paper an answer, not necessarily the proper answer, to any question, has during the past week excited the amusement and astonishment of those who have witnessed its performance. -from an article in the Burlington Times (Burlington, Vermont) · Sat, Apr 4, 1868

 

Spiritualism

  • In 1848, three sisters in Upstate NY, the Fox sisters, kicked off the spiritualism movement. The two younger sisters claimed that they could communicate with the dead and interpret knocks as messages from the dead. Even though one of the sisters confessed that it had all been a hoax–the rappings had come from their toe joints. A lot has been written abut how spiritualism was also a movement that gave women more power in a society where very few occupations were allowed, etc. More on that another time.
  • In a nutshell, spiritualism is the idea that the living and the dead can communicate, an idea that was especially attractive in the years after the American Civil War, which ended in 1865. People wanted to talk to their deceased loved ones and to feel like life had meaning, etc.

 

Before Ouija, there was Planchette

  • Planchette was a sort of automatic writing device.
    • Automatic writing, also known as psychography, is when someone writes something without consciously writing.
    • Sceptics have written automatic writing off as being an example of the ideomotor phenomenon, which is basically involuntary muscle movements, kind of like reflexes, which can move whatever object you’re touching.
      • This comes up a lot when talking about ouija boards, planchette, dowsing, etc.
      • I don’t want to get sidetracked and get into this now, but I don’t see the ideomotor phenomenon as something that proves that all automatic writing, or spirit board communication, etc, are wrong. Like–who’s to say that whatever entity you’re communicating with isn’t causing those involuntary movements, etc.
    • Automatic writing has been around a long time.
    • There was a Daoist method of spirit writing called Fuji (fu-chi), that was used during the Ming Dynasty in China, which was during 1368-1644 CE, which involved suspending a sieve or tray to guide a stick writing in sand or incense ashes.  But even before that, spirit writing was popular in China, as long ago as the 400s CE.
      • I’m not going to go into a lot of detail here because I’m trying to stay focused on the history of Ouija boards in the United States, but I wanted to mention it so people don’t think that white people invented this stuff.
      • I don’t think it became a thing in Europe until the 1600s, when it was used by practitioners of Enochian magic.
  •  It was shaped like a rounded triangle or heart, with two wheels on the broad side and a hole on the pointy side. You put a pencil through the hole. Then you put the device on a piece of paper, everyone put their hands on it like they would the planchette of a Ouija board today, and then they asked a question and saw what the planchette wrote.
    • The planchette used here was much larger than the planchette of a modern Ouija board: it was about 7-1/2 inches long and 5-1/2 inches wide on the broad side and 2 inches wide on the pointy side.
    • According to a 1904 pamphlet I read called Crystal Gazing, Astrology,  Palmistry, Planchette & Spiritualism, it could be used by 1, 2, or 3 people. The pamphlet recommended that you start off asking yes or no questions, and then only after you’ve gained some experience, you can ask questions that would have longer answers. The pamphlet described using the planchette like this:
      • Very soon it will be found that by some mysterious power, which the operators are quite sure they do not themselves exert, the Planchette will begin to move about, up and down the paper for some little time, and then, generally, an answer will be found written to the question asked. The most mysterious part is, while the operators are lightly touching the Planchette with the ends of their fingers, and are quite unconscious of in any way influencing its movement, it will move about with more or less rapidity, and will write words and sentences with more or less distinctness
  • The planchette may have been inspired by telegraph, because apparently an early prototype by Morse involved attaching a pencil to something.
