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Monday, April 29, 2013

I Wanda. I Wa-Wa-Wa-Wa-Wanda!

At least I think that's how it goes.

Ebay always proves an elusive and confounding beast for collectors and researchers alike. Each day brings a new flood of historical antiquities to pick and preen through. Every so often an item shows up that rewrites previous conclusions or opens up new avenues to explore. Most recently, that item was the Auburn Company's “Syco-Graf” board.

I have a long love affair with the Syco-Graf. Back in my poor college days when I had little other option but to choose between ramen, rent, or talking boards, and regrettably more often than not chose food, warmth, and shelter over rare collectibles, I fell head over heels for the item in a rather ratty, torn-up specimen that appeared at auction in eBay's nascent days. I didn't win it, of course, but I thought the auction picture was unique enough to save for later reference. That little low-res thumbnail became the cornerstone of a new digital talking board photo folder I then made on my desktop. To really date it, consider that the picture culled from that auction was eventually saved to a floppy disk inserted in my A: drive, and was lovingly transferred from computer-to-computer in successive years, changing formats as I went, and where it still lies buried among so many others that have come along since.

1921 Syco-Graf Dial Plate
I first detailed the Syco-Graf on on the page dedicated to Grover Haffner's business concerns, but with some new revelations, I want to revisit the device and the penultimate form it may—or may not—have ultimately evolved into: the Wanda Tipping Table.

The real revelation of this recent listing was a previously-undisclosed business name stamped in the yellow-stained oval above the board's missing dial attachment: The Auburn Company, along with “Providence, RI.” Though it seems that information had been shared with me as early as 2010, I had failed to notate it, and so thanks to that “new” little revelation—and to my good friend Bob Murch of, whose thoroughness is rivaled only by his boyish charm and glare of his shiny bald pate—we now know a lot more about this little business than we once discovered and discarded.

A man by the name of Whitfield J. Hainer of 227 Sackett St. registered “The Auburn Company" as a sole proprietorship manufacturing novelties at the City Hall of Providence, Rhode Island, on March 1, 1920. By that time, Whitfield already had two patents on record: his 1915 "autographic register" mechanical receipt machine and his 1919 caulking device. The business headquarters then differed from that printed on the company's ads, with a given location of 35 West Minister Street. There is a partner listed, which confuses the sole propriety of his endeavors, but the name C.H. Martineau of 147 Elmwood Avenue is also given. According to the 1921-22 Providence House Directory and the board's manufacturer stamp, the duo's company was located at 64 North Main Street, in Room #2.

Another Syco-Graf Specimen: missing dual indicator.
The board itself is a fantastic design, with “inlays” of birch highlighting the various message areas that seem to rather be stamped-and-lightly-stained areas contrasting with darker-stained blank space than actual inlays. In fact, depending on a particular photograph's contrast setting, the workaround stain job seems evident, with darker patches of the red stain deeper in outlying areas that thin to blotchy-ness as you get closer to the black-line segregated yellow-stained areas, perhaps as the worker applied the stain trying to avoid over-applying stain where it wasn't needed.

The Syco-Graf is a classic dial plate board in line with the Electra Company boards of the same era, with a curious new feature never before seen in spirit communication devices: a dual-index.(To be fair, the 1918 Sullivan patent has a two-pointer index, but doesn't work on the same long/short two-level arrangement) With the two-tiered arrangement of the letters on the face, the rotating wheel contains two indicators—a short one that points to the lower tier of numbers, days, times, and messages; and a long index, which points to the upper tier of letters and the Yes and No messages between them.

Syco-Graf Advertisement, Overland Monthly, November 1920
The earliest advertisements on record show up in November of 1920—just in time for the holiday season—and in the pages of both monthly and weekly publications such as The Californian and Overland Monthly, as well as The Independent and Motion Picture Classics. By August of 1921, advertising diminishes and then ceases—as far as we can observe—in Overland Monthly only. Whether or not the heavy spread of advertisements targeted at a California audience is indicative only of the surviving or digitized record, or if they are a clue to eyes cast longingly Westward is unknown, but it is a curious observation that may play into the board's continued evolution in the West that we'll soon discuss, if any.

