Tag Archives: victorian

29: Spirit Dial

One of the most interesting things I’ve done as a museum curator is work on a script for a Victorian Halloween drama presented by the museum.  There are many interesting aspects to death and dying in the Victorian Age, and their interest in the afterlife.  In an interesting juxtaposition, the Victorians were advancing technology and science at an amazing rate, yet clung so stubbornly to a belief in the supernatural world.  They truly believed that science could explain all, and that all the scientific innovation would some day also explain what people knew to to be true of spirits and the afterlife.

A shot from Death Comes to the Tanner House, with the original Spirit Dial on the table.  Authentic Victorian ghost? ;) Photo by Photographic Services International.
A shot from the 2013 Death Comes to the Tanner House, with the original Spirit Dial on the table. We fast forwarded into the future and set it in the 1920s last year, so that is an authentic 1920s ghost! 😉 Photo by Photographic Services International.

Part of the production was recreating a Victorian seance, complete with a “Talking Board.”  Today, they are commercially known as Ouija boards.  As early as the 1850s, spiritualists were creating ways to make it easier to communicate with the dead.  Flat spirit boards are actually relatively simple to make on a laser cutter, as are the planchettes (or pointers.)   For the production, I wanted to make something that wouldn’t be obvious that it was being controlled by the museum volunteer, who was in no way a “professional medium.” I found a reference for obscure “dial plates” and I knew that would be perfect to model my version after.

As this post is not entitled “52 weeks ago,” it’s not meant to rehash what we did, but how we are making it better.  The design and the mechanics of how the spirit dial moves was pretty solid, so what I endeavored to do for this week was to prototype the board for kits.  As it was my first attempt at really any wood construction, has a lot of room for improvement and simplification.

I want to take a moment to insert a little disclaimer.  The kits are made for entertainment purposes only.  The original dial was created based on Victorian beliefs.  It was intended to be a prop; a Victorian-style curiosity.   What you choose to do with it beyond that is  your choice and personal belief.

A ghostly hello!
A ghostly hello!

The basics on how to use the Spirit dial:  the largest circle is the one where the participants’ hands rest, and this is the only piece that should be moved. Around the edge are “Hello” “Yes” “No” and “Good bye”.  The text repeats so the people at the indicators opposite of each other read the same thing.  The Victorians believed you need to start every communication with the spirits with a “Hello.”  The yes and no are for simple answers and when you are finished (or the “spirits” are 😉 ), you tell the spirits goodbye. The pointer (which is  attached to the big circle) is for more detailed messages that need to be spelled out, or have numbers.

The biggest obstacles to making the current design into a kit:


The large dial is on the right, the 12 inch version on the left.
The large dial is on the right, the 12 inch version on the left.

The original board was 16 inches in diameter, which was the biggest width we could easily get blanks for a the time.  This worked well in a theatrical setting, but the size is almost prohibitive to ship.  It would be less expensive to produce and ship at 12 inches in diameter.  Since we were messing with the design and sizing of it, I also increased the turn radius of the pointer, to the alphabet text could be larger and easier to read / point to.

The turning mechanism is a little sticky: This is where my novice building skills come into play.  I didn’t want board to rub up against board when turning the device. Meandering up and down the isles at the hardware store, I discovered furniture movers.  The original board has little plastic furniture moving nubs between each layer in an effort to make it “glide.”  It added unnecessary depth, and was a little stickier than expected.

In prototyping for the kit, I thought felt might be a logical thing to try. The wood in the kit is not sanded, because it is intended that the you customize and finish your own kits before assembly at home.  The tiny rough bits of wood that were barely perceptible with the hand caught on all the fibers in the felt.   It was not pleasant on the ears.

My second attempt at a new smooth mechanism was with simply, thin, laser cut acrylic washers.  I’m still kind of enamored about how simple this was and how beautifully it worked.  It glides like butter.

Sneak peek at week 29 on #52lasers.

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Complicated Construction:

Photo of the cobbled together bottom.  We are making this not an issue in the kits.
Photo of the original cobbled together bottom. No screws in the new version, so this is not an issue in the kits!