  • Most of the following info about the history of the planchette come from mysteriousplanchette.com, which has a ton of awesome info:
    • Apparently planchettes were popular in Paris at the time.
    • Planchette is french for “little plank”
    • It’s a little unclear to me who originally invented the planchette–several people claim credit, and it sounds like it was invented in France during a séance on June 10, 1853. Someone tied a pencil to an upside down basket, which seemed to work really well, and which was less exhausting than calling out all the letters of the alphabet and waiting for rappings in response.
    •  But because it was somewhat similar to “table-tipping” devices used in seances, it makes sense that a bunch of different people sort of had similar ideas for the device around the same time.
    • But in 1853, a German composer and music teacher filed a patent for a psychograph in London, which he called “Apparatus for Indicating Person’s Thoughts by the Agency of Nervous Electricty.” It involved putting your hands on plates that were attached to a pointer, which would point at letters.
    • Planchettes became so popular in Europe that in 1853, that same year, the Bishop of Viviers wrote a pastoral letter against them.
    • Also, apparently mediums started saying that people shouldn’t use planchettes and similar devices. They had an obvious ulterior motive: it threatened their monopoly on spirit communication and seances.
    • But to talk about how planchette came to America:
      • In 1858 or 1859, two spiritualists, Robert Dale Owen and Dr. H.F. Gardner, saw planchettes while overseas and brought some home with them.
      • Robert Dale Owen supposedly communicated with his father using the device. His father gave him advice on a book he was writing.
      • one of Robert Dale Owen and Dr. H.F. Gardner’s acquaintances, a bookseller in Boston named G.W. Cottrell, started manufacturing them by around 1859.
      • Around 1868,  Planchette became extremely popular.
      • At the time, Cottrell was selling planchettes for between $1-$3, depending on what sort of wood it was made of. (You could get a plain black walnut one for $1, or a “beautifully painted” hollywood one for $3. As far as we know, none of the hollywood ones have survived to the present day, tho there are examples of his cheaper models.)
      • By 1868, Cottrell said he was shipping thousands of planchettes to all parts of the country.
    • In a lot of sources, the New York bookseller and toy manufacturer Kirby and Company are credited as the first American planchette manufacturer. It sounds like they started selling them around 1868.
      • The company catered to the wealthy, particularly wealthy women, and sold things like expensive soaps, custom embroidered pocketbooks (which they called port-monnaies to be fancy), and other trinkets and games for the wealthy.
      • So because their clientele was so wealthy, that could be why planchette became so trendy.
      • By December 1868, Kirby claimed that he’d already sold 200,000 of them.
      • They sold numbered models, with Number 1, which was made of ash wood, cost $1.50, number 2 made of highly polished wood priced at $3.00.
        • There’s a picture of their “Number 3 India Rubber Planchette”; it’s basically made of plastic, which was pretty ahead of its time, and it looks super cool and goth. It’s shaped like a heart and is jet-black. That was priced at $4.
        • No. 4 was made of plate glass and cost $8. The idea was that the user could see what they were writing.
        • Later, they introduced a cheaper No. 0 version which was made of mahogany and cost $1.
        • $1 in 1868 is about $15 today, and $8 is about $144.
    • I also found an ad from 1868 selling instructions on how to make a planchette for 3 cents, calling it:
      • The new Parlor Mystery. The wonderful little Automaton that answers questions, “tells fortunes,” and can even disclose one’s secret thoughts. Any boy can make it.
    • That brings up one thing–part of the planchette’s popularity could also have to do with how easy it was to make them.
    • Looking through different models and manufacturers, I’m seeing a lot of interesting variations on the theme. One fun variety is in the 1920s, there were planchettes shaped like hands.

