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Monday, December 9, 2013

George Blackie & Company's "Mysterious Planchette"

It is always jarring to see the phrase around which you've sculpted your entire public front used in a context years-removed from its original source. Which is why a recently-discovered ad for George Blackie & Company's "Mysterious Planchette" came as such a surprise.

Readers more familiar with the website than I have any right to expect know that my site's title comes from a relatively common planchette produced for an exceptionally long term by Glevum Games in the UK. For an inordinate amount of time, this item vexed and avoided my inquiries into the real identity of its manufacturer. For years, these most-commonly-encountered planchettes were discovered with only an elusive "British Manufacture" byline on their boxes. Commonly encountered more than planchettes by other makers, I've affectionately referred to them as "the Fulds of the planchette world" or even "the Parker Bros. of planchettes" in a bit of harassment to my best pal and longtime associate (and Ouija and William Fuld scholar), Robert Murch.

Luckily, one collector, who's one of my favorite folks and a phenomenal spirit communication device maker--Madame Sheol herself--managed to discover a specimen printed with the actual manufacturer's name: Glevum Games. And thus the case was--finally--burst wide open, and the manufacturer revealed. With that, we learned more--quite a bit more, in fact--from the man himself, Malcolm J. Watkins, the leading expert on Roberts Brothers/Glevum Games and author of the spectacularly exhaustive Games-Makers to the Empire: Robert Brothers of Gloucester 1890-1957. Mr. Watkins was kind enough to investigate his own archives for the earliest evidence of a Glevum planchette, and shared what is their earliest known advertisement: a Gamages catalog image from 1913, which until a few weeks ago remained the earliest known hint of a device using the "mysterious planchette" moniker.

It was the earliest use of the term, that is, until I met antiquarian bookseller and bibliophagist Garrett Scott. Garrett runs the always-entertaining Bibliophagist blog, and one entry in particular caught my eye. Garrett's post explored a fantastic little relic of a book by George Blackie & Company called Kuaint, Kueer & Kurious and Book of New Receipts, with Catalogue of Novelties and Wonders. As you can see for yourself in his post, it is a wonderful little novelty catalog chock-full of quackery, rubber mustaches and bowties, magic tricks and illusions, fortune-telling accessories, marked cards, and all manner of hoo-has, geegaws, and doodads that would make Pee-Wee Herman lock up his beloved bike and run inside to shop

The cover of Kuaint, Kueer, & Kurious, courtesy of Garrett at
Imagine my surprise when Garrett's blog mentioned an ad for a "Mysterious Planchette." It wouldn't have been too surprising in and of itself, except that the catalog dates from the mid-to-late 1870s, just about a decade after the planchette's first great craze, and pre-dating the earliest known Glevum Games ad by a good 35 years! And since Glevum wasn't established by Harry and John Roberts until 1894, I had an honest-to-goodness mystery--and a likely new addition to the "undiscovered devices" archive--on my hands.

So Garrett was kind enough to provide a scan of the page for my inspection. As it turns out, George Blackie & Company did indeed list a "mysterious planchette" offering previously unknown to this humble researcher. The ad is full-page, and includes an oft-quoted passage from an 1868 article printed in the New York Evening Post explaining the mysteries of planchettes as well as a previously-unseen illustration of the planchette in use: depictions of which I never grow tired:

Much more often than not, I find these illustrations to be pretty accurate depictions of the product they are pitching. If that's the case here, the Blackie planchette would conform to the typical American form--a classic heart shape--but would sadly be lacking true castors. But planchettes without wheels aren't unheard of. Both Wilder's "Mystic Hand" planchette and Singer's "Mystic Wanderer" had only tiny turned dowels to hold them above the table, for example. And forgoing castors would likely be an effective cost-cutting measure in a time when production of planchettes was at an all-time low and castors unlikely to be readily available from other firms or jobbers. Which, of course, begs the question of whether or not Blackie & Co had a manufacturing branch, or were simply acting as distributors for another firm's product in the grand stationer's tradition that gave birth to the planchette industry in the first place. If that's the case, there isn't currently a known planchette from the period that matches the depiction in the catalog, so for now that determination will remain a...wait for it...mystery.

So, yet another to add to the list, true believers! And since the catalog would make such an awesome Christmas gift to those like me that grew up flipping through Sears and Montgomery Ward holiday catalogs in search of hidden treasures, keep in mind that the "Kuaint, Kueer & Kurious" volume is a stunner, full of fantastic engravings of this nature, and for sale! You can find Garrett's listing for the catalog on his website.  Many, many thanks go out to him for his kind generosity and assistance in this exciting discovery!

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