In the spirit of my favorite holiday.......Halloween.
Over the last century, spirit or talking boards have brought endless hours of entertainment to those who have dared to play. Spirit boards, witchboards, oracle boards, and mystery boards are all guises of the talking board. Though talking boards made their debut in America circa 1880, many precursor incarnations appeared by the mid-1800s in Europe. Edward O’Brian discovered the earliest known patent for a talking board in the patent offices in London, England. Adolphus Theodore Wagner, a professor of music and resident of Berlin of the Kingdom of Prussia, filed his patent for a “PSYCHOGRAPH, OR APPARATUS FOR INDICATING PERSONS THOUGHTS BY THE AGENT OF NERVOUS ELECTRICITY” on January 23, 1854. That was 30 years before the first talking board patent was even filed in the United States.
This patent goes on to describe the device and identify it as a talking board. “The apparatus consists of a combination of rods or pieces of wood joined so as to permit of free action in all parts. From one of the legs of the instrument hangs a tracer; on one or more of the other extremities is fixed a disc, upon which the operator is to place his hand, and from this extremity or these extremities depends another tracer. The other parts of the apparatus consist of a glass slab or other non-conductor, and of an alphabet and set of figures or numerals. Upon a person possessing nervous electricity placing his hand upon one of the discs the instrument will immediately work, and the tracer will spell upon the alphabet what is passing in the operator’s mind.”
It is quite curious that no mention of the spiritual or the occult occurs in his patent. This gentleman clearly believes that the messages spelled out by his device are created in the mind of the operator. This train of thought is duplicated throughout talking board patents. Though many spiritualists and practitioners of the occult claim to use talking boards to communicate with the other side, the inventors, or shall we say patentees, make no such claim. As you will see, almost from the beginning, talking boards began to take on lives of their own.
Seven years later, similar devices were documented in Allan Kardec’s follow-up novel Le Livre des Mediums, translated by Anna Blackwell as “The Medium’s Book.” Allan Kardec, considered by many to be the father of French spiritualism, wrote detailed accounts of such talking board variants. The following full documentation can be found on page 160, under the section SEMATOLOGY AND TYPOLOGY:
“In order to render spirit-communications independent of the medium’s mind, various instruments have been devised. One of these is a sort of dial-plate, on which the letters of the alphabet are ranged like those on the dial of the electric telegraph; a moveable needle, set in motion through the medium’s influence, with the aid of a conducting thread and pulley, points out the letters. We cannot help thinking, however, that the independence of the medium’s thought is insured as well by the raps, and that this independence is proved more conclusively by the unexpectedness and pertinence of the answers, than by all the mechanical contrivances yet invented for this purpose. Moreover, the incredulous, always on the lookout for wires and machinery, and are more inclined to suspect deception in connection with any special mechanical arrangements than with a bare table, devoid of all accessories.
“A more simple contrivance, but one open to abuse, as we shall see in the chapter on Frauds, is the one devised by Madame Emile de Girardin, and by which she obtained numerous and interesting communications; for that lady accomplished and clever as she was, had the weakness to believe in spirits and their manifestations. The instrument alluded to consists of a little table with a moveable top, eighteen inches in diameter, turning freely on an axle, like a wheel. On its edge are traced, as upon a dial plate, the letters of the alphabet, the numerals, and the words “yes” and “no.” In the centre is a fixed needle. The medium places his fingers on this table, which turns and stops when the desired letters is brought up under the needle. The letters thus indicated being written down one after the other words and phrases are obtained, often with great rapidity.
“It is to be remarked that the top of the little table does not turn round under the fingers, but that the fingers remain in their place and follow the movement of the table. A powerful medium might probably obtain an independent movement; in which case the experiment would be more conclusive, because less open to the possibility of trickery.”
Interestingly, Kardec’s first line seems to completely contradict the last line of Wagner’s patent. The patentee states “the tracer will spell upon the alphabet what is passing in the operator’s mind.” Kardec’s states “In order to render spirit-communications independent of the medium’s mind…” So begins the division of the intended and actual use of the talking board. It wouldn't be long before the same would follow in North America.