 

  • There were other spirit communication devices that became a thing during the late 19th century, including clock-like devices that look really cool, but I got really interested in the planchette 1) because of its direct link to the ouija board and 2) because of the way people talked about them, which is similar to how ouija boards are still discussed today. Like as if they’re either a game or a weird occult instrument of the devil.
  • So I pored through a bunch of different books and articles for some interesting accounts of people’s experiences with planchettes.
  • One weird thing that I’ve noticed in writing from the 19th century is that they often refer to Planchette as Planchette, capitalized and without an article, as if they’re an actual person who they’re talking to.

 

I read a bit of an 1886 book called The Salem Witchcraft The Planchette Mystery and Modern Spiritualism.

  • I can’t really tell who wrote it, but it was edited by the editor of a phrenology journal. And the book’s introduction is preceded by webster’s dictionary definitions of bigotry, prejudice, and superstition. Which is kinda ironic, because phrenology is a extremely debunked pseudoscience that was used to justify all sorts of racism and bigotry.
    • The introduction begins with:
      • The object in reprinting this most interesting review is simply to show tlie progress made in moral, intellecnial, and physical science. The reader will go back with us to a time—not very remote—when nothing was known of Phrenology and Psychology; when men and women were persecuted, and even put to death, through the baldest ignorance and the most pitiable superstition.
    • From the planchette section:
      • For me alone, the instrument will not move; for myself and wife it moves slightly, but its writing is mostly in monosyllables. With my daughter’s hands upon it, it writes more freely, frequently giving, correctly, the names of persons present whom she may not know, and also the names of their friends, living or dead, with other and similar tests. Its conversations with her are grave or gay, much according to the state of her own mind at the time ; and when frivolous questions are asked, it almost always returns answers either frivolous or, I am sorry to say it, a trifle wicked. For example, she on one occasion said to it : ” Planchette, where did you get your education ? ” To her horror, it instantly wrote: “In hell,”. . . On another occasion, after receiving from it responses to some trival questions, she said to it : ” Planchette, now write something of your own accord without our prompting.” But instead of writing words and sentences as was expected, it immediately traced out the rude figure of a man, such as chool children sometimes make upon their slates. After finishing the outlines—face, neck, arms, legs, etc., it swung around and brought the point of the pencil to the proper position for the eye, which it carefully marked in, and then proceeded to pencil out the hair. On finishing this operation, it wrote under the figure the name of a young man concerning whom my daughter’s companions are in the habit of teasing her.
    • The book also sets forth some theories about what could be causing the planchette phenomena:
      • First theory: The people who’re touching the planchette are moving it and writing the words
        • He tries to refute this, saying:

How is it, for example, that Planchette, under the hands of my own daughter, has, in numerous cases, given correctly the names of persons whom she had never seen or heard of before, giving also the names of their absent relatives, the places of their residence, etc., all of which were absolutely

unknown by every person present except the questioner?

  • Second theory: It’s electricity or magnetism
    • I find this kinda charming, because I feel like those are such 19th century things to be impressed by or just throw out as an explanation
    • Apparently this was a pretty popular theory
    • The author says (and I agree with this):
      • we are tempted to ask, Who is electricity ;’ what is his mental and moral status? and how and where did he get his education? Or if by ” electricity” is here simply meant the subtle, imponderable, and impersonal fluid commonly known by that name, then let us ask. Who is at the other end of the wire?—for there must evidently be a who as well as a what in the case.
    • People argued that since magnets were used to fake some stuff in seances, then they could be used to fake planchette stuff too. Which of course is true, but most operators using the planchette as a parlor game aren’t going to be setting up a complex system of magnets under their tables just to impress their friends.
  • Third theory: It’s the devil
    • Kinda self explanatory, a lot of religious figures condemned it as being the devil’s work, etc
  • Fourth theory: a floating, ambient mentality
    • Sounds like thisis claiming that it’s the consciousness of the ppl  in the room:
      • It is supposed by those who hold this theory, or rather hypothesis, that the assumed floating, ambient mentality is an aggregate emanation from the minds of those present in the circle ; that this mentality is clothed, by some mysterious process, with a force analogous to what it possesses in the living organism, by which force it is enabled, under certain conditions, to move physical bodies and write or otherwise express its thoughts ; and that in its expression of the combined intelligence of the circle, it generally follows the strongest mind, or the mind, that is otherwise best qualified or conditioned to give current to the thought.
  • Fifth theory: ” TO DATMONION ” (THE DEMON)
    • This is the spiritus mundi, or basically like the collective unconcious
    • Ppl appealled to a bunch of different philosophers and stuff in antiquity
  • Sixth theory: “some principle of nature as yet unknown”
  • Seventh theory: spirits of the dead
  • Eighth theory: “Planchette’s Own Theory”
    • Planchette is intelligent ; she can answer questions, and often answer them correctly, too. On w^hat class of subjects, then, might she be expected to give answers more generally correct than those which relate to herself, especially if the questions be asked in a proper spirit, and under such conditions as are claimed to be requisite for correct responses?
    • So then he asks Planchette if he can ask how she works:
      • That will depend much upon the spirit in which you may interrogate me, the pertinence of your questions, and your capacity to interpret the answers. If you propose a serious and careful consultation for really useful purposes, there is another thing which you should understand in the commencement. It is that, owing to conditions and laws which may yet be explained to you, I shall be compelled to use your own mind as a scaffolding, so to speak, on which to stand to pass you down the truths you may seek, and which are above the reach of your own mind alone. Keep your mind unperturbed, then, as well as intent upon your object, or I can do but little for you.
    • He asks for more detail about what the intelligence is:
      • It is the reduplication of your own mental state ; it is a spirit; it is the whole spiritual world ; it is God—one or all, according to your condition and the form and aspect in which you are able to receive the communication.
    • There’s then an extremely long (maybe 10-15 page?) q&a where they go into a lot of philosophy, talk about the bible, etc.