The Syco-Graf was advertised as a “micro-psychic” machine that “amazingly increases the strength of the feeblest psychic impressions.” It sold for $5.00, or, approximately $60 in current dollars. We haven't seen many pop up over the years, and few with intact indicators. So they're nice and rare.
Kyro Psychic Writer advertisement, The Independent, March 1921
By March of 1921, The Auburn Company was offering a new enticing product: Kyro: The Psychic Writer. It was described as “a modernized and supersensitized planchette.” It was constructed of 3-ply mahogany and “birch inlay” that arouses my suspicions that it was a similarly deceptive contrasting stamp-and-dye-job (like the Syco-Graf) than an actual inlay. It also featured “adjustable bronze fittings” and—if I'm reading this right—“gelo-lithic floats” which may be some sort of insulator like we've observed on the Bang Williams Insulated Planchette. Or the blurry texts says something else (other interpretations are invited). The Kyro sold for .80 cents, or about $10 in modern equivalent currency.

If the surviving digital advertising record is anything to go by, the Syco-Graf didn't make it to the 1921 holiday season. Hainer's partner, in fact, left before the first season was even over, with the incorporation papers noting his departure from the company on December 9, 1920. It seemed the Syco-Graf had suffered the same futile fate as so many talking boards before it, disappearing into the ether before that “Patent Pending” stamp most boards seem to bear bore fruit.

Or did it?

With only pictures of the board's top and no physical specimens to observe, the communicative collecting community had for years tentatively assumed the Syco-Grafs we had seen at auction were simply less refined versions of another enigma we knew of that *did* show up on the patent record: Grover Haffner's patented “tipping table.” After all, the traits just have too much in common to ignore. There's the segmented alphabet sections. The lower arch of letters flanked by the days of the week and the unusual AM and PM markers. And the general layout of the design and the mechanical reliance on that new feature I mentioned: the dual index with the long and short indicators.

The proposed evolution: 1921 Syco-Graf > 1921/23 Haffner Patent Drawing > 1923 Wanda Tipping Table

As historical photographs began to surface of Haffner's tipping table, it was easy to jump to the conclusion that his patent and the boards it spawned were simply refined versions of the Syco-Graf. But there were a few problems with that.

For one, this week's auction showed us for the first time the flipside of the Syco-Graf, and it was surprisingly absent of the legs, base, and pulley mechanism we expected. Rather, it was just a straight dial plate mechanism, casting its role in the evolution of the tipping table into doubt.

Then, of course, we expected—or at least hoped—to see Grover Haffner's name somehow connected to the Auburn Company's incorporation papers, which Murch wasn't able to secure until we had a company name the eBay auction's item revealed as the Auburn Company. But we don't get Haffner—we get Hainer and Martineau instead.
Haffner Patent Drawing Detail: filed November 1921, approved December 1923
At least we have some breathing room. Haffner's patent for his “psychic instrument” is filed on November 26, 1921, so we have some time before the last Syco-Graf advertisements on record and his filing date for his tipping table. (As an interesting side-note, Haffner used the same attorneys: Hazard & Miller, that T.H. White used for his I-D-O PSY-CHO-I-D-E-O-GRAPH board and subsequent "Card Board" patent.) So it could be that Haffner—perhaps acting as the Elijah Bond to Auburn's Charles Kennard—had time to borrow, license, or steal (or, you know, use legitimately, but that's so boring) the design scheme for the Syco-Graf, head West, and set up shop to produce the revised version. Or maybe the design similarities and dual-index operation are all one big happenstance. We really just don't know, but that doesn't make the design similarities any less suspicious.