In the United States the first talking board combined the curiosity of the planchette and the ease of use of its European cousin, the dial plate. However, the birth of the talking board was a much more secular capitalist venture. We know that homemade talking boards were documented in the mid 1880's described in detail in a New York Daily Tribune article dated March 28th 1886 and reprinted countless times. However, it would take seven men to create a commercial success and put talking boards in nearly every home in North America. Together Charles W. Kennard, Harry Welles Rusk, Col. Washington Bowie, Elijah J. Bond, William H. A. Maupin, John T. Green, and of course, William Fuld succeeded in doing just that. Five of these men Kennard, Rusk, Bowie, Maupin, and Green pooled their land, resources, and money to create the Kennard Novelty Company of Baltimore, Maryland.
While many were Masons they had two things in common. All of them were looking to try something new, and each were either lawyers or politicians. It's likely they met through their everyday business dealings, yet many of their connections run deeper. William H. A. Maupin married Elijah Bond's niece, Elijah Bond and Rusk attended law school together, Bond and Col. Washington Bowie had other patents assigned to them, Col. Washington Bowie and William Fuld formed a life long friendship and worked together in the Custom's office, while Harry Welles Rusk and Charles Kennard remained friends for years. Perhaps sitting around a table smoking cigars and with a drink in hand they made a pact to form the Kennard Novelty Company. They appeared on October 20th 1890 in a Baltimore court to sign the incorporation papers which were certified on October 30th 1890.
Col. Washington Bowie held a firm grip on any matters involving the company. A capitalist a heart, this business venture was about the bottom line. Rusk was named president, as he had the most experience in patent law. Kennard had the land and a building left over from his fertilizer business that he had recently dissolved. The address of 220 South Charles Street in Baltimore was perfect, and Kennard, for his land, probably got his last name into the new company's. Bond held the first talking board patent which would dominate the young company. To date there is no record of Bond officially being part of the company, but his talking board patent, when filed, was immediately assigned to Charles W. Kennard and William H. A. Maupin both members of the company. Maupin's relation to Bond through marriage explains his association with the company.
Early on, the Kennard Novelty Company struck a deal with what would become the Northwestern Toy and Manufacturing Company of Chicago, Illinois doing business at 212 Illinois Street in Chicago, Illinois. To date they remains their only known Branch Factory. The Kennard Novelty Company was new to the manufacturing business, and they might have needed help filling such large orders. Certainly having a branch factory centrally located must have eased shipping costs and lent some experience to their operations.
Listed as a painter and varnisher in the Baltimore City directories in 1889 and 1890, William Fuld played a major role in the daily operations, including production for the Kennard Novelty Company. This would not last for long. Fuld was full of inventions of his own. Less than a year passed before Fuld began his sudden climb.
Historically, William Fuld has been cited as the inventor and father of the Ouija board. In fact, the first patent on the Ouija or talking board (No. 446,054) was granted to Elijah Bond on February 10th 1891 and assigned to Charles Kennard and William H. A. Maupin, both of Baltimore and two of the founders of the Kennard Novelty Company. The trademark on the word Ouija (No. 18,919) was granted to the Kennard Novelty Company on February 3rd, 1891. However, it wouldn't be long before William Fuld, under Col. Washington Bowie's guidance, would take over production of the Ouija board and forever be tied to it as its Father and promoter.
By 1891, the Ouija board was selling well and they opened up a second factory in Baltimore, Maryland at 909 East Pratt Street. Just eight days after the Bond patent was granted, Kennard filed for an improved version of the talking board and called it that by name. On November 10, 1891, Kennard's patent (No. 462,819) was registered. It states, "Be it known that I, Charles W. Kennard, residing at Baltimore, State of Maryland, have invented certain new and useful Improvements in Talking-Boards of which the following is a specification." This talking board was more like the previously mentioned dial plates, where the moveable piece was fixed on one end and could swing in an arc to point at the letters, numbers, or words.
This was Charles Kennard's final act as a member of the Kennard Novelty Company. Shortly after his patent was granted, Charles Kennard, John T. Green, and William H. A. Maupin were no longer associated with the company. The Kennard Novelty Company's incorporation papers read “the said corporation will be managed by five directors...who will manage the concerns of the said Corporation for the first year.” One year to the day of that agreement Col. Washington Bowie and Harry Welles Rusk would dismiss the other founders of the company. In 1892 Rusk was listed as the President, Bowie the manager, and William Fuld the supervisor. They moved the company out of 220 South Charles Street and into the 909 East Pratt Street factory, renamed the company the Ouija Novelty Company on March 8th, 1892, and put their close friend William Fuld at the helm. William Fuld was a former Kennard Novelty Company employee.