 

  • I found an article in an volume 38 of Harper’s New Monthly Magazine, from 1896, called “The Confessions of a Reformed Planchettist.” It begins:
    • I am not wicked; at the worst, I am but weak.
    • And to read a bit more from it:
      • How did I become a Planchettist? How does a man become committed to any evil career? Insensibly and by degrees, of course. No man clothes himself at once with the full measure of guilt, as he would put on a ready-made garment. There are gentle gradations in all iniquity. . . [he then goes on to compare himself with Nero starting to learn the fiddle] . . . Certainly when I first laid confiding and caressing hands on the smooth and shining back of Planchette, I had no idea of the dark path of deception on which that three-legged monster would drag me, of the depths of turpitude into which I thereby pledged myself to plunge.
    • [to recap some of the article, this guy was working o an astronomical invention, and dropped by the shop of a guy who made mathematical equipment, and found that he was really busy making “pentagraph wheels” for a newly invented writing machine so couldn’t make his item for a month at least. Curious, the author picked one up.)
    • He also personified the planchette as soon as he saw it:
      • There I found Planchette lying in wait for whome he might devour. He was a brown-looking little familiar, made of wood, and mounted on two pentragraph wheels, a lead-pencil forming his third leg; he looked as if he might bite, and had an uncanny air about him generally. Inquiring, What is this mystery? I was informed that on two persons placing their hands upon the fellow’s back, and a question being asked, he would soon begin to wriggle about (like a crab in the sand) and write an intelligible if not an intelligent answer with his plumbaginous tail.
        • (FYI plumbaginous means containing graphite)
    • He went on a date with a lady he didn’t really like, and used the board with her. Supposedly the board works the best when people are opposites (like in gender, complexion, temperment, etc) but the board didn’t work. He went to return it to the store the next day, and was given a refund but told to keep the board. After that, the board started working.
    • He definitely wrote this article as a sort of money grab, it’s so dramatic and ridiculous:
      • I didn’t feel quite easy at having Planchette for a room-fellow that night. I started several times, expecting to find him scratching about and endeavoring to climb into bed with me. I would rather have taken up with a bug.
    • Then he talks about how popular it got:
      • The mania spread, and the air became full of Planchettes. Wherever you went a board was brought out as soon as the lamps were lit; the soft blandishments of music gave place to its presence, and conversation ceased. The baleful dissipation became universal.
    • The article goes on forever, but I want to read a bit of the end, which is his conclusion with info about how it doesn’t work, isn’t real, etc.
      • I have little more to say, and surely nothing further to confess. I have truthfully given my experience, and if it be of any use to any of my fellows, that knowledge is guerdon sufficient. . . A reformed Planchettist, I eat better, drink better, and sleep better than when pursuing my evil practices. . . . Let this encourage those who are still under the dominion of the Destroyer to emancipate themselves.
      • It is useless to tell me that there is any thing in Planchette, or that by its aid any man may become is own medium . . . It would only write when I moved it, and then it wrote precisely what I dictated. That persons write ‘ unconsciously,’ I do not believe. As well tell me a man might pick pockets without knowing it. Nor am I at all prepared to believe the assertions of those Avho declare that they do not move the board. I know what operators will do in such cases I know the distortion, the disregard of truth which association with this immoral board superinduces.

