Origins of Ouija board are in Baltimore

Where was the idea for the Ouija board developed?

For 76 proud years, Baltimore reigned as the Ouija board capital.

Evidence from letters to the editor in The Baltimore Sun and the old Baltimore American indicates that the Ouija name was coined at the southeast corner of Charles and Centre streets, in a fine 19th-century residence now converted to condominiums.

An historical marker is to be placed at 529 N. Charles' ground level, in a 7-Eleven convenience store that was for many years a lunch counter called the Buttery.

The game's name and description, "Ouija, the Egyptian Luck Board," was coined there in 1890 by Helen Peters, a woman known by her family as a spiritual medium who was a devotee of the arts. She sat in the boardinghouse room of her brother-in-law, Elijah Bond, using a board and planchette. Also present was Charles Kennard, an entrepreneur who had lived in Chestertown.

Talking board games were popular, and Kennard and Bond had been making them for a few months. The night of April 25, 1890, Peters' planchette picked out the letters, O-U-I-J-A. They proceeded to name their talking board Ouija. In the game, players place their hands on the planchette, which moves to spell out a message.

With help from Robert Murch, the Boston-based chairman of the Talking Board Historical Society, I spent this past week tracking down the Ouija talking board neighborhoods, the places where it was made. The society is marking the Ouija board's 125th anniversary with a Ouijacon event at the Baltimore Harbor Hotel on April 23-25.

The first games were made at a location on St. Paul Street near Baltimore Street, today a Wells Fargo Bank and home of the Whiteford Taylor Preston law firm. The demand was steady; factories subsequently opened on South Charles Street, in the old Vitrano-Fava produce building, then others followed in Little Italy (East Pratt and on High Street).

William Fuld, one of the game's original investors and employees, made the board exclusively from 1901 onward. His descendants sold the business and rights in 1966 to game giant Parker Brothers, and manufacturing moved to Salem, Mass.

William Fuld knew a good thing. He built a large toy and game factory at 1508 Harford Ave. in 1919 next to the popular Apollo movie house.

The former Fuld factory remains in fine shape today in Baltimore's Oliver neighborhood. The building houses 30 affordable-rate senior citizen apartments and is named Harford Commons.

There is no marker to indicate its former life. Its residents enter the apartment house via a former loading dock described in a 1920 Sun article. That spot held "more boxes of ouijas piled up waiting for shipment than you can shake a stick at." For the record, Fuld claimed he was no spiritualist. He said he was a Presbyterian and attended Dr. Harris Kirk's Franklin Street Presbyterian Church.

"By 1919, Ouija was in its heyday," said Murch, the Ouija expert. "By far, the largest factory was the one William Fuld built on Harford Avenue, and he built it on Ouija board advice. The board told him 'to prepare for big business.'"

Fuld found prosperity, but not the good luck promised in the game. While on the factory roof in February 1927 replacing a flagpole, he stumbled backward and fell three stories. He died at the old St. Joseph's Hospital, then located nearby.

Fuld's factory also produced other toys and games, mainly of wood, including sand pails, wagons, pull toys and dollhouses.

The Ouija board was his top seller and the demand was steady, but there were sales peaks and downturns. By the 1950s, the big Harford Avenue plant had become home to Jacobs Brothers uniforms. Game production moved from the east side of the city to the west side on Warwick Avenue, not too far from the Mrs. Ihrie's potato chip factory.

Its final Baltimore days were spent on East Fort Avenue in Locust Point, not too far from Fort McHenry, at the site of a present-day Baltimore business entrepreneurial legend, Under Armour.

jacques.kelly@baltsun.com

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