In 1933 at the height of the Great Depression, a down-on-his luck Charles Darrow invented the still-extremely popular board game Monopoly, making the impoverished man a millionaire seemingly overnight- a personification of the American Dream. Never able to fully explain how he came up with the concept, Darrow once described his invention as “totally unexpected” and a “freak” of nature. Over the last eight decades, the game has entertained hundreds of millions of people and made Darrow an exceptionally wealthy man in his lifetime, with his name forever etched in gaming lore. However, this Monopoly origin story should not pass “Go” and should not collect two hundred dollars. In other words, while still often repeated today, it’s false. The true inventor of Monopoly was a turn-of-the-century feminist and left-wing activist Elizabeth Magie, who was looking to create a game that illustrated certain economic concepts. Here’s the story behind why Darrow is given credit for the creation of one of the world’s most famous board games despite having almost nothing to do with any part of its creation.
The daughter of local newspaper publisher and noted abolitionist James Magie, Elizabeth Magie was raised to question the governing class. She admired her father and was often told she was a “chip off the old block,” which she thought of as a compliment once saying, “I am proud of my father for being the kind of an ‘old block’ that he is.” As a young girl, her father exposed Magie to progressive, anti-capitalist writings and attitudes, including Henry George’s 1879 best-selling book, “Progress and Poverty.” This influential book was the seed in which the famed game grew from.
Most notable to the subject at hand, the book pushed a single land tax replacing all other taxes, positing that it would affect the wealthy more heavily, redistribute wealth, curb poverty and destroy monopolies.
At the turn of the 20th century, board games were becoming all the rage. As the middle-class began to grow and work moved into factories (and away from the home) and the work day was starting to be markedly shortened (see: Why is a Typical Work Day Eight Hours Long?), the house became the center of leisure activity. Hence, the boom in creation of more complex games beyond cards or dice in the ensuing decades. Knowing that a board game would better capture the attention of her middle-class audience and thus potentially be a good vehicle to help illustrate and spread George’s principles, Magie began working on games based on them. Specifically creating an anti-monopolist and a monopolist game, illustrating both sides of the issue. In 1897, the monopolist version debuted and, six years later, she patented it as “The Landlord’s Game.”
While not quite what we play today, there are striking similarities between Magie’s original game and Monopoly. Landlord’s was also played with fake money and deeds which were used to pay rent, taxes and purchase property. Moving around the board, players earned wages for labor performed and got a hundred dollars for moving past the “Mother Earth Space” – basically, this game’s version of passing Go. Other spaces forced players to pay money. Public Parking and Jail were situated on the corner’s boards, just like today. There were Chance cards, but they were adorned with quotes from Thomas Jefferson and Andrew Carnegie. There was even a space that read “Go to Jail,” which means exactly what it does today – one had to sit in jail until they rolled doubles or paid a $50 fine. The game ends when all but one person runs out of money.
Magie prided herself not on the game play, but its message. “It is a practical demonstration of the present system of land-grabbing with all its usual outcomes and consequences,” she wrote in a magazine in 1902. “It might well have been called the ‘Game of Life,’ as it contains all the elements of success and failure in the real world.” It was also meant as not-so-thinly-veiled indictment of industrialists like John Rockefeller.
Producing it in partnership with a New York-based firm, though it made her virtually no money (that was never really her goal in creating it), the Landlord’s Game became a popular pastime among the liberal intellectual crowd, played often on college campuses and in the northeast. In fact, its early spread in popularity was in no small part thanks to certain professors, such as Scott Nearing of the University of Pennsylvania and later at the University of Toledo, teaching it to students as a sort of fun example of certain finance and business concepts. Importantly to its evolution to the modern version of the game, it was also embraced by Quakers.
Within a decade of its launch, most of the rules we know and love today from the game were in place in one version or another, and even the name became a little more familiar. For instance, sometime in the 1910s a variant of the game called Auction Monopoly popped up that shortened the game play slightly from the original, which required buying properties at their list price. The Quakers would later drop the auction part in their version of the game for unclear reasons, restoring that part of the rules closer to the original 1904 version.
By the 1920s, some began trying to profit from sales of their version of the game, such as one Dan Layman, who tried to patent his own version called The Fascinating Game of Finance (later just Finance) but failed when Magie’s patent was discovered by Layman’s attorney. Instead, Layman copyrighted and began selling his version of the board for the game.
After her patent expired, Magie decide to patent an updated version of her game in 1924. This updated version included minor changes from the original such as making it so that if you owned all of each of the railroads or utilities, you could charge higher rents on those properties. She also introduced chips which signified properties had been upgraded, allowing the owner to charge more rent than otherwise.
So how does Charles Darrow come into the story?
Sometime around 1932, Darrow and his wife Esther were invited over for a dinner and a board game at the house of Oliver and Charles Todd, a Philadelphia businessman and a Quaker. Together, they played a Quaker version of Landlord’s Game.
Todd later stated of this,
The first people we taught [the game] to after learning it from the Raifords was Darrow and his wife Esther … It was entirely new to them. They had never seen anything like it before and showed a great deal of interest in it… Darrow asked me if I would write up the rules and regulations and I wrote them up and checked with Raiford to see if they were right and gave them to Darrow – he wanted two or three copies of the rules, which I gave him and gave Raiford and kept some myself.
