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This Month in Business History: The Landlord’s Game (Aka Monopoly)

December 20, 2021 • Sam Grabel

There are few more iconic board games in the world than Monopoly. Although it was patented on December 31, 1935, by a man called Charles Darrow, it’s one of those pieces of pop culture that feels like it’s been around forever—in other words, for as long as it takes to play Monopoly. The game has become synonymous with capitalism and, on the surface, tests players’ business acumen and savvy; the end goal is to win by bankrupting your opponents. However, as we’ve seen with other patent claims—such as Alexander Graham Bell’s patent for the invention of the telephone—there’s a tawdry history of intrigue lurking in the proverbial community chest. Let’s dig in and find out exactly how Monopoly, now available in countless versions, first came to be.

First things first, credit where it’s due: The game that we now know as Monopoly was first envisioned as The Landlord’s Game by a woman named Elizabeth “Lizzy” Magie. Magie was a progressive feminist who bucked traditional gender roles of the era—she remained single into her 40s, owned her own house in a suburb of Washington, D.C., worked as a stenographer and secretary, wrote poetry, performed onstage as a comedienne and, in her free time, was a political activist who taught classes after work.

At the turn of the 20th century, the U.S. was grappling with what a modern capitalist society would look like. In previous decades, the country had gone through an intense period of industrialization facilitated in part by magnates such as John D. Rockefeller, Andrew Carnegie, Cornelius Vanderbilt and J.P. Morgan. Magie saw massive wealth disparities between the working class and these men, who had come to be known as “robber barons.” She set out to craft a message that was not in favor of this unrestrained capitalism but, in fact, a warning against it.

To that end, Magie came up with “a practical demonstration of the present system of land-grabbing with all its usual outcomes and consequences… as it contains all the elements of success and failure in the real world, and the object is the same as the human race in general seem[s] to have, ie, the accumulation of wealth.”

Magie drew up two sets of rules for her game: one anti-trust set, where all the players were rewarded for each other’s success, and another set that more closely resembled the rules we know today, where the goal was to buy up as many properties as possible and push your opponents into bankruptcy and out of the game. The second set was meant to highlight the moral superiority of the first set. However, that wasn’t how things played out; reflecting the arc of human history, it was the pro-capitalist and individualist version that won out over the collectivist one.

Magie eventually took her game to the patent office in 1903, and in 1905, she published a version of The Landlord’s Game with the Economic Game Company of New York City. Over the next few decades, the game became quite popular with fellow progressive thinkers and on college campuses, including at Wharton, Harvard and Columbia. At the time, board games were becoming more and more popular, as members of the middle class had more leisure time, and it was common for people to make up their own versions of the game using names of properties that were familiar to them. One such group of players were Quakers from Atlantic City, who created a version to include landmarks around the New Jersey resort town.

Enter Charles Darrow.

Down on his luck like many during the Great Depression, Darrow was unemployed when he joined his friends in a parlor in Philadelphia to play a new game their hosts had recently acquired. Darrow and his wife, Esther, were enthralled by the game, and their hosts, Charles and Olive Todd, made them a version of the board so they could continue playing on their own. The version of the game Darrow learned was the one the aforementioned Quakers had created and, to Darrow’s knowledge, had no written rules.

Darrow saw an opportunity. He codified the rules as he’d learned them and took what he thought to be his version of the game to Parker Brothers, who purchased the game and gave Darrow royalty rights to future sales. Darrow falsely took credit for inventing the game, claiming that its invention was “a freak [accident] … entirely unexpected and illogical.” He went on to make millions from the game, while Parker Brothers lauded him as its inventor.

As the game gained popularity in the mid-’30s, in true monopolistic spirit, Parker Brothers set out to purchase the rights to other similar games, including Magie’s version. They paid her a mere $500 and did not give her the option of royalties. At the time of her death in 1948, Magie remained uncredited for her invention.

The story of the game’s origins remained, like its true inventor, in relative obscurity until the 1970s, when an economics professor called Ralph Anspach created his own version of an Anti-Monopoly game. Ironically, Parker Brothers sued him over the adaptation, and a legal battle ensued. While researching his defense, Anspach uncovered Magie’s story and used it to his advantage. He eventually won the decade-long legal dispute and, in the process, brought to light the previously buried story of Lizzy Magie, the anti-monopolist who created the game that became Monopoly.

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