 

There was definitely a moral panic about planchettes, particularly RE: how women used them and how they supposedly worked better for women than men.

An 1868 article in New Orleans Republican tells the story of someone dying from planchette:

  • In the street in which I live a young lady who was unduly attached to this “uncannie” game came to her death in consequence. She had shut herself up with it, and regardless of the directions on the downwards side of the board that two persons are to operate simultaneously in placing their finger-tips upon the upper surface, had endeavored for hours at a time to get a response to certain questions she asked respecting a far-absent lover. Midnight came, and she still remained seated in company with Planchette, impatient and despairing, and ready to dash the mocking toy to pieces. AT length she felt a slight thrill along her arms, and a movement on the paper beneath the pencil AT this crisis her mother entered but she heeded her not. Bending low, she asked, “Where is Richard?” “In heaven” was the instant response, written out in characters as copper-plate-like as a writing master’s and the girl fell lifeless from the chair. Medical remedies, including shocks of electricity, were applied, but in vain.

 

When they were big, they were really big!

  • In 1868, a sheet music company published a piece called “Planchette” and dedicated it to Kirby, the planchette manufacturer. And there was another song written that year called “Planchette” as well. And another in 1870.
  • There were an unbelievable number of articles about them, as well

So what happened to planchettes?

  • While doing this research, I got really curious and wanted to experiement with a planchette. Thinking it would be easy to find one since spiritualist and occult stuff is so popular now, I went on etsy and could only find two vendors selling them.
  • Someone on Etsy who sells planchettes that are reproductions of 1920s models, which are really cool and come in boxes decorated like the old boxes were back then.
  • There’s another vendor from near New Orleans, who makes really beautiful handmade planchettes. I ordered one of those, which the cheapest planchette for automatic writing I could find online and it was still like $80.
  • So why is it so hard to find planchettes these days, even though ouija boards are so popular?
    • It sounds like the introduction of the ouija board in 1890 was the beginning of the end for planchettes.
    • Ouija boards are easier to use and simpler, and you get answers faster than writing.
    • By the 1930s, a British toy company was the last company really making many planchettes.
    • There was a revival of interest in ouija boards after WWII, but planchettes just weren’t really being made anymore, so they didn’t come back.
 

Planchette and Automatic Writing Sources

Books mentioning planchette

Where to buy planchette

Websites

Historical Articles and advertisements about planchette

  • The Confessions of Reformed Planchettist from Harper’s Monthly Magazine
  • Planchette. The Buffalo Commercial (Buffalo, New York) · Sat, Jul 11, 1868 · Page 2
  • Planchette. Burlington Times (Burlington, Vermont) · Sat, Apr 4, 1868 · Page 2
  • Planchette. Daily Press and Herald (Knoxville, Tennessee) · Wed, Jul 29, 1868 · Page 4
  • Planchette. Gold Hill Daily News (Gold Hill, Nevada) · Tue, Jul 14, 1868 · Page 2
  • Planchette. New Orleans Republican (New Orleans, Louisiana) · Thu, Jul 2, 1868 · Page 2
  • Ad Planchette Quad City Times Sat Jul 25 1868
  • Ad Planchette The Daily Milwaukee News Wed Jul 15 1868
  • Ad Planchette The Buffalo Commercial Sat Jul 11 1868
  • Mr Home The Pall Mall Gazette Fri May 15 1868
  • My Acquaintance With Planchette The Wheeling Daily Intelligencer Sat Jul 25 1868
  • Planchette Star Tribune Fri Jul 3 1868
  • Planchette The Daily Evening Express Sat Jul 11 1868
  • Planchette The Native Virginian Fri Jul 24 1868
  • Planchette The Scranton Republican Sat Aug 8 1868
  • Planchette The Times Democrat Wed Jul 1 1868
  • Planchette The Times Picayune Tue Sep 15 1868
  • Planchette The Wheeling Daily Intelligencer Wed Jul 8 1868
  • Planchette Is Simply Nowhere. Herald and Tribune Thu Apr 29 1886

 

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