On February 1st 1893 the 909 East Pratt Street factory "burned out" and the Ouija Novelty Company moved to 20 North High Street.
Almost immediately, Charles Kennard tried to sell another version of the talking board. We believe Kennard approached the former branch factory of the Kennard Novelty Company and struck a deal. He then co-founded the Northwestern Toy and Manufacturing Company in Chicago, Illinois out of its ashes. They named their new talking board Volo. According to Bill Long's definition the word is a fitting name for a talking board. Its roots are Latin meaning "to fly about (especially applied to the imagined movement of disembodied souls)." Coincidently, Volo is also the name of a small town just fifty miles north of Chicago. Perhaps this also has something to do with why Kennard chose it as its name? Regardless, Bowie and Fuld of the Ouija Novelty Company weren't impressed. They answered the Volo with both swift legal and marketing maneuvers. First, the newly reorganized Ouija Novelty Company would file a “Bill of infringement” against its former branch factory as they held the Bond patent. While the case awaited trial The Ouija Novelty Company and the Northwestern Toy and Manufacturing Company settled out of court. Northwestern agreed to halt production of the Volo and any and all other talking boards. For the time being Kennard's dream of re-entering the talking board business ended abruptly.
About the same time the W. S. Reed Toy Company located in Leominster, Massachusetts, began producing their very own talking board named and trademarked Espirito (No. 20,566). Described in the trademark as “a toy resembling planchette” this game proved no match. Whether the Espirito just couldn't compete as the W. S. Reed Company contented in 1892, or The Ouija Novelty Company filed a similar Bill of infringement against them, the Reed company ceased production of it's talking boards and directed all sales of the like to the Ouija Novelty Company. Part of the deal transferred use of the Espirito trademark over to them, and the Ouija Novelty Company placed an exact copy of Kennard's Volo design on the back of their Ouija. Customers delighted in getting two talking boards for the price of one, while Kennard would be reminded how far his former business associates would go to protect the Ouija board from competition.
Bruised and battered from the confrontation, five years would pass before Kennard would reemerge. In 1897 his next talking board would be named Igili. An advertisement for "Igili - the marvelous talking board" places the American Toy Company at 222 South Charles Street, Baltimore Maryland. Though it's one number off from the original address of the Kennard Novelty Company, it's likely it is the same location. For the Igili board Charles Kennard joined with J. M. Raffel and Albert C. Strobel to form the American Toy Company. Like others once involved with the Ouija board Kennard kept trying to get back in the game. The American Toy Company was only listed for two years in Baltimore City directories, and the Igili board never caught on. Perhaps it simply couldn't escape the shadow of the uber popular Ouija. It's equally possible the Ouija Novelty again threatened legal action as their patent was still in force.
With those early victories for the Ouija Novelty Company, the message was clear. People would fight over the Ouija board for years to come and many would attempt to lay claim to it. Competition was fierce, and with the Ouija board's success came more controversy. Countless other talking boards, some even marketed by its original founders would try to recreate that success.
William Fuld’s first talking board trademark Oracle (No. 37,806) was filed on January 22th 1902 and was granted on February 18th 1902. William Fuld’s first talking board patent (No. 479,266) was filed on March 28th 1892 and granted on July 19th 1892. This patent made improvements upon the “finger” or moveable piece of the talking board. His drawings also offer a strange new layout to the board itself as well as directions which mention this board asks you questions back. This is the only talking board found to date to integrate the use of magnetism, which was popular at the time for fostering spirit communications.
In 1894, with Col. Washington Bowie maintaining control of the company and Fuld and Rusk at his side, Ouija boards began to turn out in greater numbers. The company was moved to 20 North High Street to handle greater production.
