A recent acquisition by Gene Orlando of the Museum of Talking Boards--the lucky dog--has turned my attention back to the age-old question that's plagued me about Kirby & Co's planchettes for several years now: "What's what, and which is which, in the Kirby & Company planchette catalog?"
To see what I mean, take a look at a golden-era ad for Kirby & Co planchettes that lists all 5 offered models offered as of May 1869, in that month's edition of the American Phrenological Journal:
|Five advertised Kirby & Co models; May 1869 American Phrenological Journal|
|Quincy Whig, June 28, 1868|
Success and popularity bred imitators, or so Kirby & Co. claimed. And that's funny, because evidence overwhelmingly supports that Boston bookseller G.W. Cottrell had the lead on planchette manufacturing by a solid 8 years with his "Boston Planchette," thanks to Dr. H.F. Gardner and Robert Dale Owen. Meanwhile, glazier Cyrus H. Farley of Portland, Maine even had an early claim to manufacturing the boards before Kirby, which may have led to a partnership, as later reported in the Springfield Republican:
"He manufactured quite a number which he sold at the Cretan fair in Boston [MP: Easter weekend, March]. He attempted to awaken an interest in the subject in the mind of Boston people, but everybody laughed at him. He then went to New York and enlisted the efforts of Mr. Kirby, and since that time Farley and Kirby have manufactured over 34,000 planchettes."I'll explore this relationship in a later article, and how it might have led to the "No. 4" plate glass planchette. For now, whatever their claims and protestations of originality, which as we know could not be substantiated for a device invented 15 years previously in Paris (see my site or my Paranormal Review article, "Game of Firsts," for more information on planchette's earliest days), Kirby & Co. began warning against so-called imposters with patent claims. By early July, Kirby ads in the NY Evening Post and in the Boston Journal (right in Cottrell's territory) warns of imitator planchettes “of inferior make are in the market, under various names and changes to avoid Patent, and are apt to mislead the public.”
There is no evidence that Kirby & Company actually had a patent of any kind for their planchette. In fact, the only planchette patent from the period is New Yorker Ralph Jennings' "Little Wonder" planchette from July, which was predicated on an unusual "spinner" attached to a spindle sprouting from the shield-shaped board, as a proper means of "significant improvement" that would have qualified it for a patent application. And it's curious to note that an 1868 Springfield Republican article specifically states that the Boston Planchette's inventor, G.W. Cottrell, sold the "Little Wonder" in his Boston bookstore, while another article accused Cottrell of being a Kirby turncoat--a distributor gone rogue with his own infringing product, which evidence doesn't support. But the bad blood between Cottrell and Kirby is a significant tangent for another article.
If Kirby & Company had any claim to a patent an an items others had been making for years, if would have had to have come through a "significant improvement" on the device, like Jennings' spinner. In Kirby's case, it might have come in the form of the “New Patent Wheel” of their “No. 1” planchette.
So which planchette is the No. 1? Well...that's why we're here.
Initial Kirby & Co. ads only list the "No. 1" and "No. 2." By July, the company was advertising their "No. 4"--the plate glass planchette. It follows that their "No. 3" "India Rubber" planchette (actually made of ebonite) would have predated this one slightly, being assigned previously in sequence, and present in ads (see above) before the glass planchette appears. And while those two make for fitting climaxes to any review of Kirby planchettes, they are also the easiest to identify, so here they are, as we work backward:
And this is compounded by the fact that we're not only contending with two different designs. In May, 1869, months after the great craze and the holiday season rush for the devices, Kirby & Co. began advertising their new “No. 0” budget planchette, “a good substantial board” for $1.00 in the American Phrenological Journal.
Which leaves us with three wood model boards to categorize:
"No. 0 — A good substantial board...$1.00”Given that "good," "substantial," "superior," and "improved" are all fairly subjective terms, this isn't easy. And "new patent wheel" versus "improved Pentagraph wheel" was, before now, we think, anyone's guess. And gauging polish? Sheesh. But we do have some clues, and multiple boards for comparison, so let's take a look.
