The Landlord's Game: Lizzie Magie and Monopoly's Anti-Capitalist Origins (1903)

There are few cases of creative and intellectual theft more egregious than the origins of the billion-dollar grossing Monopoly. The short version: a brilliant woman economist invented an anti-capitalist board game that was stolen by a lying, opportunistic man and repackaged as capitalist family fun.

In early 1933, Richard Brace Darrow went to a dinner party where he was taught a new game. He had such a good time, and waxed so enthusiastic, his hosts typed up the game’s rules and sent Darrow a copy. Then Darrow proceeded to draw his own version, on a circular piece of oilcloth. (The version he’d played at the dinner party had also been homemade — mass-produced board games were not yet an ordinary commodity.)

Darrow was a heater salesman who’d lost his job and times were lean. He decided to take his prototype and pitch the game to Parker Brothers. The rules were exactly the same as those his friends had shared, down to the misspelling of Marven Gardens as Marvin Gardens. Parker Brothers didn’t bite right away, but then they did, and Darrow became a millionaire.

Included in every new Monopoly box for decades was a story about how Darrow invented the game while tinkering around in his basement — a self-made man who saved himself from poverty through ingenuity and hard work. Darrow and Parker Brothers stuck to this story, even to the point of suppressing contradictory evidence. Parker Brothers bought up early homemade versions of Monopoly, presumably to have them destroyed, and somehow maneuvered their patent despite existing patents. Everyone in Darrow’s social circle knew the truth and some tried to say so. They were ignored.

Perhaps Darrow quelled his conscience by imagining the game had no inventor. In fact, with a bit of effort, he could have tracked her down. She was still alive, and still making games. As was later detailed, Darrow learned the game at the Todds’ house, and the Todds learned it from a friend, Eugene Raiford. Eugene learned it from his brother, Jesse. Jesse learned it from Ruth Hoskins, who taught at a Quaker School in Atlantic City. Ruth learned it in Indianapolis, from someone named Dan Laymen, who had played it in his frat house in college. The frat brothers who taught everyone else to play were Louis and Ferdinand Thun. They learned it from their sister, Wilma, who learned it from her husband Charles Muhlenberg. Charles learned the game from Thomas Wilson, who learned it in his college economics class, with the radical Wharton/UPenn economics professor Scott Nearing. (Nearing played the game with his students until he was fired, in 1915, for criticizing industrial capitalism.) The trail ends here, for Nearing learned the game directly from its remarkable inventor, Elizabeth Magie, or Lizzie, who filed a patent for it in 1903.

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Lizzie Magie’s original patent for The Landlord’s Game, filed in 1903 and granted in 1904 — Source.

Lizzie Magie was a provocative, whip-smart nonconformist. Piqued about her dismal salary as a young working woman in the late nineteenth century, she caused a national furor by taking out an ad in a major magazine, describing herself as a “young woman American slave” for sale to the highest-bidding suitor. She filed many patents, not just on Monopoly (which she called The Landlord’s Game), but other games too, and also for a mechanical device that improved the ease of typing — all this at a time when the number of patents filed by women was miniscule, less than 1%. Born in 1866, Magie didn’t marry until she was forty-four, and had no children. She wrote poems, performed in dramatic theater, taught college-level courses in her home, corresponded with Upton Sinclair, and studied economic theory. Her father was close friends with Abraham Lincoln. Both father and daughter were devout followers of the teachings of economist Henry George, whose 1879 treatise Progress and Poverty made the case for a single tax, on land. Like her fellow Georgists, Magie believed that ownership of nature was not possible — the earth was not something that could be owned. Land could, however, be “rented”, thus comprising the single tax. Magie designed The Landlord’s Game to teach and proselytize the principles of Georgism.

At first Magie self-published her game, producing a small number of copies she sold to friends. A few years later, she found a publisher in the Economic Game Company, who helped The Landlord’s Game find an audience in “pockets of intellectuals along the eastern seaboard”, writes Mary Pilon, and in Scotland, where Magie debuted a version she called Brer Fox and Rabbit.

As the game’s popularity spread, bootlegs sprang up, including the version at the Todd’s dinner party. Monopoly changed in its telephone-like peregrinations. Most of the property names were altered, often in ways specific to the town in which the game was being played. Someone thought to group properties with colors, and the Quaker players, to make the game less raucous, eliminated both dice and the bidding that preceded a property purchase. Darrow hired a graphic artist to draw the now-iconic “Go” and various pictograms, and Magie herself kept fiddling, updating her patent with new properties and rules.

Most of these changes were superficial, but one was not. Magie’s original concept included two sets of rules representing the difference between a Georgist and capitalist economy. By one set, players tried to produce equity through a single land tax, such that wealth was evenly distributed and winning the game a collective achievement. By the other, players tried to build monopolies and fleece their opponents. As is obvious, Darrow favored set two. What Magie intended as a forecast of disaster became Monopoly’s sole objective.

In November 1935, George Parker visited Magie and finally offered to buy her patent. The offer wasn’t about restitution, but rather part of a corporate strategy to absorb games that threatened Monopoly’s monopoly: Easy Money, Finance, Inflation, and, of course, Magie’s Landlord’s Game. To sweeten the deal, Parker promised that his company would not only market The Landlord’s Game, but also develop two new games of Magie’s design. Magie agreed, and Parker Brothers did as promised, though without much oomph. The Landlord’s Game received little press, and Magie’s subsequent games, King’s Men and Bargain Day, fared poorly. Monopoly, on the other hand, went global.

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Illustrations from Charles Darrow’s patent for Monopoly, filed on August 31, 1935 — Source.

Parker Brothers president Robert Barton later admitted, “Whether [Darrow] got it all from Magie Phillips, whether he got it from somewhere else, we didn’t know. And we cared very little.” Darrow glibly lied, Parker Brothers pretended ignorance, and the collusion worked perfectly for decades. After the umpteenth interview in which Darrow repeated Monopoly’s fake origin story, in 1964, one of his former dinner party friends wrote a letter to the show’s producer, WRCV-TV in Philadelphia. He described precisely where Darrow got the game, and noted the irritation of everyone involved. The letter writer concludes, “There is nothing to be gained by writing you this letter except, perhaps, to vent my feelings and point out . . . that everything in this world is not what it seems to be.”

This entire story would have been lost had Parker Brothers not decided to pursue legal action against a Berkeley economist, Ralph Anspach, who began marketing a game he called Anti-Monopoly in 1973. Parker Brothers (by then owned by General Mills) sent Anspach a frightening cease and desist letter. Anspach thought the grounds ridiculous: no one would ever confuse his scrappy Anti-Monopoly (originally christened “Bust the Trust”) with the global sensation Monopoly — so rather than ceasing and desisting, he began digging up the history of the game, to see if there were grounds to contest Parker Brothers’ copyright claim. Indeed, there were. When Anspach realized Parker Brothers was defending a patent built on a house of cards, he took the company to court. The role of Lizzie Magie was a happy research surprise. As for the flip flop at the center of the story — a homemade, anti-capitalist game created by a woman becomes a mass-produced uber-capitalist game that profits a man — that part wasn’t much of a surprise at all.

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