06 March 2023
Lizzie Magie and the history of Monopoly
For last year’s Women’s History Month, I wrote a blog post highlighting seven female patentees who I felt deserved more recognition. Whilst I was happy with how the blog post turned out, I was less happy with just how much the stories had to be condensed in order to best fit a list format.
So this year, I’ve decided to revisit that blog post and flesh out the story of one of the female patentees in particular. Namely, one Lizzie Magie – the board game pioneer, who forever changed the way we would spend time (read: argue) with our friends and family over Christmas.
This blog post will also discuss some key events in the history and development of Monopoly. Events crucial to understanding how Magie’s contributions, and so place in history, were deliberately minimised, if not erased, by a handful of men.
The ‘official’ line
First let us look at the ‘official’ Monopoly creation story. The following version was given on the instructions for the 1973 US edition of the board game:
‘PARKER BROTHERS Real Estate Trading Game MONOPOLY was invented during the Great Depression by Charles B. Darrow of Germantown, Pennsylvania. Mr. Darrow, like many other Americans, was unemployed at the time and he worked out the details of the game primarily to amuse himself during this period. Prior to the Depression, Darrow and his wife vacationed in the resort town of Atlantic City, New Jersey. When it came to naming the streets on the game board, Darrow naturally adopted those of his favourite vacation spot.
It was an often touted example of the American Dream, that for a long time was fairly well known throughout the world. Even today, you can still find examples of this story being given as the true history of the board game. The problem is, the story is a lie. We’ll move onto Charles Darrow, as well as how the actual true version of events was rediscovered, in time, but for now let us turn our attention to the true star of this blog post – Lizzie Magie.
A quick biography of Lizzie Magie
Lizzie Magie was born in 1866 in Macomb, Illinois. Her father, James Magie, was a keen supporter of Georgism, and a great proponent of equality. Traits that were certainly passed down to his daughter.
At this early juncture, it’s probably best to talk more on Georgism, as this will come up again (spoilers: very importantly so) later on. Georgism developed from the writings of Henry George, a popular nineteenth century politician and economist, who in his 1879 work ‘Progress and Poverty’ proposed a single tax on land values (replacing all other taxes). George believed that someone should own 100% of what they have made, but everything found in nature should belong to everyone. Proponents of Georgism believe the single tax would lead to economic equality. With that hopefully better understood, let us return back to Magie.
In 1890 (ish), Magie and her family moved to Washington DC, where she would find work as a stenographer and typist at the Dead Letter Office. Here every piece of undeliverable mail was sent to be investigated, sorted, and, ultimately, disposed of. Only the staff at this Office had the power to open mail, and many turned detective to reunite mail and owner.
In her free time, Magie would write poetry and short stories, and would act and perform comedic routines on stage. She also clearly had an aptitude for invention, for in 1893 she was granted US patent no. 498,129 for an improvement she designed for Hammond class typewriters. Her invention reduced the size of the margins on the page, thus allowing for more typed words per page. I can’t find any evidence of this patent being utilised, however it should be noted that this patent was obtained when less than 1% of all US patents were being granted to women.
Magie was also a proud feminist, and wrote and spoke on the subject throughout her life. She had no desire to lose her independence by being married young, which was the norm at the time. Instead, she worked hard, and saved well, so that she was able to buy her own house and land. To bring the struggles of women in the US to the public’s attention, particularly with regards to low wages, she placed an advertisement in which she offered herself as a ‘young woman American slave’ for sale to the highest bidder. The stunt brought the press to her door, which allowed her to articulately expand on her point further.
Magie would eventually start teaching Georgism in the evenings, but quickly became frustrated by her limited reach. By now, single tax proponents were dwindling in America, in large because the charismatic and well-liked George had passed away. Magie eagerly sought a way to spread her views more widely, and soon settled on a board game as the ideal solution. At this point in time, board games had started to become more commonplace in middle class homes, as mass production made them cheaper to manufacture, and thus more readily available.