"No. 1 — A superior Planchette with new patent wheel...$1.50"
"No. 2 — With improved Pentagraph wheel, highly polished...$3.00"
The most recent addition to the Kirby pantheon that sparked the discourse is a beauty. Notably, it is lacking the normal scooped "cutout" at the cleavage of the heart that is so distinctively "Kirby" in other boards, giving it the same "normal" heart shape of the glass and rubber planchettes produced by the company.
|A Goodyear-wheeled Kirby Planchette, photo courtesy of the Museum of Talking Boards.|
|The Orlando "Goodyear" castor and wheel, left, and the Hodge specimen, right.|
The wheels are just as different. The Hodge specimen has a thick wood wheel, likely mahogany. The MoTB specimen, on the other hand, is hard rubber, and is stamped "Goodyear's P.T. N R Co." which, our internet sleuthing revealed usually appears on buttons from the Civil War era, and means:
|A period Goodyear button|
that should look familiar.
"The most common [Goodyear] company [patent] back marks to find are from: Novelty Rubber Co. (N.R. Co.); India Rubber Comb Co. (I.R.C. Co.) . During the life of the patent Charles Goodyear held (rubber hardening process), all buttons made of hard rubber had to carry evidence of his patent. Many carry just the word Goodyear's and "P=T", an abbreviation for Patent and the year 1851." [source]So, these wheels were manufactured by New York's Novelty Rubber Company under the Goodyear patent. What to make of this? Not much more than face value, I'm afraid. It does open up the intriguing possibility that the company also manufactured the "No. 3" India Rubber planchette--Kirby, being a bookseller, certainly didn't do it themselves. So that's a great discovery for me to explore!
When the true-heart-shaped Kirby first arrived on my doorstep, and again when I saw this new one, I thought was that it must be a "No. 0"--it lacked the distinctive scoop cutout you'll see from the more well-known Kirby designs (as you'll see below). It just seemed more...basic. Is it just an early model before the scoop "improved" other Kirby planchette models? But maybe the high polish puts it as a "No. 2" model, and these are what Kirby considered "improved Pentagraph" wheels? We. just. don't. know.
|1868 Kirby & Co. planchette ad--note classic "Kirby Scoop."|
Once we crack open the different variations of castors and wheels in the more traditional Kirby shape--the scooped cutout-heart--things get even more confusing. For starters, the castor style on the Hodge specimen is repeated on another Kirby in the Museum of Talking Boards collection: this time on a board with the traditional Kirby cutout-heart shape, seen below. There's absolutely no consistency in combined shapes and castor types to settle on only 3 wood model types from the 1869 ad!
|The other Museum of Talking Boards Kirby & Co planchette. Note it has identical castors to the Hodge heart-shaped|
plank, but on the more traditional "cutout-heart" board. It is also worth noting this board has little to no polish.
|The Matthew Wilson planchette, a gift from Spiritualist Robert Dale Owen, in the Missouri History Museum.|
|The Longfellow Kirby, courtesy of the Longfellow National Historic Site (www.nps.gov/long/).|
|Period Pantograph Castors by W. & S. Jones, left, and Elliot Bros, right, who also produced some of the first UK planchettes.|
|The pantograph-stye castors of the Kirby "No. 4" plate glass planchette, left, and the "No.3" India Rubber board, right.|
I could really throw a hardball at this hardware and start talking about the various Kirby & Co. "clones" that may or may not have been perpetrated by G.W. Pitcher, and have near-identical hardware and even shapes...but let's call it a day, shall we? Here, as at last we close our retrospective of Kirby & Co planchette castors, we really arrive no closer that we were before to settling the conundrum of their model number system. If I had to guess, I'd say the wooden-wheeled models are possibly "No. 0" models, the "new patent wheel" description of the "No. 1" refers to the patented Goodyear wheels, and the "improved Pentagraph wheels" points toward the pantograph-style castors and bone wheels common to pantographs of the period, making the bone-wheeled models like the Longfellow "No. 2s". Wood < Rubber < Bone? Doesn't really leave room for the heart-shape=early/scoop cutout="Improved" theory, but it's something. I supposed we'll just have to dig up a few more models, and see what we can come up with!