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Learn the Secrets of the Mysterious Talking Board at the 'Ouija and Beyond' Art Exhibit | City of the Seekers

'The Mysterious Talking Board: Ouija and Beyond' exhibit takes San Francisco International Airport travelers into realms of the supernatural.

In the late 19th century, Southern California attracted misfits, idealists, and entrepreneurs with few ties to anyone or anything. Swamis, spiritualists, and other self-proclaimed religious authorities quickly made their way out West to forge new faiths. Independent book publishers, motivational speakers, and metaphysical-minded artists and writers then became part of the Los Angeles landscape. City of the Seekers examines how the legacy of this spiritual freedom enables artists to make creative work as part of their practices.

Airports can be chaotic. From congested curbside drop-offs to torturous security lines, arbitrary TSA pat-downs, and straining to hear boarding announcements, passengers have seen consumer aviation go from glamorous to gruesome. But at the San Francisco International Airport, the SFO Museum is doing its part to alleviate travel pains with a series of exhibits at different terminals, including ones on the history of flight-uniform design and Victorian era gambling devices. Perhaps the most interesting display is happening right now: an exhibit titled The Mysterious Talking Board: Ouija and Beyond, which has travelers milling about Terminal 2's departures area learning mystical talking board history through a truly astounding display of Ouija boards through the ages.

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Ouija board, 1891. Kennard Novelty Company, Baltimore, Maryland; courtesy of Eugene Orlando/Museum of Talking Boards and SFO Museum

Ouija boards are directly linked to the popularity of Spiritualism in the U.S. from the 1840s to the 1920s. Wars and other tragedies left many people desperately seeking communication with departed loved ones, and various manufacturing companies quickly seized the opportunity to capitalize on the quasi-religious fad with "talking boards." Part game, part supernatural phenomenon, the board facilitated many strange and interesting encounters, and the simple device continues to capture the popular imagination today.

But before there were even Ouija boards, there was the planchette—i.e., the tool that people put their fingers on that points to different letters, spelling out messages. Planchettes alone enjoyed some measure of popular success before the Ouija board came along and made them a package deal.

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The Scientific Planchette, c. 1880. Selchow and Righter, New York; courtesy of Eugene Orlando/Museum of Talking Boards and SFO Museum

The first mass-produced spirit board was issued in the early 1890s. The Ouija Novelty Company, as it came to be known, was run by a pair of brothers whose ensuing bitter feud fractured the family business, opening up opportunities for countless Ouija-like products to come out. Each had its own particular function and aesthetic—take, for instance, Milton Bradley's version: a sliding box-type contraption that revealed tiny letters through a peephole.

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Espirito, c. 1891. W.S. Reed Company, Leominster, Massachusetts; courtesy of Eugene Orlando/Museum of Talking Boards and SFO Museum

Other notable variations on display include the Mystifying Oracle Electric from the 1930s, which included a battery-powered, light-up planchette. The Star-Gazer Mystical Question Board Tray from 1944 doubled as a serving tray, and the Ziriya Human Battery Circuit Talking Board from 1972 spelled out sentences rather than just letters. They're but a few of the versions of the board on view at SFO Museum, which also includes numerous colorful, decorative, and unique boards unseen by the general public before now. This is thanks to Eugene Orlando of the Museum of Talking Boards and Robert Murch of the Talking Board Historical Society's contributions to the exhibit.

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GENII. The Witches’ Fortune Teller, 1895. Milton Bradley Company, Springfield, Massachusetts; courtesy of Eugene Orlando/Museum of Talking Boards and SFO Museum

In 1967, Parker Brothers bought the rights to the Ouija board, and, according to SFO Museum, "Ouija board sales soon surpassed those of Monopoly." The Ouija board has since continued to enjoy a lot of popularity, an indication of our undying thirst for spooky entertainment and a glimpse into the eternal unknown. But given the rich history of Ouija boards, it’s only reasonable to wonder what lies ahead in the future? Maybe someone should grab a Ouija board and ask. Until then, we’ll all just need to revel in the magnificent designs of Ouija boards from the past, like the ones on display at SFO Museum.

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A group of women using a talking board, c. 1910. United States; courtesy of Robert Murch/Talking Board Historical Society and SFO Museum

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The Mitche Manitou Board, c. 1917. Wilder Manufacturing Company, St. Louis, Missouri; courtesy of Eugene Orlando/Museum of Talking Boards and SFO Museum

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Charles Baldwin and father S. P. Baldwin using a talking board, 1917. They claimed to be transcribing a novel from Jack London through the Ouija board. North Bend, Washington; courtesy of Robert Murch/Talking Board Historical Society and SFO Museum

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"Weegee Weegee Tell Me Do" sheet music, 1920. Music: Harry Von Tilzer / Words: William Jerome. Harry Vontilzer Music Publishing Co., Chicago; Courtesy of Robert Murch/Talking Board Historical Society and SFO Museum

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Mystifying Oracle Electric, c. 1933. William Fuld, Baltimore, Maryland; courtesy of Eugene Orlando/Museum of Talking Boards and SFO Museum

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Magi-Board, 1943. Psychic-Graf Company, Inc., Hartford, Connecticut; courtesy of Eugene Orlando/Museum of Talking Boards and SFO Museum

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Mystic Answer Board, 1944. Remington Morse, Chicago; courtesy of Eugene Orlando/Museum of Talking Boards and SFO Museum

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Star-Gazer Mystical Question Board Tray, c. 1944. Alice Lee Manufacturing, Chicago; courtesy of Eugene Orlando/Museum of Talking Boards and SFO Museum

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The Mysterious Planchette, c. 1940. The Planchette Company, Chicago; courtesy of Eugene Orlando/Museum of Talking Boards and SFO Museum

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Two teenagers using a Mystic Soothsayer, 1944. United States; courtesy of Robert Murch/Talking Board Historical Society and SFO Museum

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Yogee: The Amazing Answer Board, c. 1944. Lee Industries, Chicago; courtesy of Eugene Orlando/Museum of Talking Boards and SFO Museum

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Ziriya Human Battery Circuit Talking Board, 1972. Ziriya Creative Arts Corp., New York; courtesy of Eugene Orlando/Museum of Talking Boards and SFO Museum

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Installation image for The Mysterious Talking Board: Ouija and Beyond, courtesy of Eugene Orlando/Museum of Talking Boards and SFO Museum

The Mysterious Talking Board: Ouija and Beyond is on display through May 7 in the departures area of Terminal 2 at San Francisco International Airport (past security). Visit the SFO Museum's website here.

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