Friday, 31 July 2015

A place on the board

Lizzie Magie was the lady who invented Monopoly, except her name has been written out of the history books. Until now.

Written by Mary Pilon
For generations, the story of Monopoly’s Depression- era origins delighted game players. The legend, tucked into countless boxes of the game, concerned an unemployed man named Charles Darrow who dreamed up Monopoly in the 1930s. He sold it and became a millionaire, his inventiveness saving him – and Parker Brothers, the beloved New England board-game maker – from the brink of destruction.

The problem is, the story isn’t exactly true.

Monopoly’s origins begin not with Darrow 80 years ago, but with a bold progressive woman named Elizabeth Magie, who until recently had been largely lost to history and in some cases deliberately written out of it.

Magie received a patent for her Landlord’s Game in 1904 – 30 years before Parker Brothers started printing its Monopoly board. And the woman behind the idea was a fascinating personality. She was born in Illinois in 1866, the year after the Civil War ended and Abraham Lincoln was assassinated. Her father, James Magie, was a newspaper publisher and an abolitionist who accompanied Lincoln as he travelled around Illinois in the late 1850s debating politics with Stephen Douglas. Her father clerked in the Illinois legislature and ran for office on an anti-monopoly ticket – an election that he lost. He was an influential newspaper owner and editor, giving Magie early exposure to politics and journalism at a young age.

‘I have often been called a “chip off the old block,”’ Elizabeth said of her relationship with her father, ‘which I consider quite a compliment, for I am proud of my father for being the kind of an “old block” that he is.’


The seeds of the Monopoly game were planted when James Magie shared with his daughter a copy of Henry George’s bestselling book, Progress And Poverty, written in 1879. George and his followers (sometimes called ‘anti-monopolists’) advocated for a ‘land value tax’, also known as the ‘single tax’. The idea was to tax land, and only land, thereby pushing the tax burden to wealthy landlords. The anti-monopoly movement also served as a staging area for women’s rights advocates, attracting followers like James and Elizabeth Magie.

She also spent her time drawing and redrawing, thinking and rethinking the game that she wanted to be based on the theories of George, who died in 1897.

When she applied for a patent for her game in 1903, Magie was in her 30s. She represented the less than one per cent of all patent applicants at the time who were women. (Magie also dabbled in engineering; in her 20s, she invented a gadget that allowed paper to pass through typewriter rollers with more ease.) And as an art form, board games were booming. Working out of Massachusetts, rivals Milton Bradley and George Parker had built respective empires of cardboard and wood, taking a patchwork of niche games and making them into a mass-marketed, household staple item. Bradley, an early advocate of the kindergarten movement in the United States, also revered games for their potential as teaching tools.

Meanwhile, Magie staged an audacious stunt mocking marriage as the only option for women; it made national headlines. Purchasing an advertisement, she offered herself for sale as a ‘young woman American slave’ to the highest bidder. Her ad said that she was ‘not beautiful, but very attractive’, and that she had ‘features full of character and strength, yet truly feminine’.

The ad quickly became the subject of news stories and gossip columns in newspapers around the country. The goal of the stunt, Magie told reporters, was to make a statement about the dismal position of women. ‘We are not machines,’ Magie said. ‘Girls have minds, desires, hopes and ambition.’


Unlike many women of her time, Magie financially supported herself, owned her own property and didn’t marry until she was 44 years old. She worked as a stenographer and a secretary and wrote poetry and short stories. And she also designed games as a means of communicating her impassioned political beliefs.

Magie’s Landlord’s Game was created as a protest against the monopolists of her time, such as Andrew Carnegie and John Dr Rockefeller. She devised two rule sets for the game – one ‘monopolist’ rule set and one ‘anti-monopolist’ set, the monopolist version of the game almost instantly catching on.

From Magie’s patent, the game flourished and was played by an array of left-minded players, especially throughout elite colleges in the Northeast. The game was played at several Ivy League universities, by at least one member of Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s Brain Trust, by noted left-wing economist Scott Nearing and flourished in Arden, Delaware, a progressive community frequented by author Upton Sinclair.

Quakers, particularly in Philadelphia and Atlantic City, embraced the game as well and added some tweaks, including the names of Atlantic City properties, to the board. It was a version of this Atlantic City Quaker game wit h some fol k tweaks that Darrow learned and eventually sold to Parker Brothers. He made millions in striking up his agreement with Parker Brothers but Magie’s income was reported to have been $500, with no royalties.

Magie lashed out in two interviews in 1936 with The Washington Post and The Evening Star, expressing anger at Darrow’s appropriation of her idea. With her now grey hair tied back into a bun, she hoisted her own game boards before a photographer’s lens to prove she was, in fact, Monopoly’s actual originator.

But her protestations seemed futile. In 1948, Magie died in relative obscurity, a widow without children. Neither her headstone nor her obituary mentions her role in the creation of Monopoly. One of the last documented traces of Magie is the 1940 US Census in which she listed her occupation as ‘maker of games’ and her income as ‘O’.

Magie’s identity as Monopoly’s inventor was uncovered by accident. In 1973, Ralph Anspach, an economics professor, began a decade-long legal battle against Parker Brothers over the creation of his Anti-Monopoly game. In researching his case, he uncovered Magie’s patents and Monopoly’s folk-game roots. He became consumed with telling the truth of what he calls ‘the Monopoly lie’.

In a deposition, Robert Barton, the Parker Brothers president who oversaw the Monopoly deal, called Magie’s game ‘completely worthless’ and said that Parker published a small run of her games ‘merely to make her happy’.

Mr Anspach’s legal battle lasted a decade and ended at the Supreme Court. But he won the right to produce his Anti-Monopoly games, and his research into Magie and the game’s origins was confirmed.

Roughly 40 years have passed since the truth about Monopoly began to appear publicly, yet the Darrow myth persists as an inspirational parable of American innovation.

History is full of Lizzie Magies, innovators who quietly contribute to our world and are largely lost. And while the story of Monopoly on its face may seem trivial, it points to not only the war over ideas, but how we discuss those conflicts.

The Darrow Cinderella story, even if not entirely true, is deeply romantic. On some level, perhaps we all want to believe we can head into our basements and gin up something that brings the world joy and ourselves personal fortune. But the truth is, innovation is often messy, collaborative and complicated. But perhaps nowhere is this made more clearly than the 1935 Monopoly rules.

‘The last player left in the game wins.’

Adapted from The Monopolists: Obsession, Fury, And The Scandal Behind The World’s Favorite Board Game, by Mary Pilon, published by Bloomsbury USA, priced £12.99.

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