But to those familiar with Monopoly’s history, it seemed like one trailblazing woman was conspicuously absent.
That would be Lizzie Magie, who introduced the world to a groundbreaking innovation of her own more than a century ago. It was called the Landlord’s Game — but because the man who claimed the idea for his own and sold it to Parker Brothers changed the name, we know it today as Monopoly. That man, Charles Darrow, would ultimately make a fortune off the board game, while Magie reportedly earned just $500 — probably less than it cost her to patent the concept in the first place.
Though that history was excavated in an decade-long legal battle and is documented in Pilon’s extensively researched book, Hasbro still maintains that Darrow was the creator of Monopoly. A spokeswoman told the Los Angeles Times on Tuesday that Magie, a vocal feminist who defied the odds by getting a patent for her invention, was “one of the pioneers of land-grabbing games,” a number of which have been popular throughout history.
“My gut reaction,” wrote one Twitter commentator on Tuesday, “is this is a slap in the face of Elizabeth Magie.”
While today’s Monopoly is an unbridled celebration of capitalism, Magie designed the game as a rebuke to that worldview. She was a disciple of the 19th-century economist Henry George, who believed that railroads, telegraphs and utilities should be publicly owned, rather than controlled by monopolies, and that land should be considered common property. Though he didn’t align himself with the socialists who supported his failed campaign for mayor of New York, George considered it unjust that those fortunate enough to own property grew rich off their holdings, while the working class was condemned to spend most of their wages on rent.
Magie, who worked as a stenographer, typist and actress in Washington, D.C., had the idea of spreading George’s critique of economic inequality through a family-friendly board game. In 1904, she received a patent for a square board that bears a strong resemblance to today’s Monopoly set, with nine spaces on each side. Winning players bought up railroads, utilities and properties, enriching themselves by collecting cash from the losers, who fell further and further behind. Land on the wrong corner, and you would go directly to jail.
“In a short time, I hope a very short time, men and women will discover that they are poor because Carnegie and Rockefeller, maybe, have more than they know what to do with,” Magie told a reporter two years after the game was patented.
As Pilon wrote in her 2015 book, the Landlord’s Game was designed with two separate sets of rules: monopolist and anti-monopolist. When players became overwhelmed by the amount of cash they were forking over to their oligarch opponents, they could vote to switch to the anti-monopolist rules, which mirrored George’s precepts. Even children as young as 9 or 10 could learn from the game, Magie noted in a 1902 article in the Single Tax Review.
“They learn that the quickest way to accumulate wealth and gain power is to get all the land they can in the best localities and hold on to it,” she wrote, adding, “Let the children once see clearly the gross injustice of our present land system and when they grow up, if they are allowed to develop naturally, the evil will soon be remedied.”
Her invention developed a cult following in left-wing circles, with homemade variations cropping up in places like Atlantic City, where Quakers modified the game to feature the names of local landmarks like Boardwalk and Park Place. It was that version that Charles Darrow, an out-of-work heating engineer, stumbled across in 1932, when friends invited him and his wife over to play. As “The Monopolists” details, Darrow developed a fascination with the game, asking his hosts to write down all the rules, and peppering them with complicated questions.
But when Darrow sold the board game to Parker Brothers three years later, he claimed to have come up with the idea all by himself. “Being unemployed at the time, and badly needing anything to occupy my time, I made by hand a very crude game for the sole purpose of amusing myself,” he wrote in a letter to the gamemakers.
It was an appealing story, particularly in the depths of the Great Depression: A down-and-out worker, through his own ingenuity, had invented a game that sold more than 2 million copies in its first two years, and had grown rich off the royalties. Parker Brothers credited the game’s popularity with saving their family company from going under, and Darrow’s story was enshrined in corporate legend.
In 1935, the same year that Parker Brothers bought the game from Darrow, the company offered Magie a flat sum of $500 for the Landlord’s Game and two other games she had invented, so that they would own the full legal rights to Monopoly and any spinoffs. The activist accepted, hoping it meant her radical, left-wing message would receive a broader audience. She never made any royalties off what she described as “my beloved brainchild,” and when she died in relative obscurity in 1948, no mention of the game appeared in her obituary.
The political messaging behind the game vanished, too. In interviews that appeared in the Washington Evening Star and The Washington Post in 1936, Magie lamented that the millions of Americans who were playing Monopoly weren’t learning about single tax theory, the economic principle that the Landlord’s Game had been designed to promote. After she died, the game’s anti-capitalist history was largely forgotten. It wasn’t until the 1970s, when an economics professor who had developed his own game called Anti-Monopoly entered into a fierce, decade-long legal battle with Parker Brothers, that the game’s true origin story inadvertently came to light.
But perhaps the strongest illustration of how far Monopoly has strayed from Magie’s vision came this August, when Hasbro, which has owned the game since 1991, introduced Monopoly: Socialism. Rather than promoting left-wing ideals, the game “packs a message tailored for capitalists,” as CNN put it, lampooning both the idea of a living wage and health foods like vegan meatloaf. Some critics were unimpressed: A Polygon reviewer deemed the game “mean-spirited” and wrote that it “forgoes any pretense of being fun to play.”
Ms. Monopoly, by contrast, promotes a capitalist worldview as a framework for empowering women. “From inventions like WiFi to chocolate chip cookies, solar heating and modern shapewear, Ms. Monopoly celebrates everything from scientific advancements to everyday accessories — all created by women,” a Tuesday statement from Hasbro said.
Notably missing was an invention that has reached even more people than solar heating or shapewear — the world’s best-selling proprietary board game.