A planchette ( // or //), from the French for "little plank", is a small, usually heart-shaped flat piece of wood equipped with two wheeled castors and a pencil-holding aperture, used to facilitate automatic writing. The use of planchettes to produce mysterious written messages gave rise to the belief that the devices foster communication with spirits as a form of mediumship. The devices were popular in séances during the Victorian era, before their eventual evolution into the simpler, non-writing pointing devices for talking boards that eclipsed the popularity of their original form in later eras. Paranormal advocates believe that the planchette is moved by the presence of spirits or some form of subtle energy, while skeptics allege the motion is due to the ideomotor effect.
Planchettes took on a variety of forms during the height of their popularity. American planchettes were traditionally heart or shield-shaped, but manufacturers produced a wide range of shapes and sizes hoping to distinguish themselves in the highly competitive and profitable market of the devices' late-1860s heyday. Manufacturers espoused the wonders and benefits of different materials (including various hardwoods, India rubber, and even glass), insulated castors, and various attachments meant to “charge” the devices or insulate the user from malevolent spirits. In Great Britain, planchette shapes took on the classical shapes popularized in early illustrations and newspaper depictions, with round, blunt noses and flat backs. Regardless of their shape or country of origin, almost all planchettes were equipped with brass castors and small wheels of bone or plastic, and their sometimes lavishly-illustrated boxes were often packed with blank parchment, pencils, ouija-like folding letter sheets, and esoteric instructions espousing the mysterious communicative powers of the items.
Though planchettes experienced incredible surges of popularity in Victorian times, in modern usage the term is most commonly associated with the heart-shaped pointers for Ouija or “talking boards.” Rather than writing, these pointers dictates messages spelled out by the board's indicated letters and numbers. As writing planchettes were popularized during the beginning of the Spiritualism movement of the mid-nineteenth century, planchettes predate the popularization of talking boards by nearly four decades.
Planchettes rose to prominence in the years following the establishment of Spiritualism in America, which began with the purported spirit communications of the Fox Sisters in 1848 and the resulting surge in popularity of supernaturally-tinged parlor games, séances, and experiments in mediumship and table-turning. Participants in these events would experience strange movements of tables, and communicate with spirits that indicated their messages through a series of coded negative or affirmative knocks. In other instances, sitters received more complicated messages of spelled-out words and phrases by transcribing letters indicated by the knocks or raps as the participants called out the alphabet into the empty air. Believers in these spirit communications soon began to experiment with refining and expediting various forms of communication, including pointing to letters printed on alphabet cards, automatic writing, direct channeling, and other methods.
In the winter of 1852–53, the fervor of Modern Spiritualism movement and the experimental communications reached Europe, where the French educator and eventual founder of Spiritism Allan Kardec recorded the invention of planchettes on 10 June 1853. That night, Kardec witnessed a séance participant propose an alternative to the laborious process of alphabet-calling and tiresome rapped responses, and, intending to expedite the process, secured a pencil to a small upturned basket, allowing several participants at once to cooperatively write out messages from the attending spirits. The idea produced astonishing results, and after some refinements to construct a more study wooden plank, word of the invention spread throughout Paris and into England, where a cottage industry sprang up to produce the devices.
The use of planchettes in Europe attracted a following severe enough to attract the attention of the Bishop of Viviers, who railed against their use in a pastoral letter in 1853. Despite their respected status in the growing religion of Spiritualism, planchettes remained a specialized novelty for adherents for the next 15 years, produced only within a small cottage industry or on special request by scientific instrument manufacturers. During this period, they remained popular only among devout séance circles and enthusiastic Spiritualists, who at the time still relied upon the services of celebrity mediums such as the Fox Sisters, D.D. Home, and others to lead spirit communications, rather than the do-it-yourself devices items such as planchettes represented. Such mediums, seeing their monopoly threatened, often rallied against the devices and warned of the dangers of the inexperienced fooling with such matters.
Planchettes came to American shores in 1858 when Spiritualist and social reformer Robert Dale Owen and his friend Dr. H.F. Gardner returned from a trip abroad with several of the devices in tow, after observing planchettes in use during séances in Paris. Their friend, the Boston bookseller G.W. Cottrell, became the first to manufacture the devices on a large scale the following year. But a larger revival was still in store, and in 1867, the British publication Once a Week published a sensational piece on the devices. With each subsequent reprinting of the article in newspapers in both Europe and America, the flames of popularity were spread, and by 1868, dozens of booksellers and toy manufacturers were producing the items to meet an insatiable demand that flared like wildfire on both sides of the Atlantic. The undisputed kings of planchette manufacturers, the firm Kirby & Co, claimed to have sold over 200,000 devices in their debut season alone.
