The Anti-Monopolist’s Monopoly

On this day in 1935, millions of people across America began buying up Park Place, collecting Community Chests, and not collecting $200 as they were sent directly to jail.

In other words, on this day in 1935, Parker Brothers introduced the game known as “Monopoly.” Rich Uncle Pennybags–for real, that’s the monocled mascot’s name–has been presiding over the maddeningly complex and time-consuming real estate-themed board game that has been frustrating people across the world for nearly a hundred years. It is synonymous with wealth, capitalism, and America.

But did you know it actually started out as a treatise against those things?

For years, the myth has persisted that a Philadelphian by the name of Charles Darrow came up with the game. He held the copyright, after all, and sold the game to the Parker Brothers in 1933, where it became an instant success–and made Darrow an instant millionaire. He was the one interviewed by journalist after journalist, each one marveling about how Darrow could have made such an amazingly intricate and complicated game out of thin air (a compliment Darrow himself not-so-humbly accepted).

The only problem? He didn’t invent it.

The game of “Monopoly” was originally called “The Landlord’s Game” and was created, not in Philadelphia, but in Washington, D.C. by a woman named Elizabeth “Lizzie” Magie. An unmarried court stenographer, Lizzie had adopted the attitude of her Scottish immigrant parents: hard work and self-sufficiency was the key to success. So, despite her gender (which, at the time, meant fewer opportunities and a lower social status), Lizzie managed to save up enough money to buy her own home and several acres of property in Prince George’s county just outside Washington, D.C.

Another unusual aspect of Lizzie’s character was her highly politicized nature. In a time where women still didn’t even have the right to vote, Lizzie hosted political discussions and meetings in her home, where she espoused her progressive views, including railing against the income inequalities and vast corporate monopolies plaguing the country at the turn of the century. She believed steadfastly in the single-tax theory of Henry George, which held that, while people should own the money from whatever they owned or produced themselves, the economic rent derived from land, including from all natural resources, should belong equally to all members of society; in this way, the burden of tax would fall primarily on wealthy landowners while both social justice for the poor and ecological balance for the earth could be achieved.

But, as a relatively unknown woman with even less known political pull, her audience was minimal. So she decided to turn to the growing board game market as a way to further her ideals.

For weeks on end, Lizzie stayed up long into the night, drawing and redrawing the game that would become “The Landlord’s Game.” Much like the modern day “Monopoly” version, Lizzie’s version had play money and property that could be bought or sold. But, in addition to Jail, it also had a Poor House and Public Park, as well as an image of a globe and the words, “Labor upon Mother Earth Produces Wages.”

Lizzie drew nine rectangular spaces along the edges of the board between each set of corners. In the centre of each nine-space grouping was a railroad, with spaces for rent or sale on either side. Absolute Necessity rectangles offered goods like bread and shelter, and Franchise spaces offered services such as water and light. As gamers made their way around the board, they performed labour and earned wages. Every time players passed the Mother Earth space, they were “supposed to have performed so much labor upon Mother Earth” that they received $100 in wages. Players who ran out of money were sent to the Poor House, and those who trespassed on land were sent to Jail.

Interestingly, however, the rules for the original game had a distinct anti-monopoly bent: when wealth was created, all were rewarded, instead of just the wealth’s creator. It wasn’t until later that Lizzie created the rules we use today: a more monopolist set, inspiring fierce competition and a stamping out of competing investors (players). The goal was to show the tension and disparity between the two economic theories. However, as interest in the game grew, it is was the second set of rules, rather than more left-wing, progressive-advocating original, that became more popular, much to Lizzie’s chagrin.

After filing a patent in 1903, Lizzie developed several versions over the next few years, eventually partnering with the Economic Game Company to produce the game, which grew in popularity over the next three decades. One of the fans of the game was a man by the name of Charles Todd who in 1932, along with his wife Olive, invited his friends Mr. and Mrs. Darrow over for an evening of dinner and board games–including a rousing rendition of “The Landlord’s Game.”

Darrow–at the time unemployed and hard-up for cash–became so enamored with the game that he asked Todd for a written set of the rules. When it became clear that a written set didn’t exist–the game, rather, was like an epic story of the past, being passed around to friends and explained by word of mouth–Darrow decided to copy the oral regulations down on paper, create a version of the game himself (which he renamed as “Monopoly”), and sell it to the Parker Brothers–a deal which made Darrow millions and continues to add royalties to his estate even after his death.

Lizzie got paid for her work too. But only because the Parker Brothers, after “Monopoly’s” initial success, began buying up the rights to other related games in an effort to squash the competition and preserve its territory (oh, the irony!) For the patent to the Landlord’s Game and two other game ideas, Lizzie reportedly received $500 — and no royalties. She has never been formally recognized–by Darrow, Parker Brothers, or Parker Brothers’ parent company Hasbro–for her invention.

Magie died in 1948, her creation not only lost to the name of other, but the spirit and political advocacy behind it forgotten as well.

Think about that the next time you pass “GO.”

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