The Monopoly Tale
It's a little bit ironic that one of the most popular board games in modern history - and one that celebrates capitalism on a grand scale - was created in the name of social and economic justice.
Monopoly originated as The Landlord's Game and was devised by a young American woman called Elizabeth (Lizzie) Magie. A student of the writings of politician and political economist Henry George - in particular his most famous work, Progress and Poverty (1879) - Lizzie received a patent on January 5, 1904, for her game that was to be 'a practical demonstration of the present system of land-grabbing with all its usual outcomes and consequences.' A poet, occasional actress and one-time employee of the United States Postal Services dead-letter office, Lizzie planned the game as a means of explaining the way in which Henry George's system of political economy could be applied in real life to counter what she considered to be the huge economic inequalities of the time - namely, that high rent was the cause of poverty and a single taxation on the land would solve the problem.
In 1906 Lizzie met and married Albert Phillips, and in that same year she got together with other Henry George followers to establish the Economic Game Company of New York, which published The Landlord's Game. The board game soon formed part of the curriculum in the economics department at the University of Pennsylvania under the teaching of Scott Nearing, who was a colleague of Lizzie. As his students played the game they began a process of altering the rules as well as paying rent when they landed on a property block, they added the option of holding an auction to buy it. They also created their own boards with streets and properties in their home cities and states. And they changed the title of the game they played, from The Landlord's Game to Auction Monopoly. For decades, Lizzie's 'monopoly game' was embraced by left-wing intellectuals.
In 1924 Lizzie patented a revised edition of the game. Finally published by the Adgame Company in 1932, the new version included named streets, a second set of alternative rules for the second round and a second name for the game: Prosperity. In the first set of rules - the ones we all know - the aim of the game was to get rich quick. In the second set all of the players benefitted from the wealth created. "The Landlord's Game," started Lizzie, "shows why our national housekeeping has gone wrong and Prosperity Game shows how to start it right and keep it going right."
It was bought in that same year by Parker Brothers, who paid $500 for the patent, with no royalties, under the proviso from Lizzie that the game continue to be sold with two sets of rules. By this time the version of the game being played by college students had evolved quite dramatically from the early design - and it was generally referred to quite simply as monopoly, not as a title but as a type of game, like chess or draughts.
When the game reached the Quakers of Atlantic City in the early 1930s they replaced the auction element with fixed property prices on the board. They also replaced the nondescript pawns with more interesting miscellaneous objects that could be chosen by each player - since 1935 there have been more than 20 different tokens produced for Monopoly, including an elephant, purse, top hat, iron and lantern.
In 1933, a man named Charles B. Darrow was introduced to the game by a friend. According to the official history of Hasbro (the current owners of Monopoly), the unemployed steam-radiator repairman and part-time dog walker was also the inventor of the game - even though he entered the scene more than thirty years after Lizzie's first concept. Nevertheless it's true that Darrow took the layout of the board, created some enhanced rules, kept the property names and deed values, included the Chance cards and patented the whole thing before he successfully sold the concept to Parker Brothers in 1935 - who were already marketing The Landlord's Game. Packaged in a white box and printed on cardboard, Monopoly sold more than two million copies in its first two years on the market.
In 1939, Parker Brothers published a third edition of The Landlord's Game but then recalled almost every game and had them destroyed. It had been produced with two sets of rules as per the agreement with Lizzie, but the second set was not actually sold with the game - players had to contact Lizzie directly to receive them. When she was asked, as the popularity of Monopoly steadily grew, how she felt about not making any money from her idea, she replied that it was all right: 'if she never made a dime so long as the Henry George single tax idea was spread to the people of the country.'
Monopoly players today have a slightly less altruistic view. Most people play to accumulate as much as possible and bankrupt their opponents as quickly as possible... much like in real life.
This information first appeared in the Summer 2013 edition of Antiques and Collectables for Pleasure & Profit.
Ref: Monopoly Goes Corporate, Mary Pilon 24/07/13, The New York Times; Monopoly is Theft, Christopher Ketcham, 19/10/12, Harper's Bazaar