Manufacturers of planchettes over the years include such established firms as Selchow & Righter, George G. Bussey, Jaques & Son, Chad Valley, and even the great magician and crystal seer, Alexander.
Decline & Evolution
Following the commercial introduction of the Ouija board by Charles Kennard's Kennard Novelty Company and acquisition of the talking board patent by his partner Elijah Bond on 1 July 1890, automatic-writing planchettes took a secondary role to the suddenly popular Ouija board and the many imitators its success spawned. Though early press articles had dubbed the Ouija the “new planchette,” the patentees were initially quick to differentiate their devices from classic automatic writers by pairing them with paddle-shaped, pencil-less pointers far different in shape from other planchettes of the period. The design changes and focus on the elegantly varnished boards and their clearly-stenciled letters arching across their fronts seem to have had the intended effect, and the items were enthusiastically welcomed by the public in much the same way planchettes had experienced their own craze some 23 years previously. From this point on, the pencil-equipped planchettes that had facilitated often-garbled spirit writing for nearly four decades were quickly shoved aside in favor of the cleaner, faster communications of these new “talking boards.” Though writing planchettes would enjoy brief revivals in subsequent years as the Ouija's popularity similarly waxed and waned, by the 1930s only British toy companies such as Glevum Games continued to produce true writing planchettes in any worthwhile numbers. By the Ouija revival that followed the Second World War, true writing planchettes were no longer being manufactured in any significant numbers anywhere, having been finally completely taken over by the more popular Ouija as they faded into obscurity.
In Popular Culture
During the initial craze in the late 1860s, planchettes became the subject of several popular songs sold in sheet music form. In 1868, the C.Y. Fonda sheet music company of Cincinnati published the “Planchette Polka,” composed by August La Motte, dedicated to Kirby & Co, which was the dominate planchette manufacturer of the day.
In 1868, the Lee & Walker sheet music company of Philadelphia debuted the song “Planchette” with words by Elmer Ruan Coates and music by Eastburn. The song includes the chorus "Planchette, planchette, oh! Let me see/What luck you have in store for me!"
In 1870, Oliver & Ditson sheet music company of Boston published “Planchette: The Celebrated Comic Song ” with words by G.A. Meazie Jr, as popularized by the singer Barnabee. The music was written for piano and voice.
The July 9, 1892 Volume 103 edition of Punch included a cartoon depicting an impish devil pushing a planchette toward a prediction of the next Derby winner, claiming the device would “put an end to all speculation.”
The 25 March 1907 edition of the Washington Post famously depicted President Teddy Roosevelt as a scribbling planchette in their satirical “Political Planchette Board” cartoon. The illustration depicts Roosevelt's struggle between Independent Democracy on one hand, and Progressive Republicans on the other. Roosevelt's planchette form is writing out “Victory” over the two factions with the planchette's pencil.
Artist Frederick Sands depicted the planchette in use in his watercolor “La Planchette” in the 1960s.
Drag queen Sharon Needles wore a "Mystic Hand" planchette on her forehead as a fashion statement when she was crowned "America's Next Drag Superstar" on RuPaul's Drag Race, April 2012. Ms. Needles has confirmed on her facebook wall that the planchette was a 1940s original, not a modern reproduction. The wooden planchette was manufactured c. 1940 by the Haskelite Manufacturing Corporation in Chicago, Illinois, and was sold with a version of a Ouija board called the "Hasko Mystic Board."
In August 2012, the Baltimore Museum of Industry hosted the first-of-its-kind retrospective ouija board exhibit. The exhibit featured two rare planchette specimens to represent the early evolution of talking boards, including a Selchow & Righter “Scientific Planchette” and a G.W. Cottrell “Boston Planchette.”
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- On the scene at 'RuPaul's Drag Race: Reunited' http://popwatch.ew.com/2012/04/26/rupauls-drag-race-reunited-taping-on-the-scene/
- Sharon Needles facebook conversation https://www.facebook.com/SHARONNEEDLESisDEAD/posts/211738132278096 Retrieved 2012.05.03
- Mystic Hand Planchette, Museum of the Macabre http://ehive.com/account/3471/object/32711 Retrieved 2012.05.03
- "Video Survey of Exhibit on YouTube". Retrieved 2012-01-16.
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