So Magie got to work, and by the end of 1903 had created a board game titled ‘The Landlord’s Game’, to which US patent no. 748,626 was granted on the 5th January 1904.
The Landlord’s Game
By looking at the illustration (below) of the game board Magie supplied alongside her patent specification, the similarities with Monopoly can clearly be seen.
Some of its notable features are: a continuous path for players to circle over-and over again (most board games at the time had a set path with a clear start and end point), collecting wages for passing the starting point, four railroads, a ‘go to jail’ corner space (complete with a corresponding ‘jail’ corner space), a public park space (a precursor for free parking), property spaces which the players would buy and sell with play money and deed cards, etc.
Originally the object of the game was to obtain wealth. Magie would later refine the game to have two sets of rules in order to better make her point. A monopolist set (known as Monopoly), in which the goal was to create monopolies and force others out of business, and an anti-monopoly set (known as Prosperity) in which all players were rewarded during wealth creation. Magie believed this approach would demonstrate to the players that the anti-monopoly version was the morally correct choice. Both in game, and, of course, in the real world. As the rules of the 1932 edition of the game stated:
‘The Landlord’s Game shows why our national housekeeping has gone wrong and Prosperity Game shows how to start it right and keep it going right’.
In 1906, Magie moved to Chicago where, along with some friends, she founded the Economic Game Company in order to sell her game. While never really a sales success, copies were sold to college lecturers (who used it as a teaching aid), just as Magie hoped. In 1910, Magie submitted the game to Parker Brothers, but they decided against publishing it.
As an interesting side note, The Landlord’s Game found its way over to the UK in 1913, where it was sold as ‘Bre'r Fox and Bre'r Rabbit’. Despite a change in title and appearance, the game played largely the same. Unfortunately it did not sell well, making it a rare and valuable game today. So one to look out for at a car boot sale.
In 1924 Magie patented a revision for the game (as the term of the original patent had expired), and this version was sold by the Adgame Company. Again, it wasn’t a huge success.
At this point we’ll Leave Magie for a while, but we won’t be leaving The Landlord’s Game.
Students and Quakers
Unbeknown to Magie, The Landlord’s Game was becoming popular among the college students who had played the game in their economics classes. Copies soon began to spread from friend group to friend group, from locale to locale, in the Northeast of the US. Unfortunately, none of these copies were the version Magie produced. At the time, it was fairly common to create homemade versions of published board games, and this is how The Landlord’s Game was spreading.
The fact that the board games were homemade, meant changes could creep in. Sometimes new house rules would be added to the ruleset. Other times, the locations on the game board would be fully changed to reflect the local area (something Monopoly would later do itself, to great success).
Unfortunately the meaning of the game became somewhat lost as people soon realised that it was actually more fun to dominate as a landlord, and bankrupt ones friends and family. So much so, that the Prosperity ruleset was eventually left to one-side entirely, and so the game became increasingly known as ‘The Monopoly Game’ or just ‘Monopoly’.
For a detailed account of how the game spread, I would recommend reading ‘The Monopolists’ by Mary Pilon, but it’s worth briefly mentioning the Quakers, who readily embraced the game, and whose ranks it quickly spread through. This group would go on to add fixed prices to the properties and change the street names to ones found in Atlantic City. The same street names that are familiar to anyone who has played the original US version of Monopoly.
It is at this point, in 1932 (28 years after Magie’s original patent) that Charles Darrow finally enters the story.
In 1932, Charles Todd bumps into his childhood friend, Esther Jones, whilst out on a walk. They had lost touch after leaving their Quaker school, and so made plans to catch up over dinner, along with their spouses. Their friendship was soon renewed, and so Todd would go on to invite Jones and her husband over for a board game night. They played a homemade version of Monopoly, and Jones and her husband, one Charles Darrow, were immediately hooked. Todd would go on to make Darrow his own version of the board game, for which Darrow insisted he provide a clear written set of the rules.