By 1898, Bowie’s life was getting full. Acting as Surveyor of Customs and running The Ouija Novelty Company proved to be too great of a split. On April 12, 1898, The Ouija Novelty Company assigned its assets, including Elijah Bond's Ouija patent, to Harry Welles Rusk and Bowie in the following proportions: 1/6 to Rusk and 5/6 to Bowie. Rusk in turn would sell his remaining 1/6 assets to Bowie in 1902, giving Bowie complete ownership of the Ouija trademark and patent. These assignments are recorded in the Trademark and Patent Office in Washington D.C. Though Bowie would turn over production of Ouija boards to William Fuld, he wouldn’t officially assign over the rights until 1919.
With Rusk and Bowie taking an enormous step into the background, William Fuld was in need of a full-time partner. Fuld himself was a customs inspector, and knew he couldn’t commit all his time to his toy business. Isaac Fuld & Brother began with a verbal agreement in November of 1897 between William and his brother Isaac Fuld. On July 18th 1898 the Ouija Novelty Company signed an agreement with William and Isaac, trading as Isaac Fuld & Brother to manufacture and sell Ouija boards for the term of three years. William and Isaac used this agreement to make Ouija boards and other novelties. In 1899, the two expanded their agreement to include payments to Isaac for extra labor. They used the same location of 20 North High Street to run their business and continued to pay royalties to both Harry Welles Rusk and Col. Washington Bowie.
On March 28th 1900 the brothers reworked their partnership again. It stated, “This is to certify that Wm. Fuld and Isaac Fuld (Both of Baltimore City) have this day entered into a partnership, in the manufacture and sale of games etc. known as Ouija, U.C. Billies Return Pool & U.C. Billies Calculator etc. That they have agreed to do business on equal profits except that in addition to the above, Wm. Fuld shall receive ten cents per Dozen royalty on the Return Pool & ten cents per dozen on the Calculator. And for this consideration he shall let remain in the business the sum of five hundred dollars, to be used in defraying expenses for the material, in the manufacture of the said games.”
Unfortunately, the business and their relationship did not last. On July 18th 1901 William and the Ouija Novelty Company exercised their option not to continue their agreement allowing Isaac Fuld and Brother to manufacture and sell Ouija boards. The Ouija Novelty Company then signed a new agreement exclusively with William Fuld. Whether William and Isaac had a falling out that led to this decision, or that act itself caused their bad feelings it would result in a family feud that would last almost a century.
William founded his own company named the William Fuld Manufacturing Company and moved its headquarters to his home at 1208 Federal Street. Isaac continued making Ouija boards and put his name and address on its box as well as on the back of the board. In December of 1901 William took his brother Isaac to court and promptly received an injunction against Isaac prohibiting him from making Ouija boards and any other patented game William owned. Isaac and William never spoke with one another again, except in court. Col. Washington Bowie employed his son, Washington Bowie Jr., to represent William Fuld in court against his brother.
The brothers would go to court twice. The first time William filed suit against Isaac and the second time Isaac Fuld, trading as the Southern Toy Company, filed suit against William in 1919. This reopened the original 1901 case. In this first case William Fuld petitioned the court to force Isaac to hand over the books and records of the former partnership to figure out how to distribute any remaining money. William asked for and received an injunction that would stop Isaac from manufacturing any games in which William either owned patents and trademarks on or leased them including the Ouija board. Washington Bowie Jr. was named as the receiver for the said books, and any profit the company made. The case quickly got nasty. Col. Washington Bowie and William held and opened mail addressed to Isaac at the 20 North High Street address. Their defense was that it was business mail and since he was no longer part of the business, the mail was not his. Sibling rivalry had been taken to a whole new level.
William Fuld then founded the William Fuld Manufacturing Company and moved his Ouija business to his home at 1208 Federal Street. From 1905 to 1907, William moved his company into his home at 1306 North Central Avenue.
In the early 1900s Elijah Bond moved from Baltimore, Maryland to Charleston, West Virginia where he decided to reenter the talking board fray. On March 28th 1907 he filed for a trademark (No. 63,360) on the word Nirvana that was registered on June 18th 1907. The word Nirvana is placed in the middle of a swastika logo. On June 20th 1907 Bond assigned this trademark to The Swastika Novelty Company who manufactured and sold the Nirvana talking boards. Unfortunately for Bond and The Swastika Novelty Company lightening didn't strike twice. The Nirvana talking board couldn't overcome the popularity of the original Ouija board, and production eventually ceased. The arc layout of the letters is very similar to his first Ouija design though the moon, stars, and Goodbye are missing. Instead, the Nirvana board displays “Farewell” and unusual symbols such as an elephant crawling out of a snail shell, a warrior with a flail, the staff of Hermes with twin serpents, and a cloudy, windy face.
