In the 20th century, William Fuld’s name became synonymous with Ouija boards. We look at how William Fuld got into the Ouija game, the feud with his brother that split the family for nearly a century, his mysterious death that resulted from some advice that the board gave him, and more.

We also talk about how the official Ouija board evolved throughout the 20th century, look at some of his competitors, and talk about what he did to shut them down and make his Ouija board the Ouija board. 

We also give an update on the planchette that Chris ordered and had an unsettling experience trying for the first time, getting a message that may have a connection to the hostile entity we spoke to in Salem.

 

 

Episode Script for William Fuld (Ouija Boards Part 3)

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. 

“At the moment that the ouija board, which some years ago excited the country and then virtually disappeared, has again come into the limelight throughout the world, two brothers are engaged in litigation here over the ownership of the patent.” –from an article in The Economist, April 6, 1920

 

The main source for this episode is WilliamFuld.com.

  • It’s truly encyclopedic, and if you have any interest in ouija boards, I strongly recommend you check it out. They have tons of information, including pictures of different iterations of the board, etc.
  • It’s created by Robert Murch

 

  • Last week, we ended with the creation of the Kennard Novelty Company, which was founded by onetime-fertilizer manufacturer Charles Kennard and a group of investors who he likely met at the local Masonic lodge.
  • But the truth is, most people who know a little bit about Ouija generally don’t know that Kennard ever existed as part of the Ouija story. That’s because, for much of the 20th century, a man named William Fuld became known as the famous creator of Ouija boards.

 

  • Remember that the Kennard Novelty Company was founded in 1891. There was a bit of a reorganization of the company in 1892,  Kennard left the company and started a new company in Chicago. I don’t totally understand what precipitated the change, or really how Kennard felt about it, though I assume, based on what he did next, that he wasn’t pleased with being cut out of the company.
    • The Kennard Novelty Company, now owned by Col. Bowie and Harry Rusk, two of the original investors, was restructured and renamed the Ouija Novelty Company.
    • The put an employee and stockholder, William Fuld, in charge of its operations. Fuld was also a close friend of the new owners.
  • After being booted out of the company, Kennard started manufacturing something he called a Volo board
    • Volo comes from Latin, meaning “to fly about (especially applied to the imagined movement of disembodied souls).”
    • it looked a lot like a Ouija board in construction, but the design was different: the letters were arranged in an inverted triangle, flanked by two rows of numbers, it replaced the moons with anchors, good bye with farewell, and added some weather-related text, “clear” and “rain”.
    • Col. Bowie sued Kennard over the Volo board, since it infringed on the patent. The Volo board was only produced for 3 months.
    • There was another competitor, in Massachusetts, that manufactured a product called the Espirito board. Four months after they registered their trademark, the Ouija Novelty Company shut them down with a lawsuit. The company even ended up giving their Espirito trademark to Ouija Novelty Company, so for a while, the company tried printing the Espirito board on one side and the Ouija board on another-giving customers two talking boards for the price of one.
    • Kennard did try to create another talking board, called Igili The Marvelous Talking Board, in the late 1890s. Instead of moons and starts, it featured  the words “Who, Which, Where, Because, and Rest” in addition to the alphabet and numbers. That board also didn’t last long.

 

 

  • On July 18, 1898, the Ouija Novelty Company agreed to allow William Fuld and his brother, Isaac Fuld, to manufacture the board for three years.
    • It sounds like the company’s owners had had enough of the operational side of manufacturing the boards, and would rather just collect royalties from someone else manufacturing them.
    • Plus, William Fuld was a friend, and had been in charge of the Ouija Novelty Company for about six years, anyway.
    • Fuld had already patented his own talking board, but of course the Ouija name was way more valuable.
  • So now Isaac Fuld and Brother was the company manufacturing Ouija boards.
    • Just as the three year period came to an end, the brothers had a big falling out.
    • And then the license came up for renewal, and in 1901, the new license was given exclusively to William Fuld, cutting Isaac out of the deal.
  • This began a split that would keep the two sides of the family from talking to each other for 96 years. Its unclear if their disagreement was related to the Ouija board or not.
    • The two sides of the familiy didn’t reconcile until Stuart Fuld, the grandson of Isaac Fuld, reached out to Robert Murch, wanting to learn more about his family. Around the same time, Kathleen Fuld, William Fuld, was also talking to Murch for the same reason. Eventually, Kathy asked for Stuart’s number and the two sides of the family reconciled now get together regularly.

