Last updated: November 13, 2015
From the mid nineteenth to early twentieth century, Victorian Americans held a remarkable fascination with spiritualism. Séances and mediums such as the Fox sisters of Hydesville, New York were popular attractions, and many people sought out methods of communicating with the spirit world in their own homes. Shrewd manufacturers of toys and games were quick to cash in on the craze, including the firm of Kirby & Company of New York, which was an early entrant into the market with their production of "Kirby's Planchette" in the 1860s.
A planchette was a simple device intended to allow users to commune with the afterworld through "automatic writing", in which spirits operated through living persons to provide written answers to questions. It consisted of a small piece of wood, rubber or glass, with castors on the underside and a hole for attaching a pencil. Users would pose questions for the spirits which would answer by writing on a piece of paper as they guided the hands of people touching the planchette. Kirby & Company appear to have offered at least five versions of their planchette, ranging in price from $1 to $8 depending on the features and quality of workmanship. The example pictured above has its instructions affixed to the planchette's underside.
Which Longfellow this planchette belonged to is unclear, but multiple members of the extended family expressed an interest in spiritualism. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow himself was known to be curious about the spiritualist movement, and referenced this interest in his poem "Haunted Houses", in which he wrote:
The spirit-world around this world of sense
Floats like an atmosphere, and everywhere
Wafts through these earthly mists and vapours dense
A vital breath of more ethereal air.