Nov. 25, 2002
-- Charles Darrow has long been credited with the invention of Monopoly. His is a nice little story, with an appropriately capitalist theme. An unemployed Depression-era radiator repairman invents a game in which down-on-their-luck Americans trade pricey properties and connive their way to fantastic riches. The game catches on with a
cash-starved public looking for cheap entertainment. The unemployed repairman fills his pockets with wads of real money.
It's a nice little story, but it's not entirely true.
The real story of Monopoly is, of course, more complicated. From its inception near the end of the 19th century, the creation of the game spanned more than 30 years. From that first spark of inspiration in the head of one Elizabeth Magie, the game has been connected to the political and economic issues of the times.
In its current and well-known incarnation, the game is so firmly capitalist that it was once banned in Russia and China and is still outlawed in North Korea and Cuba. For Morning Edition
, NPR's Juan Williams
examines the evolution of Monopoly and discovers that the game as Magie created it was part of a very different world view.
One of the ideas behind Magie's Landlord's Game was to teach the virtues of the Single-Tax Movement: In 1871, journalist and political economist Henry George argued that a single, uniform tax on all land regardless of whether lots stood bare or were blanketed with business would encourage development. This would lead to lower rent and higher profits for business owners, higher wages for workers, and the eventual elimination of unemployment and urban congestion.
First patented by Magie in 1904, the Landlord's Game had much in common with today's Monopoly. The concept was similar: players take laps on a track around the edges of a board, buying up spaces that represent plots of land ("Go" was called "Mother Earth" and properties included "Easy Street" and "Lonely Lane."). Even so, Magie's game was rejected by George Parker of Parker Brothers.
"Up to that point," explains Phil Orbanes, author of The Monopoly Companion
, "almost every game started and stopped on particular spaces. Believe it or not, that was actually a cause of problems for Parker Brothers when they looked at (Magie's) game in 1922 because they had a hard time picturing when the game would end."
While Magie received little support from Parker Brothers, her game found enthusiasts in economics departments of colleges such as Princeton and Haverford. Here, the the Landlord's Game not only had players who could easily understand the ins and outs of property taxes, mortgages, and interest, it also began its evolution toward Monopoly.
As Williams reports, the students who played the game made some significant adjustments. They gathered adjacent properties into groups, and created the opportunity to build on properties and charge higher rents when one player owned all the spaces in a particular group, giving birth to the key concept in today's game: the monopoly.
The game began to proliferate and people made personal copies, often naming the spaces after local streets and landmarks. Though Darrow lived in Philadelphia, his first exposure to the game came when he played with a set from Atlantic City. Thus, his prototype includes place names such as Boardwalk and Marvin Gardens. Darrow sold enough copies at the Wannemaker's department store in Philadelphia to attract the attention of Robert Barton, a new executive at Parker Brothers.
The appeal of this game was apparent, Orbanes says. "No matter how complicated it was, no matter how many rules it broke, if this game was selling in the heart of the Depression, it had potential. And they struck a deal with Darrow to take it over."
This couldn't be done without Magie's consent, however. She still held the patent on the Landlord's Game, and accordingly, multiple aspects of Monopoly. In return for the rights to publish Darrow's version, Parker Brothers published three other games by Magie.
The first edition of Monopoly was released by Parker Brothers in 1933. The popularity of the game continued to surge, and in 1935 half a million copies were sold. The next year that tally soared to 3 million.
But simply because Darrow's final version of the game reaped the rewards doesn't mean Elizabeth Magie's idea had gone belly up. In 1974, after losing a game of Monopoly to his son and getting stuck in a traffic jam that prompted a dinnertime outburst directed at the oil monopolies, economics professor Ralph Anspach took matters into his own hands.
"I tried to find a game which would be just as much fun as Monopoly but would show the dark side of monopolies," Anspach remembers. "After some students challenged me at my university, I decided to fill the gap by creating a game which is against monopolists."
Unfortunately for the professor, Parker Brothers wasn't in the mood for such lessons. The company sued, and after an out-of-court settlement, Anspach was allowed to continue to sell his game. He says that he's sold over a million copies, and all with a name that the politically minded Magie might be proud of: Anti-Monopoly.
Read about another American game icon profiled in the Present at the Creation
Review Monopoly history
and playing tips
at the Hasbro Web site.
Read the official rules
for Monopoly. (Adobe Acrobat required)
Read about the Anti-Monopoly
board game. Its inventor, Ralph Anspach, wanted to teach players "the dark side" of monopolies.
Learn about different versions of Monopoly
around the world.