The original board involved screws and power tools.  While it did make it relatively sturdy, it is stupidly hard to drill straight down a dowel rod.  Consequentially, some of the alignment is a bit off.  With such tight measurements, this contributed to the stickiness of the movement.  I also didn’t sink the screws, to the heads were sticking out.  This made for an absolute mess on the bottom.  The one screw made it wobbly and prone to damaging furniture (a no no in a museum!) so I put  felt feet on it.  Well, the stickiness of the movement and the felt feet made it slidey.  So I glued some of the grippy shelf / rug liner to the bottom of that.

There are holes for the dowels to go through, as well as engraved wells to secure the glued dowels.

There are holes for the dowels to go through, as well as engraved wells to secure the glued dowels.

So we removed the screws completely, instead creating shallow glue spots for the dowels to fit in.  Using a craft or wood glue, it stays quite secure!  And, of course, there is always the opportunity for people to modify their kits at home with screws and the like.

Revisiting this project has been a lot of fun.  I was proud of the original, but the kits are going to be so much fun! I can’t wait to see what people do to customize then.  The physical parts are done, next up is writing up instructions for assembly, and a quick history of Talking Boards!

All the laser components necessary for the kit.
All the laser components necessary for the kit.
Here are the attachment points for the pointer.
Here are the attachment points for the pointer.
Some fun suggestions for pointer toppers (instead of the boring disk I cut)!  Old buttons, or cabachons
Some fun suggestions for pointer toppers (instead of the boring disk I cut)! Old buttons, or cabochons


Is Victorian Hairwork Akin to Kumihimo?

So, in one of those brilliant ah-ha moments, my day job as a museum curator collided with 52 Lasers. Have you ever heard of Victorian Hair Jewelry?  Made from braided, woven or otherwise intricately arranged stands of hair, it was popular in the 19th century as a way to remember loved ones.  It was made into necklaces, earrings, watch fobs, brooches and they even would make hair wreaths for the wall.  Kim Poovey’s Victorian Hairwork Pinterest board shows good variety of examples.

16 strand set up from Mark Campbell's 1867 book
16 strand set up from Mark Campbell’s 1867 book.  Look familiar?
16 strand set up.
My 16 strand set up from Week 15

How is hairwork like the kumihimo I made back in week 15?  The original tools are nearly identical.  In doing research on the hair jewelry at the museum, I stumbled across the book “Self-Instructor in the Art of Hair Work, Dressing Hair, Making Curls, Switches, Braids, and Hair Jewelry of Every Description” by Mark Campbell, published in 1867, and now available for free thanks to Project Gutenberg.  Flipping through the book, the patterns look exactly the same.







And the “braiding table” could have easily been a marudi (which modern kumihimo disks were derived from.)  I will admit I’m not the first person who had the ah-ha moment – when I was looking for examples for this post, I saw that the Victorian Hairwork Society sells marudai for this exact purpose.

Most hair work in the Victorian period was done by professional that also made other forms of jewelry
Most hair work in the Victorian period was done by professional that also made other forms of jewelry.  Image from Mark Campbell’s book

I love it when parts of my life collide.  With the tools being so similar, though, I was curious if they had similar origins.  According to    author of Love Entwined, “European colonists in North America brought a tradition of making decorative objects made of human hair with them.”  Internet sources say the roots of this tradition are fro Scandanavia, (but they don’t site resources, of course!)  The most detailed account is half way down on this page; it tells the birthplace was Vamhus, Sweden.    It appears they already did braiding (so no solid start date), but a financial crisis forced them to sell their wares to the world.

Most sources (again, on the internet) cite the first mentions the origins of of kumihimo in Japan’s Nara Period (645-784 AD). Generally, very little is known about the history of kumihimo – the braids were not considered significant.  The theories seem to agree it came from finger loop braiding, and that it likely came from mainland China.  There are whispers that there is research that has connected Japanese kumihimo with European braiding, but I wasn’t able to locate the original theory or the author.  I found interesting write ups on the the history of kumihimo here and here.

Hopefully this wasn’t “tldr” – I fell down the braiding internet rabbit hole of research.  It would be fun to try some of the hair braids in a modern kumihimo disk. (Horse hair is a good and Victorian-approved substitute if you aren’t ready to part with your own just yet!)