The US was in the middle of the Great Depression, and Darrow had indeed lost his job. Given the circumstances, it’s not my place to judge or question Darrow, but he soon decided to try and sell the game as his own. He asked his friend, the political cartoonist, Franklin ‘F. O.’ Alexander to work on the design. Some accounts list his contributions as including the now iconic ‘human’ characters seen on the game board. These are (and the following may help at your next pub quiz) Rich Uncle Pennybags, Jake the Jailbird, and Officer Edgar Mallory. It is likely he also designed much of the illustrations that have remained mostly unchanged, such as the tap and light bulb seen on the utility spaces, and the question mark seen on the chance spaces and cards.
Originally Darrow made his version of Monopoly with a round game board made out of oilcloth. By 1934 he had moved onto a cardboard square board which was sold at a local department store. He used his initial profits to refine his version further and after some sales success, the game would go on to be bought by Parker Brothers in 1935. The same year Darrow and Parker Brothers obtained US Patent no. 2,026,082 for the board game. Monopoly sold 278,000 units in 1935, and in 1936 it sold 1,751,000. The game was an unprecedented success.
Soon after the deal with Parker Brothers was made, Darrow was asked by the President of the company for a written account of how he came up with the idea. This is where Darrow told his lie that would go on to be repeated for years to come.
Let us now return to Magie as we continue the story.
Magie re-enters the scene
Parker Brothers soon discovered Darrow wasn’t telling the truth, and became worried about Magie and her 1924 patent. So in November of 1935, George Parker himself visited the now 70 year old Magie. He told her the company had come across her board game and wanted to sell it (along with two other board games she subsequently created). Magie was obviously delighted by the prospect of her board game finally being mass produced and sold widely, and so accepted $500 for her patent. No royalties were offered. Parker Brothers would publish copies of all three games, but soon let them fade away after little advertising.
In 1936, Magie was of course shocked to see Monopoly on sale, especially as someone called Darrow was listed as the inventor. She wanted some form of payback, and decided to fight back via the press (one such article can be seen here). The story was hardly front page news and was soon forgotten.
Monopoly went on to be a huge worldwide success, Darrow became the first board game millionaire, and Magie was all but forgotten. Until the 1970s that is.
The truth emerges
In 1973, Ralph Anspach, an economics professor at San Francisco State University, released a board game designed to teach players about the ills of real world monopolies. The game was fittingly titled ‘Anti-Monopoly’, and it quickly became a modest counter-culture hit.
Predictably, it wasn’t long before the owners of Monopoly sent Anspach a cease and desist letter due to, what they considered, an infringement on their trade mark. Anspach ignored the letter.
During the near decade long legal battle which would follow, Anspach, as part of his defence, would thoroughly examine the history of Monopoly, in which everything you’ve read here (and lots more) was uncovered. He was able to prove that the board game had existed for many years before Darrow, and found surviving homemade versions of the game from the 1910s and 1920s (several of which even had the words ‘Monopoly’ blazoned across the middle).
Despite what I said in my introduction, this is still a very condensed version of a much larger story. I can wholeheartedly recommend ‘The Monopolists: Obsession, Fury, and the Scandal Behind the World's Favorite Board Game’ by Mary Pilon, if you would like to dive deeper still.
I’m very happy to say that Lizzie Magie is not as forgotten as she once was. There is now plenty of media out there that details her place in history, and I’m happy to be a part of that.
She is now rightfully recognised as being the originator of Monopoly, and as such is considered a leading figure in the development of board games. However I’m not sure how happy she would be that the board game she designed to highlight the faults of monopolies, ended up becoming a celebration of them.
One last thing, as we are the British Library, it would be amiss of me not to at least quickly mention the British version of Monopoly which came out in 1936. It was localised by Waddingtons to have the London street names probably familiar to most of you reading this. Above is an advert from a 1936 London toy catalogue from our Trade Literature Collection, announcing Monopoly as the ‘game that has taken America by storm’. It would of course go on to take Britain, and much of the world, by storm too.
Written by Steven Campion, curator of our historical patents collection. For more information on intellectual property, visit us at the Business & IP Centre or online: bl.uk/bipc.