J.M. Simmons &
So began J.M. Simmons Ouija Board instruction sheet in 1920. The J.M. Simmons Ouija is the quintessential Halloween talking board and you know this the first time you see it. There is a witch, a black cat, two four-leaf clovers, a swastika, and a hexagram. In the center is the silhouette of a magical Middle East city, perhaps Baghdad. It is a curiosity, to be sure. The occult imagery and the weird juxtaposition of the German Nazi symbol with the Star of David are enough to raise the eyebrows of the most stoic. The more emotional won't even touch the board and may, on rare occasions, run screaming into the street. It wasn't always so. Back in the twenties, the swastika was a good luck symbol common on specialty coins, postcards, and many lucky trinkets and had nothing to do with the Third Reich. It's interesting how perceptions change over time. There aren't many now who think Baghdad magical and only the foolhardy would decorate an item with a swastika, luck or no luck.
J.M. Simmons was a toy maker known for his games 1000 Bingo, Bingo Corn Games, Jumbo Lotto and Keno. The idea of capitalizing on the lure of the occult appealed to him and he expanded his business to include books on mind power and personal magnetism. Among his offerings was his "Ouija Bottle," a bizarre glass tube device filled with a blood-red fluid. Used as a pendulum, and touted as "THE WONDERFUL MIND READING BOTTLE," it would supposedly answer any "yes" or "no" question by swinging in a straight line or circle. The instruction sheet came with dozens of questions to ask if you drew a blank and couldn't think of any on your own. These novelties are gone now and you are unlikely to find them except by sheer chance. But you do find his Ouija boards of which he sold hundreds of thousands. Printing was usually better on his large plywood boards—the smaller editions were often smeary, and over the years, as plywood became more expensive, he changed to hardboard and finally cardboard. During the war years he wisely replaced the swastika for the more palatable lucky horseshoe. Just to let everyone know there was no German connection he stamped on the back "MADE IN THE USA" in huge letters. He sold through the mail and advertised in magazines under the Ouija name and as the ASKME board. In a bold move, he made a second Ouija design with Asian characters, witches, and a big bag of money, all, we imagine,connected with one another in some odd way. It didn't sell very well and is now the rarest of the Simmons boards
Perhaps the biggest surprise was Simmon's willingness to express his personal distain for his customers. Not often do we see a manufacturer so eager to shoot himself in the foot with his remarks. Not a quiet man, this was one of many articles based on personal interviews:
Whether Simmon's mirthful attitude had anything to do with the fire that burned his factory to the ground we cannot say. Newspapers were unsympathetic and headlines read: "OUIJA FAILS TO OPERATE WHEN FIRE DESTROYS THE PLANT OF ITS MAKERS" and "FIREMEN HAVE HOPES OF FIGURING OUT CAUSE OF BLAZE IF OUIJA RECUPERATES." Undaunted, Simmons built another factory and continued in the Ouija board business well into the 1960s. Buyers may currently find his boards in antique stores, online on eBay, and occasionally, if the stars are smiling, at fire sales.
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