The Shady And Ironic Origins Of Monopoly

By Debra Kelly on Wednesday, December 30, 2015
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“The best of all monopoly profits is a quiet life.” —J.R. Hicks

In A Nutshell

According to the official story, Monopoly was created by an unemployed, down-on-his-luck Charles Darrow. Darrow might have created the game as we know it today, but all he really did was do some polishing up and dumbing down of a game that had been invented 30 years before. Elizabeth Magie had spent years creating The Landlord’s Game, patenting it in 1903. Parker Brothers bought her patent for a flat $500; she accepted thinking that they were going to be publishing her game. When a very different version came out, it was attributed to someone else entirely and missing a key component—her set of anti-monopolist rules.

The Whole Bushel

We’ve all played it. No matter how old you are, chances are good that you’ve fought over the pieces. (Who wants to be anything but the top hat?) And that’s only the beginning of the arguments. Monopoly is one of those games that will nearly always end in anarchy and an overturned table.

The popular story of Monopoly’s creation is an appropriate one, given the content of the game. Who doesn’t love a rags-to-riches tale?

The official story of the invention of Monopoly was that it was the brainchild of a man named Charles Darrow. It was the middle of the Great Depression, and Darrow was unemployed and struggling. Until, that is, he developed Monopoly, which not only became the most famous board game in the world, but saved Parker Brothers from almost certain bankruptcy.

Darrow, an occasional dog-walker and radiator repairman, supposedly based the whole idea around Atlantic City, where he had often gone with his family for vacations.

When journalists asked him how he’d managed to come up with the game, he was quoted as saying, “It’s a freak. Entirely unexpected and illogical.”

Not quite, considering he made his fortune on a game that had actually been patented almost 30 years before.

The patent was held by a Washington, DC, woman named Elizabeth Magie. Magie was an oddity of her time, more along the lines of a 21st-century woman who traveled back in time to live in 1900. She didn’t marry until she was 44, she worked as a stenographer, she owned her own home and property, and she even taught political classes and gave lectures in her spare time. Wanting to teach more people of her political views, she decided to create a board game that she called The Landlord’s Game.

It had all the familiar hallmarks of what would become Monopoly, including the board, the properties, the deeds, and the iconic “Go To Jail” square. There were railroads, service station squares, Chance cards, and a “Mother Earth” square that awarded players $100 every time they made it around the board and back to the starting square.

And those who ended up in jail? They needed to pay a fine or roll doubles on their dice to get out.

The whole game revolved around her economic philosophy. Players would compete to accumulate wealth, but there was another set of rules, a set where all the rewards were handed out equally. She was an anti-monopolist, and the board also bore a likeness of her political idol, an economist who believed the wealthy should be responsible for a greater amount of tax.

Magie patented her game in 1903, and it was published by the Economic Game Company. It enjoyed a certain amount of popularity and got the attention of Charles Darrow.

Darrow took the game to Parker Brothers, who bought the patent from Magie for a flat $500. Though she was originally excited that they were going to be selling her game, it wasn’t long before she realized they had bought the patent for protection. Darrow’s “official” version of the game dressed it up a bit, watered down the rules, and was a massive success.

Magie spoke out about the theft and repackaging of her game, but for decades, her name faded into obscurity. She died a childless widow, remembered by coworkers as someone who used to talk about dabbling in inventing board games. It was only in 1973 that an economics professor uncovered what Parker Brothers had conveniently pushed aside. While engulfed in a Supreme Court case and fighting for the right to make his own anti-monopoly games, Ralph Anspach came across the story of Lizzie Magie.

During that case, the president of Parker Brothers called Magie’s game “completely worthless.” But fortunately, Anspach didn’t just refuse to give up on his case, but he refused to give up on exposing the truth of Monopoly’s true origins—a politically minded, forward-thinking woman who has been all but forgotten in the history of entertainment pioneers.

Show Me The Proof

The Guardian: The secret history of Monopoly: the capitalist board game’s leftwing origins
Harper’s Magazine: Monopoly Is Theft
NY Times: Monopoly’s Inventor: The Progressive Who Didn’t Pass ‘Go’