A married couple usually receives kitchenware, linens, or silver for their nupitals—but President Grover Cleveland and his wife, Frances Folsom, were gifted far more unusual fare. In 1886, Cleveland became the first and only U.S. president to get married in the White House. One of the presents he was given was a precursor to the modern-day Ouija board—the Leominster’s Witch Board.
According to the Sentinel & Enterprise News, spiritualism—belief in communicating with the dead—had become widespread in the years following the Civil War. Everyone had a deceased loved one they wanted to contact, and they often solicited the help of mediums, or tried to conjure spirits themselves with “magical” items. Some of these seemingly supernatural objects were boards painted with letters, numbers, and words, which required people to use a planchette as a pointer to spell out a message from spirits. Employed in a similar manner as the Ouija board—which later became the best-known "talking board"—the devices quickly became a fad across the country.
W.S. Reed Toy and Manufacturing of Leominster, Massachusetts, decided to cash in on the craze and create their own spooky board. Seeking novel marketing strategies for their “Witch Board,” they decided to use Cleveland’s pending marriage as a way to garner attention for their product.
The New England-based company reportedly sent Cleveland his very own board for his wedding, along with a letter that said: "Honored sir, We take the liberty to send you by express today an article of our own manufacture, which is attracting a great deal of attention, called the 'Witch Board.'"
While President Cleveland appreciated the sentiment, he did not like the gift. He wrote back to Charles E. Dresser, company founder and treasurer of W. S. Reed Toy and Manufacturing, saying “I acknowledge with thanks the 'witch board' which you sent me as a wedding present. I accept it as an evidence of kind feeling and friendship and can admire it for its ingenuity, but I hardly think that I shall immediately test its power to 'disclose the past and forecast the future.'"
Even though Cleveland would never use the Witch Board to hold séances in the Oval Office, the exchange was chronicled in newspapers. This helped commercialize the “talking board,” and paved the way for future models like W.S. Reed Toy’s Espirito board (pictured above). According to Robert Murch, head of the Talking Board Historical Society, it's unknown whether another Witch Board was ever manufactured.
However, by 1890 the Ouija Board had been invented in Chestertown, Maryland, and W.S. Reed couldn’t compete with the new product. The company ceased production of the Espirito board, and was later absorbed by another company.
However, Murch says that residents of Leominster can boast that the earliest known mass-manufactured talking board was created right in their city—and that it once gained notice from a president. "Other board manufacturers can say they [got their products into] people's homes," Murch tells mental_floss. "This one made it into the White House."
W.S. Reed Factory in Leominster, Massachusetts
All photos courtesy Robert Murch of the Talking Board Historical Society