As we have previously stated, a profound interest in the supernatural arose in the 19th century. One of the consequences was the development of planchettes, dial plates, and talking boards during the latter-half of this century, when traditional religious paradygms were challenged by scientific progress that changed completely the world.
1.1.- From France to the USA
American Spiritualists often set 31st March 1848 as the beginning of their movement. On that date, Kate and Margaret Fox, from Hydesville, New York, reported they had made contact with the spirit of a murdered peddler. Spiritualism developed and reached its peak growth in membership from the 1840s to the 1920s, specially in English-language countries. As a result, the belief in and experimentation with spirit communications spread as never before and homegrown spiritual experimentation became the most popular of parlor pastimes.
Practices such as table-tipping reached England very soon and spread to the old Europe, giving birth to innovative techniques to communicate with the ‘so-called dead’. Simple knocked affirmations to often leading questions quickly gave way to ponderous alphabet-calling, wherein the raps would select letters from a called-out alphabet in order to spell out messages one letter at a time. Given such close antecedents to the talking board, it is surprising that Kennard’s Ouija board, considered to be the first commercial realization of this earliest form of alphabetic communication, was created 40 years later on.
Let ‘s clarify that planchettes were not a uniquely American and British phenomenon (these devices were originated in France, indeed). Some say that Mr. Planchette, a French Spiritualist, invented this instrument -to which he gave his name- in 1853. G.W. Cottrell, who would later be responsible for manufacturing America’s first planchettes, claimed in his 1868 book that a sect of French monks was responsible for developing planchette writing techniques in a Parisian monastery.
In any case which is sure is that 1853 marked the first known use of an impromptu automatic writer in the West, as witnessed by the Spiritist Allan Kardec, who attended the Paris table-tipping séance at which its invention occurred. According to Kardec, a ‘fervent partisan of the new phenomena’ proposed the use of a planchette as an alternative to the laborious process of alphabet-calling and tiresome rapped responses, and manufactured a small upturned basket, to which he secured a pencil, in order for several participants to participate in writing out messages from their spiritual controls.
This way the planchette became a perfect option for cooperative sessions with multiple sitters and the idea soon spread, crossing the Atlantic ocean into America in 1858. Two years later the bookseller G.W. Cottrell had 50 copies made of a specimen provided him, which he made available for sale in his stationary store at 36 Cornhill Street beginning.
An early attempt to explain the phenomenon was put forward by Samuel Guppy in his book Mary Jane: or Spiritualism Chemically Explained published under the modest pseudonym ‘A Child at School’ in 1863. He stated that the human body is a condensation of gases, which constantly exude from the skin in an invisible electrical vapor and that the fingers coming in contact with the planchette transmit to it an ‘odic force’, and thus set it in motion. He went on to say that some people have excess phosphorous in their systems and the vapor ‘thus exuded forms a positively living, thinking, acting body, capable of directing a pencil’.
1.2.- After the American Civil War
However, it was a late-1867 article published in England’s ‘Once a Week’ periodical which marked a turning poin towards the popularization of planchettes. This six page story told of the writer’s first encounter with a planchette, presumably brought to the North of Scotland from American shores. Due to the impact of this article planchettes were all the rage and manufacturers like Kirby & Co, Gilman Moulton, and N. Bangs Williams tried to assert themselves as preeminent and “original” suppliers of the devices in America, while G.W. Cottrell made its best to defend is position as pioneer and market leader. Research turns up hundreds of newspaper advertisements for the year 1868, and Kirby claimed to have sold some 200,000 planchettes before the year was out. Something similar happened in Great Britain, although the English added their own touch to planchettes.
As Mr. Brandon Hoge says ‘books on the subject suddenly sprang up on both continents, from Kate Field’s “Planchette’s Diary” pamphlet in 1868, said to be written entirely through the planchette itself, to popular writer Epes Sargent’s “Planchette, or, the Despair of Science” in 1869, which sought to furnish a detailed history of the phenomenon, though ignored details of its earliest days and Cottrell’s involvement, giving first American credit to Kirby instead’.
In a moment when mediums were losing credibility, buyers of planchettes were promised they could explore spirit communication by themselves, in the privacy of their own homes. Spiritualists sought to establish as a legitimate religion during 1870s. Although planchettes and Spiritualism were always sympathetic cousins, Spiritualists were rarely keen to use the same tools than those with a more leisurely interest in spirit communication, and few of them publicly claimed use either of planchettes or their successful successor, the ouija board.
Some evidence suggests Selchow & Righter did introduce their “Scientific Planchette” as early as 1875, although manufacture of that model persisted well into the 20th century. However, it was in the 1880s when something new for spirit communications saw the light, as advancements in the form of planchettes began to incorporate their own alphabets (instead of relying on the unintelligible notes left behind by the item’s erratic pencil).
By 1886, a news report described “The New Planchette” (what we know as talking board), stating that ‘planchette is simply nowhere compared with the new scheme for mysterious communication that is being used out in Ohio’. The truth is that with this innovation planchettes became mere accessories for the new talking boards, loosing its autonomous function. Luckily for planchette enthusiasts, the rise of talking boards took planchettes with them.
1.3.- The 20th century and the World Wars
Working in tandem, planchettes and talking boards became unbeatable in the early years of the past century. Spiritualism was increasingly less likely to be associated with talking boards, as it had became a formal religion. However, incessant exposes caused a steady weakening of the movement and adherents withdrawed their activities to a more private dimension. Despite all this, citizens were ready to accept the curiousness of the devices on their own value in a return to their humble entertainment roots.
First World War had an effect on planchettes very close to the American Civil War in the previous century, with a sudden shift of media attention away from the devices as news focused on the conflict, followed by a sudden outburst in their popularity as survivors struggled to cope with the death of loved ones
By the close of World War II, ouija boards experienced the expected upsurge in sales and popularity, but planchettes didn’t join them on this occasion. The days of automatic writing were over for ordinary people and planchettes had evolved into pointers for the more popular talking boards.
- Wikipedia: ‘planchette’. 16th March 2013.
- Mysterious Planchettes. 16th March 2013.
- Answers: “Planchette.” Encyclopedia of Occultism and Parapsychology. 2001. Encyclopedia.com. 16th March 2013.
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