In 1908, sales were up and William Fuld relocated to 331 North Gay Street until 1911, when William launched his official showrooms on 1226-1228 North Central Avenue. William applied for yet another patent improving talking boards (No. 1,125,833) on January 24th 1914 that was granted on January 19th 1915. This address would remain the Ouija boards home until another boom in sales in 1918.
Meanwhile, Isaac Fuld was breaking the injunction against him in 1901. In 1904, Isaac began sending out samples of his version of the talking board, appropriately named the Oriole talking board. These boards were exact duplicates of the original Ouija boards produced by his former partnership with his brother. Isaac used the Ouija board stencils he kept from Isaac Fuld & Brother to make his new Oriole boards. He cut out the top where the word Ouija appeared and inserted his new logo. In 1919 Isaac began trading as the Southern Toy Company, and ran it out of his home at 2002 Homewood Avenue.
Having mastered public relations and the mystery of the Ouija William told reporters that the board warned him “to prepare for big business.” He took on the enormous task and had a three-story thirty-six thousand square foot factory built to house his company at 1508-14 Harford Avenue, Lamont Avenue, and Federal Street. Its doors opened in 1918, and William’s gamble paid off. Ouija sales began to climb. 1919 proved to be a memorable year for William. He applied for a design patent (No. 56,001) that was registered on August 10th 1920 which revolutionized his pointer or planchette. He was finally assigned all outstanding rights to the Ouija by Col. Washington Bowie and enjoyed his income from skyrocketing sales and national acclaim. Charles Kennard also resurfaced in 1919 with a trademark (No. 127,563) on a game he called WEIRD-A. Notably he mentions his business as the Kennard Novelty Company. To date nothing WEIRD-A has surfaced.
In April of 1919, William Fuld Inc. began mailing letters warning retailers buying Oriole talking boards that they violated William’s patents and trademarks, and that whoever bought and sold them was also breaking the law. The Oriole boards might have been cutting into Ouija sales, and that was not to be tolerated. Once Isaac learned of the letters, he brought a suit against William, contending that he and his company were trying to injure the reputation of The Southern Toy Company and Isaac with these mailings. William countered, believing Isaac had broken the injunction of 1901 with his own testimony saying he had mailed out samples of Oriole boards in 1904.
Isaac testified that his boards were different because his moveable tables did not use legs with felt but rather steel rollers (In the samples sent out in 1904, we know this is false. To date, no rolling tables have been found; only felt tipped legs have been discovered). The 1901 case was reopened to discover whether Isaac had indeed violated the injunction. Both courts believed Isaac had violated it, but that damage could not be ascertained. Isaac kept no formal books, so his actual sales could not be proven. The 1901 case was finally settled, and William did not collect a penalty from his brother because the court felt William had let too much time pass. The court ordered the case to be paid equally.
The 1919 case brought by Isaac was dismissed, because they could not prove that William’s mailings damaged Isaac. The judge ruled that Isaac had copied and distributed his Oriole boards in violation of the injunction. Isaac claimed he had a trademark on his Oriole board that was filed on December 29th 1911 and granted on May 14th 1912. A review of his trademark revealed that it did not apply to his talking boards, but rather his pool tables. He applied for another trademark on the word Oriole to cover his talking boards on April 30th 1919, which was granted on June 22nd 1920. The courts felt that this did not help his case. Isaac would have to pay for all costs incurred by the 1919 case, and would never make another talking board. The Southern Novelty Company continued its toy business until 1924.
With his brother’s court battles behind him, William Fuld never looked back. He retired from his customs position in 1924 after twenty-eight years of service to dedicate more of his time to the Ouija board and would later serve in the General Assembly keeping his political ties close. In an interview with a Baltimore Sun reporter on July 4th 1920, William claimed to have made about three million dollars of total profits from the Ouija board.