I know this is a digression, but I read this story in Baltimore Magazine and I thought it was so funny. Kathleen Fuld told the reporter:

“I’ll tell you a funny story. We went up to the Poconos for a golfing trip one year and there was a conference of priests taking place at the hotel where we stayed. I don’t remember why or how it came up, but Stuart ends up telling

a group of priests we’re talking with that his family once made the Ouija board.

All the priests immediately started making little crosses with their fingers. They started asking Stuart all kinds of questions. They wanted to know the whole story and got the biggest kick out of that.

Even better, the priests invited the couple to take advantage of the conference’s complimentary evening cocktail parties for the weekend—which they did.

But it didn’t matter. Every time we saw those priests, in the elevator, or wherever, they’d start making those crosses with their fingers.

 

  • Back to 1901:
    • After the brothers split, William Fuld formed a new company called William Fuld Manufacturing Company.
    • Isaac Fuld continued making Ouija boards, so William Fuld took him to court, forcing Isaac Fuld to stop.
    • After he’d won in court, William Fuld wrote to all of their customers telling them that now he was the only person allowed to sell Ouija boards, freezing his brother out completely and ensuring that he couldn’t go selling them behind his back anymore.
    • So then Isaac created a talking board called the Oriole, which looked exactly like a Ouija board down to using the same stencils–he literally cut out the name “Ouija” and replaced it with “Oriole” in the template.
      • It sounds like the company was fairly successful
      • The brothers fought in court for twenty years, until 1920, when Isaac lost the case once and for all. The court judged that the Oriole board was exactly the same as the Ouija board.
      • Even though Isaac had to stop selling Ouija boards, his company continued selling other toys until his brother William died. The year after William’s death, Isaac became an insurance salesman. Which leads me to wonder if he stayed in the toy business out of stubbornness or something.
  • Ouija kept getting more and more popular, and William Fuld moved his company to ever-larger showrooms and factories.
  • In 1917, the Ouija board told Fuld “prepare for big business”
    • He bought a big block of land and began to build a huge new factory, which opened in 1918.
      • The factory was really huge by the day’s standard’s, especially for Baltimore. It was three stories high, 36,000 square feet, and it cost $175,000 to build (which is more than $3 million in today’s dollars.)
    • Sidenote, I wonder why he would ask the Ouija board something? He once told a reporter who asked if he believed in Ouija boards: “I should say not. I’m no spiritualist. I’m a Presbyterian.”
      • I wonder if he was lying then, or if the story of the board telling him to “prepare for big business” is fake? Or maybe he was just idly playing with the board?
  • On February 24, 1927, Fuld was on the roof of the his huge, 3-story warehouse, watching the installation of a new flagpole.
    • He leaned on an iron railing, which in a freak accident, collapsed.
    • He off the roof, backwards. After managing for a moment to grab one of the factory’s windows, he fell to the ground.
    • He got a concussion, five fractured ribs, a broken arm, a fractured leg, plus some cuts and bruises
    • He was rushed to the hospital, and they thought he was going to survive, but a bump in the road jostled him and made one of his ribs pierce his heart.
    • As he lay dying, he made his children promise that they would never sell the Ouija board

 

 

Let’s talk about how the Ouija board evolved over time:

  • We talked last time about the paddle-shaped planchette with four legs, that the Kennard boards had.
  • The first Fuld boards looked about the same: similar stencil, put over veneered pine wood.
    • The box that it came in showed a Victorian family and says “Mysterious and  Entertaining!” “Amusing, scientific, and instructive”
    • The planchette was still shaped like a little paddle, but it had three legs now.
  • By 1898, the planchette became heart shaped. I’m actually surprised it took so long to get there, since planchettes were typically heart shaped.
  • Some Ouija boards began having octagonal shapes (so like a rectangle with its corners cut off.)
  • By the early 1920s, they’d streamlined production on the Ouija board, and totally changed the stencils that were used.
    • Instead of having letters that were very clearly stencils, this introduced the fancier type we’re used to today–that type that looks almost old west, or circus-y.
  • Also around this time, windowed planchettes started being introduced. So for example, instead of a planchette being one solid heart-shaped piece of wood that pointed at the correct letters, it had a hole in the middle with a piece of glass in it so it could hover over the right letter and you could look through and see it.
  • Fuld started to become obsessed with the idea of people creating knockoff Ouija boards, so starting printing his name in huge red letters on the back of the board, etc. We’ll talk more about that in a bit.
  • In 1902, William Fuld trademarked the name “Oracle.” He was worried about competitors undercutting the Ouija board by pricing their versions lower than the Ouija board, so went ahead and made a cheaper version himself, dubbing it the Oracle.
    • It’s funny, this is very similar to what people say now with tech startups and stuff, like if you don’t disrupt your own product, someone else will.
    • At any rate, people liked the Oracle, and it did well.
    • It looked a lot like a regular Ouija board, was built out of the same veneered pine wood. It also had the moon and sun at the corners, like the Ouija board.
    • It differed in that it had a big circle in the middle, with the name of the board, and then the numbers surrounded the circle. The letters were in four curved rows across the board.
    • It also had a black planchette shaped like a diamond, with a hole in the middle.
    • It became the second most popular talking board on the market, after Ouija.
    • Casually, it was called the Mystifying Oracle, and in 1915, that became its official name.
    • One thing I have to note: if you look at pictures of the board, EVERYWHERE there are mentions of patents, etc.
      •  The circle in the center  says “Mystifying Oracle” in the middle, with “Registered trade-mark” around the edges in a font almost as large.
      • Then at the bottom of the board, it lists the US patent number and date, the Canadian patent number and date, and William Fuld’s name and the company’s location.
      • On the back of the board, it says in huge all caps at top: TO OBTAIN THE ORIGINAL GENUINE OUIJA BOARD AND GET BEST RESULTS, then it has the instructions in small print with a block of text at the end advertising Fuld’s company, listing his name, and listing the copyright date, and then at the bottom in even bigger all caps, it says SEE THAT THE NAME WILLIAM FULD, BALTIMORE, MD, IS PRINTED ACROSS THE BOTTOM OF EACH BOARD. WE HAVE NO BRANCH FACTORIES OR OFFICES.
      • The planchette is a diamond with the Name MYSTIFYING ORACLE on it, then the patent date and trademark registration info again, and then the words “Made by Wm Fuld, Baltimore, MD.”
      • So . . . I guess he was very concerned with people ripping off his own rip off of the Ouija board.
    • Eventually, in the 1930s, they basically turned the Mystifying Oracle into a Ouija board, adding the word Ouija to the name and redesigning the board so it looked like a traditional Ouija board.
      • They did this for two reasons:
        • They wanted ppl to know that the Mystifying Oracle was made by the people who also made Ouija boards.
        • They wanted Mystifying Oracle to have better brand recognition–since Ouija had become a name for basically any kind of talking board, they were worried they might lose their trademark.
    • In 1933, William Fuld’s son, William Andrew Fuld, patented something called the Electric Mystifying Oracle.
      • The letters had kinda a weird, zigzag layout.
      • The boards were metal, and had raised buttons that would turn on the light bulb in the planchette–which contained a battery–as it was moved across them, so it could be played it in dark and look cool.
      • Unfortunately, the board was short-lived. It was the middle of the Great Depression, and the board was expensive at $3.50 (about $68 in today’s dollars).
        • One thing I wanted to note, tho: Even during the Great Depression, people were buying the cheaper Ouija boards (which cost about half of what the Electric Mystifying Oracle cost.) People were buying so many that Fuld’s company had to build a new factory.
      • The product was discontinued and the boards were melted down for scrap metal for World War II (that was a big thing back then)
      • So they basically pulled an Atari/ET on it. (do you know this story? Back in the early 80s, a ET video game was rushed out and didn’t really work, so Atari took the extra cartridges and buried them in the desert in New Mexico. There’s a cool documentary called Atari: Game Over.)
      • One innovation that did stick around, tho, was the board replaced the stars at the lower right and left hand corners of the board with figures of people, like we’re used to seeing today. Apparently it’s supposed to show people playing Ouija, which I never realized. And apparently the illustrations were done by William Andrew Fuld.
    • By 1938, they stopped printing both the Ouija and the Mystifying Oracle boards directly on wood, and instead moved to printing on paper over board–which is how we’re used to board games looking today.
      • Apparently they had issues with the wood warping, plus it was cheaper to print on paper.
      • The last wooden Mystifying Oracle board was made in 1940, and by 1950, they had switched from using paper over hardboard (which was thicker) to paper over masonite (which was thinner.)
        • In general, at this point, we start seeing all kinds of cost-cutting changes, which I think really starts to underscore how American manufacturing declined and the idea of consuming more and more cheap products emerged:
          • The hardboard version of the boards were kind of octagonal shaped, like a rectangle with all of its corners cut off.
          • Masonite boards were rectangles with sharp corners–eventually they figured out how to round the corners a little bit so they didn’t hurt people.
          • In fact, in addition to the change in board material, they also started putting the printed paper on one side of the board.
          • They made the planchette out of plastic instead of wood and glass, though they kept the little window in the middle.
          • Whereas once the office and factory were in the same place, they moved the factory further and further away from the main office within Maryland, then finally moved it to Pennsylvania.
      • The Ouija board had big surges in popularity in the 1910s and 20s (after World War I).
        • Ouija boards were so popular that there’s even a Normal Rockwell illustration showing a man and woman playing Ouija–and Normal Rockwell is supposed to be the avatar of 20th century domesticity
      • Apparently Fuld was kind of a marketing genius. He got the Ouija board into the Sears catalog, which really helped it take off.
        • But he didn’t miss a chance to advertise the board. For example, Murch has found old envelopes from Fuld’s company that had a little picture of the Ouija board on them, so literally all of their correspondence was Ouija branded.
        • The Fuld family also basically encouraged product placement for the Ouija board. So the Ouija board was featured in a number of different TV shows and movies, as well as sheet music, plays and vaudeville shows. Some of the songs it inspired have pretty funny titles, such as “Ouija Mine” and “Weegee Weegee Tell Me Do.”
      • I guess there was an article from 1920, where a New York Times article compared Ouija boards to bubble gum.
        • In 1920, 3 million Ouija boards were sold.
        • Apparently, at one point, almost every household in the US had a Ouija board.
      • In 1927, the year Fuld died, the Baltimore Sun reported that he, personally, had made over $1 million from Ouija boards. (More than $14 million today.) For reference, it looks like from the 1890s through the 1920s, Ouija boards were priced at $1.
      • The board was also popular during and after World War II.
        • There was a five-month period in 1944 where a department store in NYC sold 50,000 boards
      • By 1950, the company only made Ouija boards.

