The vastly incomplete, but oft-told story of the Monopoly board game’s origin is that Charles Darrow, an unemployed salesperson, developed the game at his kitchen table and brought it to Parker Brothers in 1934.
Though the game was initially rejected, Mr. Darrow was undeterred. He created hand-crafted versions of the game, eventually investing the proceeds from these artisanal games into 5,000 professionally printed units, which he successfully sold through a Philadelphia department store.
Motivated by Mr. Darrow’s retail success, Parker Brothers re-engaged him in 1935 and negotiated a licensing deal. The game was soon selling 5,000 units a week and went on to become the most successful board game of all time.
For decades, Darrow was cited as the game’s creator, even though the game was invented by a woman and its thirty-year path to commercialization included the work of dozens of individuals (including Mr. Darrow), each of whom made refinements which led to the game’s ubiquitous appeal.
Monopoly’s Anti-Monopoly Roots
Ironically, the game was not invented by the entrepreneurial Mr. Darrow, but rather, by an ardent anti-monopolist, Ms. Elizabeth J. Magie.
A dedicated feminist, with socialist leanings, Ms. Magie received several patents, wrote poetry, and devised clever campaigns to force society to confront the civil inequalities of her day. For instance, in a spoof to highlight the inequity of women and minorities, she placed an ad in her local newspaper offering herself to the highest bidding suitor, describing herself as a, “young woman, American slave.” The controversial ad was widely discussed and contributed to her growing reputation as an outspoken defender of civil rights.
Ms. Magie was particularly influenced by Henry George, whose 1879 book, Progress and Poverty, espoused a belief that workers should own what they produce, but that the natural resources and economic rents derived from land should be owned by society as a whole.
In the early 1900’s, motivated by Mr. George’s teachings, Ms. Magie created The Landlord’s Game and applied for a patent in 1903. The intent of the game was to demonstrate the evils of concentrated landownership. Her hope was that players would reject the game’s winner-take-all strategy, which results in only one player owning all of the game’s land while everyone else is driven into bankruptcy.
The game was played by like-minded socialists, eventually making its way in 1910 to Scott Nearing, a professor at The Wharton School and Swarthmore College. The Landlord’s Game became popular with his students, who shared it among their friends. The game eventually made its way to Harvard and then the Midwest, where it eventually “returned” to the Philadelphia area during the early 1930’s.
For those who want to learn more, the 2011 documentary, Under the Boardwalk: The MONOPOLY Story, which is currently available on Prime, which includes an in-depth description of the game’s circuitous path to Mr. Darrow’s kitchen table.
An Unlikely Detective
Like many of history’s female inventors, Lizzie’s contribution to the entrepreneurial landscape was lost to history and probably would have remained so if it weren’t for the detective work of Professor Ralph Anspach.
Mr. Anspach published the Anti-Monopoly game in 1973, which eventually came to the attention of Parker Brothers, who took legal action to remove the game from the market. Mr. Anspach’s case lingered in the courts for about a decade. He eventually reached a settlement with Parker Brothers and his game remains available to this day.
While gathering research for his legal defense, Mr. Anspach discovered that Ms. Magie not only invented the original precursor to Monopoly, he also learned that she was granted a patent for The Landlord’s Game in 1904.
Furthermore, he uncovered the fact that Parker Brothers paid Ms. Magie $500 (it’s unclear when she received this payment, but assuming it was 1936, it would be equivalent to about $9,300 in 2021). Parker Brothers also agreed to acquire two additional games created by Ms. Magie as part of their settlement.
In contrast to Ms. Magie’s relatively meager payout, Parker Brothers paid the owner of another Monopoly precursor, The Fascinating Game of Finance, $10,000 in 1935 (~ $190,000 in 2021). It’s unclear why there was such a disparity between these deals, especially since The Fascinating Game of Finance, was less similar to Monopoly than The Landlord’s Game.
Success Is Never An Orphan
Success always has many parents – in the case of Monopoly, Lizzie Magie gave birth to the game, but it was “raised” by a number of socialists, entrepreneurs and game enthusiasts. The fact that the game underwent over thirty years of market validation and refinement is a key contributing factor to its enduring success and the universal appeal across numerous diverse cultures. It is estimated that more than 250 million Monopoly games have been sold and that the game has been played by billions people. Rather than encouraging the adoption of the anti-landlord policies of Mr. George, Ms. Magie’s game became a cornerstone in the education of seven generations of entrepreneurs.
You can follow John on Twitter: @johngreathouse.