What happened next was pure theft.
As explained in Mary Pilon’s 2015 The Monopolists: Obsession, Fury, and the Scandal Behind the World’s Favorite Board Game, Darrow was desperate for money to pull his family out of the doldrums of the Great Depression. Thus, taking the slightly modified rules and additions made by the Quaker community, and even having the audacity to use the existing not-uncommon name Monopoly, he began making hand-crafted sets of the game and selling them as his own creation.
As for his exact contributions to the game, it seems to be nothing more than some artwork and possibly a few very minor rule tweaks (although it isn’t actually clear if he came up with anything original that wasn’t already in existing versions). In fact, Darrow even copied the game so closely from Todd that he kept Todd’s misspelling of Marvin Gardens, which actually should be spelled Marven Gardens.
It worked out and his copies of the game began selling well enough that he had to expand his operation, all the while pitching the game to various companies with little success. For instance, Milton Bradley turned down an offer from Darrow to buy the rights to “his” game in May of 1934.
Nevertheless, after managing to get Monopoly on the shelves at FAO Schwartz and having particularly strong Christmas sales in 1934, Robert Barton of Parker Brothers decided to buy the rights to the game for his struggling company. (If you’re wondering, Barton was the son-in-law of George Parker). They paid Darrow $7,000 (about $125,000 today) plus future residuals for the game and helped him patent it. Within a year, with Great Depression Americans imagining they too were industry tycoons, if only for a few hours at a time, the game flew off the shelves, selling nearly two million copies in that short span.
At this point you might be wondering why Parker Brothers didn’t get in a boatload of legal trouble for selling the game once it took off? Was it simply a case of Magie never finding out before her death, similar to that time Lego “borrowed” the “Lego” Brick from Kiddicraft and got away with it (See Bonus Fact below)? Not exactly.
Very quickly after purchasing the rights to the game, Parker Brothers learned Darrow had not been honest with them when he claimed he’d created it. They then traced it to its origin, with a little help from Darrow, who supposedly admitted what he’d done in a meeting when confronted by Barton. The result of this was Darrow’s contract with them being slightly re-negotiated, with Darrow now granting Parker Brothers worldwide rights to the game.
As for Magie, at this point her original 1904 patent had expired, which was good for Parker Brothers. However, the 1924 patent for the Landlord’s Game had not. Thus, Parker Brothers sought out and purchased Magie’s 1924 patent for a mere few hundred dollars and no future royalties if the game should sell well. They then produced that version of the game and sent her a copy, which she was reportedly ecstatic about. In fact, she sent a letter back to the company stating that since its arrival on her doorstep there was a “a song in my heart”. (Parker Brothers also began snapping up the copyrights and patents for other variants of the game, including the aforementioned Layman’s Finance version, just to further cover themselves.)
However, eventually Magie did learn of Monopoly and the song in her heart died abruptly. She wasn’t so much concerned with the fact that people were making millions off her game and she was getting nothing; she mostly just wanted credit for the game’s creation to be properly attributed to her, so went to the press about it.
In the end, all her complaints to Parker Brothers and beyond for them not giving her credit for the invention of Monopoly went largely ignored. In a later deposition, Barton even went so far as to call the Landlord’s Game “basically worthless” to his company.
Parker Brothers did, however, shut her up by agreeing to purchase and sell two other games of hers, Bargain Day and King’s Men, neither of which they ever did much with, and likewise were reportedly purchased for a paltry sum. They also briefly manufactured her Landlord’s Game as a bit of a token effort, but never really bothered marketing it much and it soon disappeared from the few shelves it had been put on.
In 1948, Magie died and the truth about the true origin of Monopoly very nearly died with her, as the official company line has long held that Darrow invented the game. Things changed in 1973 when Parker Brothers became engaged in a legal battle with professor Ralph Anspach over his Anti-Monopoly game. During the legal tussle, Anspach and his lawyers uncovered Magie’s patents. The real story of the origin of Monopoly slowly unfolded from there, though it’s still widely claimed today that Darrow was the sole inventor of the game despite all evidence to the contrary.
In the late 1940s, a company called Kiddicraft began manufacturing “Kiddicraft Self-Locking Building Bricks”, which were patented by Hilary “Harry” Fisher Page. Kirk Kristiansen, the founder of Lego, came across these bricks in a demo he was shown of an injection molding machine. He then copied the bricks and sold versions of them under his own brand as “automatic binding bricks”. It isn’t clear whether Kristiansen knew these bricks were patented or not at the time or just saw the potential of such a small plastic brick as a toy product when observing the injection molding machine demo. Lucky for him, Page died without ever finding out Lego had copied, and was selling, a version of Kiddicraft’s product illegally. Some 31 years later, Lego acquired Kiddicraft when Lego was preparing to, ironically enough, sue Tyco for illegally copying Lego’s bricks; hence, to strengthen their case, they needed to own Kiddicraft and the original patent. In the end, they lost the case anyway and Tyco got to continue selling the bricks, which at the time were earning them about $20 million annually. So the $3 million Tyco spent in the legal battle with Lego ended up being well worth it.