And, as usual, there were intervening discoveries made that shed new light on the whole theory and propelled the dialogue forward toward new discoveries. Gene Orlando of the had archived some photographs of the tipping table in use in some unidentified film or performance, complete with a wiry-haired professor and showgirls at play with the device, and we'd assumed we had a refined Syco-Graf on our hands. But another film-related still broke the whole case open: a photograph discovered by Murch, this time of Lon Chaney and Tod Browning on the set of the lost film London After Midnight, playing with a tipping table as well. Fortunately for us, as I sat there staring and wishing, I cocked my head to the side as I scrutinized the photo, and realized I could see the name of the board in this particular frame.

And it wasn't Syco-Graf. It was a board called “Wanda.”

1920s Film Stills: Browning & Chaney on set of London after Midnight, right, with Wanda mark clearly visibile.
This little clue led us to Harry Lang's 1928 article in Photoplay magazine, Exposing the Occult of Hocus-Pocus in Hollywood,which features not only a picture of a perfectly intact specimen of this “Wanda Tipping Table,” but informed us that Haffner's company was by now known as the Wanda Tipping Table Company of Hollywood, California, which is not only a long way from Providence, Rhode Island, but matches Haffner's location given in his patent information, as well as his only appearance in the census record.

And that distance, not to mention the short span between the final appearances of the Syco-Graf and the first hints of the Wanda, casts speculation on the theorized relationship between the East Coast-produced "Syco-Graf" and its supposed West Coast incarnation. But a patent application does not a product make, and it would be some time yet before Wanda would finally be unveiled. The patent would not actually be approved for another two years, on December 4, 1923. But not that a company ever needed a patent to make a product. And we know the wheels were rolling well before the patent's approval, as the unissued stock certificate from the Henry E. Carter Papers in UCLA's collections (issued for 7% of the company) displays with its February, 1923 issue date. It may be that it took that long for the manufacturers to obtain funding and get established.

Before too long, and like any attractive young starlet, the board was suddenly showing up all over Hollywood, in the aforementioned films, at the very least, and the Photoplay Magazine article even says of it “The famous old ouija board, in its heyday, was so popular that 35,000,000 of them were sold! The tipping table is out after the same record.”

The 1928 Photoplay Revelation: The Wanda Tipping Table!
Regardless of the evolutionary link or no, the Wanda Tipping Table is every bit of machine the patent and film stills promised, and is a marvelous good time to toy around with. Ouija collectors finally had their first chance to get their hands on one at the Phenomenology 105 conference in Gettysburg this year, when I brought the sole-known-surviving and only-just-then-restored specimen along for its public debut. And what a task the restoration was (and a topic for another blog post). The “Kennedy Table,” as it has come to be called after the lovely woman who discovered it in her attic some years ago—was missing a base and indicator, but with the missing parts restored, she's back to talking, and has a lot to say. As the film stills demonstrate, tipping the table back and forth draws the pulley to and fro, turning the dual-indicator back and forth to point out messages with similar ideomotor movements we've come to expect from moving planchettes on talking boards. And she was a big hit at the conference!
The Kennedy Wanda: discovered in an East Coast attic.
Oh, and if you're wondering, like so many are when they pose the question: “Why “Wanda?”” Well, Grover Haffner claimed it was the name of his Indian spirit guide.

If Haffner was involved with the Auburn Company in some sort of secondary role (some East Coast census on Grover Haffner would be a particularly choice confirmation), later press makes it keenly obvious that this is not the case with the Wanda Company, as he is listed as key to the device's existence in promotional materials with the board as well as press of the period. The Photoplay article also gives us some indication of the popularity of the devices in Hollywood:

“Perhaps the same reverent attitude of the Valentino group finds an echo in the increasing numbers of those in filmland who have “tipping tables” in their homes. Then again, perhaps not. But at any rate, Dr. Grover C. Haffner, an accomplished osteopath, and the Wanda Tipping Table Company of Hollywood, are finding their fortunes from the tipping table.” Dr. Haffner invented it, and the company is manufacturing and selling it—and they're selling so many of them that it doesn't need a fortune teller to tell that they're reaping a fortune."