Washington Bowie Jr. served as William’s attorney in every case involving the Ouija board. Washington Bowie Jr.’s son, Washington Bowie V, remembers his father sitting the children down and giving them toy catalogs to browse through. They were asked to circle any talking board ad that might have infringed on William Fuld’s patents and trademark. There were of course many, and Bowie Jr. aggressively pursued any infringement. He recalls that his father never accepted any payment for his services.
In 1920, another talking board company came into the legal spotlight. The Baltimore Talking Board Company, located at 36-38 South Paca Street, was run by two gentlemen by the names of Charles Cahn and Gilbert Michael. They had absolutely no connection with William Fuld or his business, but they must have leased the right to call their boards Ouija boards. The Internal Revenue Service collected a tax on their Ouija boards in 1920. The Baltimore Talking Board Company did not believe the Ouija board to be a game or sporting good, and thus should not be taxed as such. They took the IRS to court and mysteriously, Washington Bowie Jr. represented them in court. They lost, and Ouija boards were considered taxable. They appealed this ruling all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. Disappointingly, the Supreme Court threw the case out without being heard and thus talking boards are taxable to this day.
From 1919 to 1927, William filed more patents and trademarks on his talking boards. He extended his Oracle trademark (No. 130,142) to the Mystifying Oracle in 1919. This second line of talking boards was introduced to combat the growing number of knock-off boards entering the market. William knew that if he made a cheaper version he would get their business. He was right. He also launched a line of trademarked Ouija jewelry (No. 140,126) and Ouija Oil for rheumatism (No. 143,008.) The Ouija board became trademarked as the Egyptian Luck board (No. 148,331), and the Mystifying Oracle became trademarked as the Hindu Luck board (No. 137,521.) Fearing an infringement on the pronunciation of Ouija, William also filed for a trademark on WE-JA (No.142,00.) His last trademark (No. 164,563) to be filed would be on the way the word Ouija would be displayed.
Disaster struck the Fuld family on February 24th 1927. William always supervised any work on his factory. When a flagpole at 1508-1514 Harford Avenue needed to be repaired atop the three-story building, William followed. When the iron support he was leaning on ripped out of its mooring he fell backwards over the back of the building. He caught himself briefly on one of the factory windows, but the force of the fall slammed the window shut, and he was thrown to the ground. Initially suffering minor broken bones and a concussion, William received his fatal injury while being transported. One of his broken ribs pierced his heart, and he died at the hospital.
William’s children took over the company. Katherine Bowie and William Andrew Fuld ran the company until their youngest brother, Hubert Fuld, became president of William Fuld Inc. in 1942. William Andrew would devise a new talking board and apply for a patent on his electrically equipped Mystifying Oracle (No. 1.870,677) on June 6th 1930 which was granted on April 9th 1932. He applied for a trademark on this electric version of the Mystifying Oracle (No. 305,398) which was registered August 15th 1933. This invention could have revolutionized talking boards, but that was not its fate. It was made of metal and cost roughly three times the regular Ouija board. The moveable planchette would spark light as its connectors made contact and rolled across the board. The Great Depression did not allow people to spend money frivolously, and the Electric Mystifying Oracle did not sell well. After a year of slow sales, the project was scrapped and the boards were melted down.
The talking board industry saw a renewed interest in the 1940s. To prepare for this William Andrew would file for a design patent (No. 114,534) that was registered on May 2nd 1939 for what we currently recognize as the Ouija board. Many companies introduced their own talking boards. Though the layout was similar, many offered extravagant colors and graphics. Eventually, out of disinterest or a declining market, all of these companies folded to the Fulds.
The Fulds relocated two additional times before occupying their final offices. From 1950-1961 the Fulds would rent space on 2511 North Charles Street and Warwick Avenue respectively. In 1962 construction was completed on their final address of 1318 Fort Avenue.William’s heirs continued renewing their trademarks and followed sales up and down over the years until one fateful day. Ouija board sales were again climbing and the Fulds were made an offer they couldn’t refuse. President Robert Barton of Parker Brothers announced that it had acquired William Fuld Inc. and all its assets on February 24th 1966, effectively ending the Fulds association with the Ouija board. Hasbro Inc. currently owns the trademarks Ouija and Mystifying Oracle