 

 

  • In 1966, after 65 years of making Ouija boards, William Fuld’s company was sold to Parker brothers, along with the Ouija board.
    • Sidenote, in case you were wondering: William Fuld’s son, William Andrew Fuld, died in the 1970s, so he didn’t exactly keep his deathbed promise to his father. But he had a number of strokes in the mid-60s, and it sounded kind of like the family just didn’t want to manage the company anymore.
    • The first thing Parker Brothers did was to move the company to Salem
    • In 1967, one million Ouija boards were sold, more than Monopoly
  • In 1991, Parker Brothers was sold to Hasbro
    • Since taking it over, they’ve made glow in the dark boards (which were a thing in the 90s) as well as some more vintage-inspired boards lately.
      • I was reading amazon reviews of the current kinda creepy/vintage inspired Hasbro board, and a lot of people said it was extremely flimsy and the seams in the board kept the planchette from moving
        • I’ve ordered a couple wooden ones from Etsy which I’m excited to experiment with (one’s a reproduction of a Fuld board, and the other’s a more modern, witchy one

 

 

Sources

Things mentioned

Websites about William Fuld

Historical articles and advertisements about William Fuld

  • Ouija Board is Worth Million. The Daily Times (Davenport, Iowa) · Tue, Aug 17, 1920 · Page 8
  • Who Invented Ouija? The Economist (Clay Center, Kansas) · Tue, Apr 6, 1920 · Page 3
  • “Ouija Board Has Chance Now to Pick Inventor” The Topeka Daily Capital (Topeka, Kansas) · Sun, Mar 14, 1920 · Page 11

Check out the shownotes for the rest of the series to see all of the sources used.

Listen to the rest of the Ouija board series:

Don’t miss our past episodes:

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *