Struggling with the lockdown, I ordered a set of the board game Monopoly to play with my family and spend time. It was one of my favourite games growing up as a child. In many countries around the world, it’s a Christmas tradition to play the game with family. There are thousands of official and unofficial Monopoly editions – from the more standard Atlantic City and London editions, to more quirky ones like Super Mario or Pokemon.
There’s a famous story about how during the Second World War, the British Intelligence helped their prisoners of war escape from Nazi prisons by smuggling in Monopoly sets, containing maps, compasses, real money and other material helpful to escape from prison, through fake charities – effectively giving them a “Get out of jail free” card to be used outside the game.
One of the best-selling board games of all time, the intent of the game is to establish a monopoly on real estate, railways and utilities by bankrupting your opponents. Once you have acquired all the properties of a particular colour group, you can build houses and hotels and charge exorbitant amounts of rent from the other players should they have the misfortune of landing on a property owned by you. It’s a delightful combination of chance and strategy – which is why it remains popular to this day.
As I opened the box and lay my hands on a copy of the rules and the history of the game, I sighed after reading the first line crediting a man named Charles Darrow for having created it. This is far from the truth.
In what I hope will be a delightful story to you about the origins of the game, let’s start with Henry George.
Henry George was a born in Philadelphia in 1839 into a lower-middle class family. At the age of fourteen, he decided to set sail on a boat named SS Hindoo to explore Australia and India – two places he was particularly fascinated by. He was disappointed on reaching both places. Australia didn’t seem like the land of gold he thought it was; and India, which held the charm of tropical jungles, monkeys and elephants, he found was a country of extremes of poverty and wealth – where the few have so much, and many so little. This experience was to have a profound effect on his life – with his most well-known subsequent work being based on growing economic inequality.
He returned to America and, in 1858, he settled down in San Francisco as a typesetter, eventually becoming a journalist, writing for different newspapers based out of San Francisco.
He was a strong critic of railway and mining interests, and in an 1868 article titled “What the Railroad Will Bring Us,” he argued that the boom in railway construction would benefit only the lucky few who owned interests in the railways and other related enterprises, while throwing most others into abject poverty.
On horseback one day in 1871 overlooking the San Francisco Bay, he reportedly had a bit of an epiphany. On discovering that land value there was as high as a thousand dollars an acre, he wrote, “Like a flash it came over me that there was the reason of advancing poverty with advancing wealth. With the growth of population, land grows in value, and the men who work it must pay more for the privilege.”
In 1879, he wrote a book titled ‘Progress and Poverty’, which became a bestseller. In this book, he argued that a sizable portion of the wealth created by social and technological advancements in a free market economy is possessed by landowners and monopolists via economic rents, and that this concentration of ‘unearned wealth’ is the main cause of poverty.
His economic philosophy came to be known as Georgism, and was based on the belief that people should own the value they produce themselves, but that the economic value derived from land (including natural resources) should belong equally to all members of society.
Henry George was a man ahead of his time, and was in the 1800s an advocate of socialisation of land resources, free public transport, universal basic income, the secret ballot and women’s suffrage – even suggesting, “If we must have two houses of Congress, then by all means let us fill one with women and the other with men.”
His work would go on to deeply influence a young girl from Illinois named Lizzie born just after the end of the American Civil War.
Elizabeth “Lizzie” Magie was born in Macomb, Illinois in 1866. She grew up to be a woman who lived many lives. She worked as a stenographer as a young girl, later receiving a patent (at a time when only 1% of all patent-holders were women) for an invention that made the typewriting process easier by allowing the paper to go through more easily. In addition to being a stenographer and typist (which she hated – once writing that “typewriting is hell”), she was also a poet, a writer, a news reporter, a standup comedian, a stage actress, and an early advocate of feminism.
One of the most famous anecdotes about her is that after moving to Chicago and struggling to make what she thought was a decent living with low wages and high rents, she felt like a ‘slave to the system’ – and she decided to take out a newspaper ad, in 1906, advertising herself as a “Young woman American slave” who was “on sale to the highest bidder“. She described herself as “intelligent, educated, refined; true; honest, just, poetical, philosophical; broad-minded and big-souled, and womanly above all things.” When the ad made headlines across the country, she wrote that it was an effort to raise awareness about the plight of working women – how they got out of the workforce and often into subservient marriages. She said to a reporter, “We are not machines. Girls have minds, desires, hopes and ambitions.” A truly dramatic statement for the time.
“We are not machines. Girls have minds, desires, hopes and ambitions.”Elizabeth Magie.
She felt that a feminist movement could not succeed without an overhaul of the economic system, which is where Henry George comes in. As a young child, she had read George’s ‘Progress and Poverty’ and was so profoundly influenced by his beliefs that she felt she needed a tangible example of ‘Georgism’ to show young people how unfair the economic system was.
So, she created a board game. She called it ‘The Landlord’s Game’, and it was quite a bit like the Monopoly we know today. It had a square board with different properties listed across it, that you could go around multiple times in circles with the throw of dice, and bad luck could land you on a square that said, “Go to jail”.
The objective of the game was simple – to be the wealthiest. But here’s the catch – there were two sets of rules that the game could be played by. According to one set of rules (the monopolist set, which attempted to simulate the existing capitalist economic order in America) – the natural gameplay would lead to one person accumulating an obscene amount of wealth while driving every other player into bankruptcy. According to the other (anti-monopolist set, the rules of which were in accordance with the economic principles of Henry George), it would lead to a system in which wealth distribution was far more equal, every player benefited from individual wealth creation, and one had to do a lot more to get richer. This was Lizzie’s way of saying that society need not be the way it was then – that a better alternative existed and it worked.
Since it’s not much fun to have a game where everybody wins, the anti-monopolist set of rules gradually fell out of favour, and the monopolist variant of the game became immensely popular. It was soon being played in many American cities, and had inspired a bunch of spin-offs. A woman named Ruth Hoskins had come across a variation of the game in Indianapolis and, when she moved to Atlantic City in New Jersey, she decided to create her own adaptation of the game, featuring properties in Atlantic City. She taught the game to a couple that moved to Philadelphia – who then taught it to their friend Charles Todd – who subsequently demonstrated it to his friend, Charles Darrow.
Charles Darrow worked as a salesman selling domestic heaters before losing his job in 1929 during the Great Depression. After he was introduced to the game by Charles Todd, he asked Todd for a written set of rules – which he decided to tweak.
Darrow redesigned the board to give it the familiar form we know today – the arrangement of properties on the board, the title deed cards, the Chance and Community Chest cards – and the square marked “Go”, passing which you had to collect $200 from the bank – much less dramatic than “Labor upon Mother Earth produces wages” as seen in Lizzie’s version. Interestingly, there were some irregularities with his version – Marven Gardens, a suburb of Atlantic City, was spelt ‘Marvin Gardens’ on the version Todd showed to him and, since he lived in Philadelphia and not Atlantic City, he didn’t know this was incorrect. This irregularity can be seen to this day on Monopoly boards.
Darrow secured a copyright for the game in 1933 and sold the rights of the game to Parker Brothers (a toy and game company in the US now owned by Hasbro), and ‘Monopoly’ by Charles Darrow became the best-selling board game of the year, with 20,000 sets being produced every week. Soon thereafter, Charles Darrow became the first millionaire game designer in history.
So, Whose Game is it Anyway?
The truth is that the game ‘created’ by Charles Darrow and enjoyed by millions today was the result of multiple ‘improvements’ sequentially made by many different individuals on the original game that was the brainchild of Lizzie Magie roughly thirty years earlier.
Lizzie had also secured two patents on her game, and had it commercially released as ‘Landlord’s Game and Prosperity’ in 1932, before Parker Brothers had released Darrow’s ‘improved’ version, but she didn’t find much luck. In 1935, Parker Brothers had come to know of Lizzie and her original game, and purchased the patent for her game from her for a price of $500.
Parker Brothers released only a limited number of sets to secure the copyright and, by 1936, pushed her game aside for the more commercially successful version by Darrow. Lizzie subsequently gave two interviews with The Washington Post and The Evening Star to demonstrate that Darrow was not the inventor of the game.
It’s a cruel world. I’m not suggesting that Lizzie’s original version is better than the one we play today or that Parker Brothers should have pushed for her “Landlord’s Game” over Monopoly. The matter is not to debate which is better; it’s about giving credit where credit is due. The game has been sequentially improved in bits and pieces by many, and today the only person officially credited for it is Charles Darrow; and the woman who made the first prototype of such an idea had lain largely forgotten for decades, before coming into resurgence over the last five years or so, in part thanks to the writer Mary Pilon, author of ‘The Monopolists: Obsession, Fury, and the Scandal Behind the World’s Favorite Board Game,’ that was published in 2015.
Lizzie, who championed the rights of women and of workers, probably spent a lot more money making her game than she received in earnings, and wasn’t even credited for what was originally her concept. On the other hand, Darrow became a millionaire and the world remembers him today as the ‘inventor’ of Monopoly.
“Monopoly is a game about how power and resources get unjustly distributed until one individual ends up with everything. And only in that sense, is it Charles Darrow’s game.”John Green.
Here’s to you, Lizzie. We remember you.