Simone Natale is a Lecturer in Communication and Media Studies at Loughborough University, United Kingdom. He is the author of Supernatural Entertainments: Victorian Spiritualism and the Rise of Modern Media Culture, published by Pennsylvania State University Press in 2016. You can follow him on Twitter and Academia.edu.
One of the peculiarities of spiritualism, a religious movement that spread globally since the mid-nineteenth century, was the constant intermingling between scientific and religious inquiry. Spiritualist believers regarded spiritualism as a ‘scientific’ religion that could be experimentally verified. Since belief in spirit communication required the constant confirmation of empirical evidence, devices designed to ensure the clarity and authenticity of spirit messages were soon created and put into practice. Such instruments aimed to avoid trickery and to make sure that séances were conducted under ‘experimental’ conditions.
Among the earliest examples of these pieces of applied technology is the spiritoscope. This instrument was designed by Robert Hare, a chemistry professor at the University of Pennsylvania whose conversion to spiritualism warranted front-page coverage in the New York Times in 1855. Hare created as many as six versions of this mechanical device, in the attempt to avoid all possibilities of trickery and manipulation. His most effective idea was to place a disk bearing the letters of the alphabet, which spirits would use to communicate with sitters, in a position hidden from the eyes of the medium (fig. 1). In this way, Hare reasoned, mediums had no control over the message delivered, “even clairvoyance being nullified,” and the experimenter could collect empirical, unabridged evidence of spirit communication.
Hare’s spiritoscope is only one of the earliest examples in a long series of instruments produced to test spirit communication. Among the most famous and successful of these devices were planchettes and ouija boards, whose ease of use helped standardize séances as shared experiences of spiritualist inquiry. Yet, Professor Hare’s scientific endeavour might seem at odds with the playful contexts in which many of the later devices were inserted. In fact, several of them were commercialized as popular games throughout the nineteenth century, inaugurating a tradition of toys inspired by spiritualism and mediumship that reaches to the present day. Companies such as Sears Roebuck in the United States and the Two Worlds Publishing Company in Britain marketed several models of ‘spirit boards’ in the last decades of the nineteenth century, turning spirit communication into a popular game that was advertised as such. These devices were available for two apparently contrasting applications: serious spiritual investigation and titillating party game.
But are these two potential applications really in contrast with each other? Is a Robert Hare so different from the amusement-seeking buyer of a ouija board? As I argue in my book, answers to these questions might not be as straightforward as we tend to think. We are used to draw a rigid line between things such us science, religion, and entertainment; yet, as the history of spiritualism reminds us, these are in constant intersection with each other.
Since the beginnings, spiritualism was a space onto which scientific inquiry merged with spectacular performances, and entertainment coexisted with religious and spiritual faith. Even though probably most mediums performed at home for friends and family, others gave séance demonstrations on the stage of theatres and public halls to a paying audience of spectators who understood themselves as such. They had managers, some of whom also assisted performers in the show business. As documented by numerous testimonies, moreover, even private séances were perceived as both uplifting and as entertaining activities. To many spiritualists, it was not a contradiction to regard spirit communication as a pastime and an act of scientific and spiritual inquiry at the same time.
It is through such manifold dimension of the spiritualist experience that one might make sense of the spirit boards’ apparently contradictory nature as experimental devices and popular toys. The use of instruments to facilitate spirit communication suggests that séances had something in common with the ‘rational amusement’ of popular nineteenth-century philosophical toys, such as the phenakistoscope and the stereoscope. These devices were designed to demonstrate the achievements of rational sciences, especially optics, and at the same time to arouse curiosity and to serve as entertainment for private use.
As David Brewster, who invented the kaleidoscope and popularized the application of the stereoscope for photography, put it, “the toy that amuses the child will instruct the sage.” Likewise, the use of spiritualist devices such as the spiritoscope and the spirit boards coupled leisure with spiritualist inquiry. These devices provided users with standardized practices for conducting spiritualist séances as religious inquiries and as domestic games, allowing for a flexible interpretation of such events.
Brewster, David. 1856. The Stereoscope: Its History, Theory, and Construction, with Its Application to the Fine and Useful Arts and to Education. London: John Murray.
Hare, Robert. 1856. Experimental Investigation of the Spirit Manifestations, Demonstrating the Existence of Spirits and Their Communion with Mortals. New York: Partridge & Brittan.
Herman, Daniel. 2006. ‘Whose Knocking? Spiritualism as Entertainment and Therapy in Nineteenth-Century San Francisco.’ American Nineteenth Century History 7 (3): 417–42.
Lamont, Peter. 2013. Extraordinary Beliefs: A Historical Approach to a Psychological Problem. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Noakes, Richard. 1999. ‘Telegraphy Is an Occult Art: Cromwell Fleetwood Varley and the Diffusion of Electricity to the Other World.’ British Journal for the History of Science 32 (4): 421–59.
Noakes, Richard. 2004. ‘Spiritualism, Science and the Supernatural in Mid-Victorian Britain.’ In The Victorian Supernatural, edited by Carolyn Burdett and Pamela Thurschwell, 23–43. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
© Simone Natale