Everybody knows the story of how Charles Darrow invented the game Monopoly -- at least they think they do. As Ellen Wojahn wrote in her recent history of Parker Brothers, "Thousands, maybe millions, of Americans can recite the well-publicized saga of the unemployed heating engineer and laborer from Germantown, Pa. ... who dreamed up the real estate speculation theme as capitalist escapism from the woes of the time."
In fact, the story of the game is a little more complicated than that. It is as good a metaphor for the history of businesses as is the game a metaphor for capitalism itself.
According to the legend, Wojahn wrote, Darrow "chose names to attach to his mythical properties by recalling the streets and byways of his favorite vacation spot, Atlantic City, N.J. -- now historic names such as Boardwalk, Park Place and Marvin Gardens." That's what the company had put out for 40 years.
There's a subtext to this theme, too: How the acquisition of the game and its overnight success saved the venerable old game publisher in Salem, Mass., at the bottom point of the Depression. "It was a godsend. It rescued the business, which had come within an inch of disaster," recalled Robert Barton, who took over the company in those years from his father-in-law, founder George Parker.
This was the standard corporate version of the story for many years. It is enshrined, among many other places, in "The Entrepreneurs, an American Adventure" by Robert Sobel and David Scicilia (Houghton Mifflin, 1986) -- complete with a forward by no less than Alfred Chandler, the dean of American business historians.
Then, curiously, in 1988 the company reversed its field. It was then that its former research chief, Philip Orbanes, published "The Monopoly Companion," at a time when the company was hoping to put a game-show version of Monopoly on television. An elegant, lucid little volume, Orbanes's book reported for the first time a long, little-known prehistory to the game.
Orbanes told how a sprightly game enthusiast and actress named Elizabeth Magie had patented a version of Monopoly in 1904 as The Landlord's Game, with a view to illustrating Henry George's single-tax economics. Her property deeds were decorated with quotations from George and other masters; her payday square was called "Mother Earth" instead of "Go." But there were 40 continuous spaces, four railroads and two utilities, and the corners were marked "jail" and "park."
Orbanes told about how Lizzie Magie (who was by then Lizzie Magie Phillips) sought to sell the game to Parker Brothers in 1924; how Parker Brothers declined but urged her to get a patent instead. And it described the long path the game followed before Charles Darrow was invited to play it one night at a friend's house.
What the Orbanes book doesn't tell is how the story came to light in the mid-1970s. That was when a University of San Francisco economics professor, Ralph Anspach, published a board game called Anti-Monopoly, designed to show the joys of trustbusting. When Parker Brothers sued, charging trademark infringement, Anspach's lawyer replied in the standard fashion, asserting that not only was his client not guilty, but Parker Brothers didn't own the trademark in the first place. Only when the story hit the newspapers -- and callers began phoning to report that their parents and grandparents had played a homemade version of the game long before the Depression -- did Anspach realize that he was quite possibly right.
Thus began a cross-country search for the game's origins. Anspach, traveling in a station wagon at the direction of the court with his own and Parker Brothers's lawyer, turned up a far-flung network of aging players of the Landlord's Game -- from Indiana to Delaware to Harvard Law School. The game had been passed from town to town, from group to group, especially among Quakers; modifications made in one place offered "fingerprints" with which to trace it to another. The trail led clearly to a group of Quakers in Atlantic City, and to a second circle that played the game at the University of Pennsylvania.
Throughout the trial, Parker Brothers's lawyers maintained that Darrow's signal contribution had been to name the game "Monopoly" and to put it in a Philadelphia department store, where it quickly proved its appeal. As Robert Barton recalled, "Anybody can invent a game, but let me tell you, you have to be damned good to sell it -- and he sold it!" The rest of the story was mostly window dressing, the company admitted.
Nearly 10 years and countless depositions later, Anspach finally settled out of court with Parker Brothers. His Anti-Monopoly games had been plowed under in a Minnesota landfill, after an earlier verdict; the court ordered Parker Brothers to make it up to him, and more. Parker Brothers also published its own history of the game. But the price of the settlement was silence. Anspach quit speaking out about the history of Monopoly and resumed selling a new version of Anti-Monopoly. (He has since resumed writing a book.)
The story took its happiest turn with the entry last year of a 35-year-old museum worker in Albany named Patrice McFarland, who played Monopoly in her spare time. Having read Orbanes's account, McFarland was entirely primed when she stumbled on a copy of the old Landlord's Game in a Monopoly box at an Allentown, Pa., toy fair. "It was almost a sense of destiny I felt," she said. "I heard a voice in my head saying, 'You must tell my story.' "
And so she will. In more than a year, McFarland has turned up a cornucopia of Lizzie Magie Phillips's surviving friends, relatives and followers, and begun recording their stories.
Yet at the center of the story remains the enigmatic Darrow, an apparently pompous man who died rich after a life in Bucks County breeding cattle, growing orchids and bragging to newspaper reporters. Parker Brothers's Robert Barton's story is clear enough: a clever lawyer and formidable businessman, he built the game into the best-selling proprietary game in the world. Lizzie Magie Phillips's story is clear enough, or at least it will be, when McFarland finishes her book. About 1920, Phillips returned to Washington, where she had been raised, and lived out her days as headmistress and proprietor of the Henry George School of Social Science in Arlington. She died in 1948.
That leaves Charles Darrow, a colossus of sorts in the recent history of intellectual property, as the man who stole the game fair and square from the Quakers but never thought to patent it. The story has as much to teach as the game itself.
The lawyer-won and government-protected profits that Darrow collected are called "monopoly rents" by economists. They arise from patents, trademarks, copyrights, reputations and just plain secrets and are increasingly seen by theorists to be precisely what modern knowledge-intensive capitalism is all about. They are the reason businessmen do what they do, the very essence of imperfect competition.
So Charles Darrow may be a hero of modern capitalism even if he did not divine the rules of the game so much as act on them. He named and sold and lived and won the game of Parker Brothers's Monopoly. He just didn't invent it.
David Warsh is a columnist for the Boston Globe.