Collective Effort

The Fanatic Feminist Who Created ‘Monopoly’

The famous boardgame has an equally famous origin myth—poor Depression dad creates game for family—but it turns out the truth is more tortured, and more fun.

02.06.15 10:45 AM ET

Do not pass go, do not collect $200—that is essentially the message to Hasbro in a new book on the history of Monopoly.

In case you were not aware, Monopoly has been in the news a fair amount this week in the run up to its so-called 80th anniversary, particularly over Hasbro’s decision to stuff real money in some sets. The only problem is that the game is much older, according to the journalist Mary Pilon, and the origin story hawked by the game’s owners is leaps and bounds from the way it really went down.

The true—and downright bizarre—origin story of one of the most popular games ever made is the subject of Pilon’s new book, The Monopolists: Obsession, Fury, and the Scandal Behind the World’s Favorite Board Game. It is a brisk read, and the readability is considerably heightened throughout by the author’s sense of outrage.

Bloomsbury USA

So what exactly is the Monopoly origin story so many will be making a fuss about on Friday? For decades, Pilon writes, Monopoly boards came with the story of the unemployed salesman Charles Darrow, who during the Great Depression came up with Monopoly to entertain his despairing family. It was turned down by the two of the biggest game companies, Parker Brothers and Milton Bradley, but Darrow’s game took off on the grassroots level and Parker Brothers eventually bought it. Just two pages in, however, Pilon fires her first shot—and sets the tone of her book. “There was only one problem,” she declares, “The story wasn’t exactly true.”

The board game find its origins in one of those turn-of-the-century female strivers that seized the changing landscape in the U.S. Lizzie Magie was an outspoken political activist who became briefly notorious for a stunt advertisement in which she marketed herself as a “young woman American slave.” She also had a patent under her belt for an invention related to the typewriter. But most important, she was a devotee of anti-monopolist Henry George, an economist whose “single tax” theory was championed by his followers as a solution to the chasm between the rich and the poor.

Magie thought a boardgame was an excellent way to teach George’s theories and convince people of the evils of monopolies. The game she subsequently created was called the Landlord’s Game, and it had two sets of rules: “an anti-monopolist set in which all were rewarded when wealth was created, and a monopolist set in which the goal was to create monopolies and crush opponents.” Magie patented her version of the game in 1903 and sold it through the Economic Game Company. It had features like “Go to Jail” and a railroad on each side.

The game took off in the Georgist communities, which were utopian collectives built around his economic theories, most notably in Arden, Delaware, which counted Upton Sinclair as one of its citizens. The game began to be called “monopoly” or the “monopoly game,” claims Pilon, because the game was used to capture the negative side of monopoly. In 1923, Lizzie updated her patent to include Chicago-based spaces on the board.

The Magie version was a hit with people from all walks of life. It’s more prominent fans included well-heeled individuals like New York lawyer Ernest Angell (father of Roger) and economist Rexford Tugwell (father of the New Deal), but it was also embraced by fans so poor that they made their own boards to play on.

The two biggest changes for the game occurred at Williams College and in Atlantic City following Prohibition. Williams undergrad Daniel Layman shared his fraternity’s infatuation with the game (though its anti-monopoly focus was lost on them). In 1931, an out of work Williams created his own version of the game and called it Finance. Ironically, when he went to copyright it, he was warned not to pick “Monopoly” because that was already in use in other parts of the country. The Layman version included property cards, miniature houses, and Chance cards; and when he marketed his version in Philadelphia, he added the Reading Railroad and the Pennsylvania Railroad to the board.

As the ’20s turned into the ’30s in Atlantic City, the game also took off among its Quaker population, and handmade versions began to feature local real estate. One popular playing table belonged to Ruth Harvey, a teacher at the Atlantic City Friends School. She turned to a real estate friend to put prices on properties, including Pennsylvania Avenue where the Harveys lived. Their friends, notes Pilon, “lived on Park Place, an expensive part of town … Ventnor Avenue was where the Harveys had lived” when their daughter was younger. Their black maid, Clara Watson, lived in the poor neighborhood on Baltic Avenue.

Which brings us to the supposed inventor, Charles Darrow. Darrow was introduced to the game by neighbors who had brought back a copy of a copy of Harvey’s. In fact, the copy Darrow learned to play on had the misspelling of the Atlantic City housing development Marven Gardens, as “Marvin Gardens.”

Darrow then copied the game himself, and had an artist friend of his, Franklin Alexander, spruce it up. While the game was again rejected by both Milton Bradley and the Parker Brothers, its popularity spread, and a struggling Parker Brothers ended up buying the rights to it in 1935. However, at the time of its purchase, the Parker Brothers seemed to be well aware of the dubious nature of Darrow’s story. In fact when Parker Brothers later asked him for an affidavit regarding his origin story, he couldn’t come up with one.

Pilon’s fascinating tome goes on to cover the various legal battles fought over Monopoly in the subsequent decades, including an ironic attempt to shut down a San Francisco professor who tried to create an anti-monopolistic version. She manages to raise the drama of a boardgame origin story by successfully tying it to the evils of the monopoly era. What happened to the work of an underdog feminist is emblematic of everything wrong with that era.

And so while Hasbro may technically be able to claim that it’s the 80th anniversary of a particular version of Monopoly, the celebration and Pilon’s book are also a great way to draw attention to those whose ideas have made other people a lot of money.