"The tipping table is a sort of first cousin to the old ouija. It's faster—it has an indicator that works quickly like a pointer, in stead of the slow old traveling plaque of the old ouija board. The idea is for two people to sit at one with their finger tips pressing lightly on it. They ask it questions, and it's supposed to answer.”

The article continues with its derision:

“Talking about table tipping, there's that good old séance trick of moving heavy tables about. Houdini, who in his lifetime delighted in nothing so much as exposing fake spiritualistic phenomenon, exposed the table-moving trick repeatedly. But it still goes “hot” in Hollywood séances.”

We got some life out of Wanda, and her career wasn't as brief as other actresses who sojourned to Hollywood seeking fame and fortune. We know by 1923 the wheels were rolling toward the company that would manufacture her. We know by 1927 she's showing up on the Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer studio lots, and by 1928 she is well known enough in Hollywood to be derided in the pressthe mark of an arrived star if there ever was one! And she keeps going. In 1931, The Wanda Company commissioned a special 8x10 portrait of her—perhaps for use in advertisements—by the “largest and finest photography studio in the Los Angeles area” at the time: "Dick" Whittington Studios, a photograph now in the USC Digital Library.
Wanda Psychic Tipping Table: the 1931 incarnation. Photo courtesy USC Digital Library.
 The photograph reveals some changes to Wanda, as well. Her design has blossomed from the rather utilitarian scheme of previous years into arguably one of the most beautiful talking board designs ever witnessed. An all-seeing eye now surrounds the indicator, “psychic” has been added to her title, and a nice border and cornerwork adds to the appeal of the board. Like any fading Hollywood starlet who has had her time in the limelight, it looks as if Wanda may have had a little work done, because the photograph does raise some questions: if the baseboard and metal supports pictured are part of the board, and not simply a stand used by the photographer to capture her beautiful new makeup, then how has the mechanism changed? If the base and frame pictured is not a stand, Wanda's mechanism has undergone a serious revision. There is no indication of cables or their anchors on the base, which means her index tipping system has been totally reworked in some fashion. That would mean the regrettable discarding of her beautiful fold-out wooden legs, having been replaced by a pair of metal frameworks, but maybe that's the price of progress.

So, in closing, what to make of all this? It is a question I leave to you, dear reader, and invite you to weigh in in the comments section below. Is it happenstance that the Syco-Graf and Wanda share so many design similarities, or does one seem to be a natural evolution and refinement of the other? The collusion evidence is compelling from a design viewpoint: the dual index mechanism, the AM/PM and weekday messages, and the segmented letter sections that for years led us to believe they were family. But there's no evidence to place Grover Haffner in any sort of relationship with the Auburn Company. What do YOU think?

As researchers, we always wish we had all the answers for you, and we try to assemble all the available evidence into the best working theory we can, but, for now, and until more information comes to light, this one sloughs back into the less-than-certain bin.

Friday, April 12, 2013

Mysterious Planchette on Instagram

While the endeavors of regular, informative blog posts can be postponed by the doldrums of shop ownership and the excitement of travels, researching, and collecting, one thing I usually always have a few spare minutes to participate in--typically while in bed early mornings and late nights with iPhone in hand--is to engage in some photo sharing on Instagram. I use the MysteriousPlanchette moniker to post some of visually appealing aspects of my greater studies as I run across them, and the popularity of the posts, admittedly self-indulgent at first, seem to have gained popularity with a wider audience.
  So, if you are an instagram user, I encourage you to follow mysteriousplanchette there, and I'll continue to strive to post the more eerie, surreal, and bizarre pictures from the history of spirit communication to fill in the gaps when I just can't find enough gaps between the ticking seconds in the day to update this blog. See you there!