Remembering the “Mother” of Monopoly

Bennett Voyles

Lizzie J. Magie and the surprising history of the world’s most popular game about capitalism

There is probably no game more closely associated with capitalism than Monopoly, a fact that’s ironic for a number of reasons – the biggest, perhaps, being that the game was invented by a woman as a critique of what she considered wrong with the system.

Lizzie J. Magie, a Brentwood, Maryland, writer, inventor, and political activist who earned her living as a stenographer, invented the game in 1903. A progressive who espoused such then-radical notions as equal pay for women, Magie designed her game to showcase the ideas of Henry George, her favorite economist.

George was an extraordinarily popular thinker of the era who believed in free enterprise but argued that ownership of land (and natural resources) led invariably to inequality and poverty. Create a system that taxed only the unimproved value of land, he argued, and the economy would grow faster.

The Landlord’s Game

Magie’s invention, which she called the Landlord’s Game, had two parts. The first part was much like the Monopoly we know. The second part was a variation (later called Prosperity), which featured a different set of rules that followed George’s plan to negate the value of land through a single flat property tax that made it possible for everybody to win.

As an illustration of George’s theory, the two-part Landlord’s Game made sense. But it turned out that the entertainment value of driving your opponents into the ground outweighed the fun of creating wealth for everybody. Magie’s Prosperity variation, with its happy ending for all, never caught on.

Magie’s game was not a major hit, but it did gain a cult following in pockets of the Midwest and Northeast.

In terms of the game’s future, its most important fans were a group of Quakers in Atlantic City. As members of the Religious Society of Friends, these prominent hoteliers played board games as an alternative to other forms of entertainment that were not open to them, such as dancing, drinking, and gambling.

Modeled on Atlantic City

By the early 1930s, Magie’s game was out of print, and the Quaker players’ homemade copies of the Landlord’s Game had begun to look a lot like modern Monopoly, in that the players used real-life Atlantic City street names, including Baltic Avenue and Boardwalk, made some adjustments to the rules, and called the game Monopoly. And as in real-life Atlantic City, the hotel was the most valuable form of real estate, according to The Monopolists: Obsession, Fury, and the Scandal Behind the World’s Favorite Board Game, a book by Mary Pilon.

In 1932, in Philadelphia, a real estate man named Charles Todd learned the game from a neighbor who had picked it up in Atlantic City. Todd and his wife then taught their friends Esther Darrow and her husband, Charles Darrow. Charles was an out-of-work salesman who had done well in the 1920s but was now in increasingly dire economic straits.

After they played, Charles saw an opportunity. He copied the board and asked Todd repeatedly over the next few days to write down the rules for him. Todd was a bit puzzled about Darrow’s enthusiasm, but after Darrow explained he wanted to teach some friends, Todd eventually wrote down the rules.

With written rules and a copy of the board in hand, Darrow hired a graphic designer to lay out a new board. He then printed his version and pitched the game to the two biggest game publishers, Milton Bradley and Parker Brothers. Both firms turned him down, according to a short article on the history of American games by Bruce Whitehill, an American game designer, collector, and historian based in Hanover, Germany.

Undaunted, Darrow printed a larger batch of games and convinced the FAO Schwarz toy company to list it in its catalog. Six months later, when it proved to be a hit, Parker Brothers reconsidered, and purchased the game from Darrow for $7,000 (about $134,000 today) and royalties.

Sales were brisk, but soon Parker Brothers realized that they didn’t actually have iron-clad ownership of the game. Monopoly bore a more than passing resemblance to another board game called Finance, launched in 1929, and Magie’s Landlord’s Game, on which Magie still held a patent.

Parker Brothers paid off Finance’s owners and then turned to Magie, to whom the company gave a one-time $500 payment, no royalties, and a vague promise to publish other games she had invented.

A Mysterious Success

Why Monopoly caught the public’s imagination in such a large and enduring way is unclear.

It wasn’t a matter of novelty. Board games had been on American tables for nearly a century than in 1936, when the 32-year-old game Monopoly became a national fad. Th first hit board game was the Mansion of Happiness, a copy of an English game published in 1843 by W. and S.B. Ives, followed by another morality-themed game in 1860, Milton Bradley’s Checkered Game of Life.

Nor was Monopoly the first finance game. That distinction probably belongs to Banking, a game invented by George Parker, the founder of Parker Brothers, who started selling Banking in 1883, while he was still in high school, in the middle of a major depression.

People initially thought Monopoly’s success had to do with the fantasy of being rich and powerful in a difficult time, but sales stayed strong throughout the more economically prosperous years of World War II.

After the war, too, Monopoly stayed popular, and became a worldwide export – at least this side of the Iron Curtain.

Today, 117 years after Magie first drew up her landlord game, more than one billion people have played Monopoly at some point in their lives, and presumably enjoyed it, for reasons Whitehill for one finds mysterious. “It’s got such a popular following that every time I talk about Monopoly, I say to myself ‘what am I missing?’” he says. “What’s there that everybody else sees that I don’t see? It’s destructive, it’s competitive…the catch-up features are limited or nonexistent; the luck of the throw of the dice is paramount.”

On the other hand, although Monopoly is hard to win, it’s not hard to play. As Magie noted in Patent No. 748628, “The game is not complicated, although at first it may appear so. On the contrary, it is very simple, which the players will readily see after having made a few moves. The principal thing each player has to do is to look after the collection of his rents, railroad fares and wages.”

Magie died in 1948, in Arlington, Virginia, generally unrecognized for her invention. Up to the 1970s, Parker Brothers stood by Darrow’s claim that Monopoly was his own idea. Ironically, Monopoly’s debt to Magie came to light in the course of a long legal fight between Parker Brothers and the makers of a game called Anti-Monopoly. Parker alleged trademark infringement; the Anti-Monopolists argued monopoly was just a word. The nearly ten-year legal wrangle finally ended in a 1983 settlement between Parker Brothers and the Anti-Monopoly publisher, and a court ruling that Parker Brothers did not in fact have a monopoly on the word monopoly, according to Pilon.