The Real Inventor of Monopoly: Elizabeth J. Magie

Monopoly is one of the world's most played board games and one with a fascinating, and tempestuous history.
Christopher McFadden
Remix by Ali Kirker for IE1,2

Love it or hate it, cheat at it or play fairly, Monopoly is one of the most popular board games of all time. For many families, it's the go-to game during national holidays and Christmas and a source of intense rivalry between siblings and parents the world over.

For many decades the game has been attributed to Charles Darrow but this commonly held belief was challenged in the 1970s. Research during a lawsuit at the time revealed that one Elizabeth J. Magie appears to have created the game at least 20 years before Charles' patent.

In fact, Monopoly is more than it appears on the surface. It had its beginnings as an early popular economic philosophy (called Georgism) educational game, and would evolve it one that would show players how entrepreneurial spirit can turn literal rags into riches.

a typical game of Monopoly
Source: Jeramey Jannene/Flickr

Who is Charles Darrow? Did he invent Monopoly?

Charles Brace Darrow was the man who, for many years, was officially recognized as the inventor of Monopoly. The game's subsequent success led him to become the first ever millionaire game designer in history and would cement his name in history - but he might not have been entirely honest in his early claims.

Prior to the development of Monopoly, he was a domestic heater salesman from Germantown in Philadelphia just before the Great Depression. Darrow would eventually lose his job at the sales company during the Stock Market Crash of 1929 and would later work various odd jobs to make ends meet.

He would get his idea for Monopoly after seeing his neighbors and friends play a popular board game called "The Landlord's Game" where players had to buy, rent and sell property, utilities, and railroad. Chief amongst those who showed Darrow the game was Charles Todd who had played a customized version in Atlantic City, New Jersey.

With the help of his first son, William, and wife Esther, he would develop and create his own version of the game that would come to be called Monopoly. Darrow's version was virtually indistinguishable from the one he had been shown by Todd with the same street and property names including misspellings of some.

The game would become popular in Philadelphia with Charles Darrow managing to sell a few copies to friends and family. He would later sell his idea to the Parker Brothers who were a struggling business, like so many, during the depression. 

As we are all aware today the game became highly successful and pulled Darrow and the Parker brothers out of near financial ruin. Of course, they would never credit the creation of their game to its predecessor, "The Landlord's Game" devised by Elizabeth Mage three decades prior.

Despite this Monopoly was distinct enough for Darrow to later file, and acquire a patent, for his game design in 1933.

Whilst the basic concept of the game was not an original one Darrow did coin the name Monopoly and changed some elements to make it different enough to be considered a separate game. His story just goes to show that you don't necessarily need to have an original idea to make a successful product.

How did the Parker Bros make it popular?

Interestingly enough Elizabeth Magie actually approached the Parker Brothers in 1910 with her original game published by the Economic Game Company. But sadly for Magie, they subsequently declined. 

She would later approach them again in 1924 with an improved version that included some new game mechanics, like higher rents when all three railroads and utilities were owned etc. Once again the Parker Brothers declined, calling the game "too political" for their company. 

In fact, early versions of the game were hand drawn using technical pens with the boards themselves made from round pieces of oilcloth instead of rigid, square carton. After he had some success Darrow approached local printing companies to produce more standardized and professionally looking game sets.

George Parker did, however, encourage her to take out her 1924 patent of the game. 

When Darrow finally approached them with his version the game had undergone some cosmetic changes including the now iconic locomotive symbol, Free Parking, the iconic Red Go Arrow, colored card deeds, Chance cards, and Community Chest card decks and more. 

Darrow would approach the Parker Brothers in May of 1934 but, like Magie before them, would have his application rejected. This time for different reasons, they believed the game was "too complicated, too technical, and took too long to play". 

Over the Christmas period of 1935, Darrow's version found some financial success in Philadelphia. News of this reached the Parker Brothers who decided to contact Darrow again to arrange a new meeting and bought the game in 1935.

monopoly Darrow patent
Charles Darrow's 1935 patent. Source: freepatentsonline

Later the same year the brothers learned that Darrow was not the sole inventor of the game and bought out all other existing patents, including Magie's 1924 one for a flat $500 fee. They also acquired all other copyrights and other commercial variants of the game to secure its undisputed ownership of its intellectual property.

As soon as they had full ownership, the Parker Brothers began broad-scale marketing efforts as soon as they were able. They produced and released a standard and Deluxe version of Darrow's game and later released a further six versions with the more expensive ones including a wooden board and brass player pieces.  

Who is Elizabeth J. Magie? 

Elizabeth (Lizzie) J. Phillips was an American engineer, game designer, and a Georgist (a 19th Century economic philosophy). She was born in Macomb, Illinois in 1866 and would go on to invent an early version of one of the most popular board games in history, albeit without recognition for many decades.

She was introduced to Henry George (who founded the Georgist movement) through his book "Progress and Poverty" in the late 1850's. This would dominate her philosophical thinking for the rest of her life and greatly influence the game that would one day become Monopoly. 

In the 1880's she worked as a stenographer but also wrote short stories and poetry, had a go at acting and comedy. She was also an advocate for the women's suffrage in the early 20th Century.

monopoly Elizabeth Mague
Lizzie Magie Source: Wikimedia Commons

By 1906 she was working as a newspaper reporter and married in 1910 at the age of 44. 

Despite all this, her greatest work was the creation of the game "The Landlord's Game" and filed her first patent in 1903. The idea of the game was to demonstrate the economic ill effects of land monopolism and the potential benefits of the land value tax (single tax system or Georgism). 

She later moved to Chicago in 1906, formed a games company, The Economic Game Co, with fellow Georgists and self-published her game. By 1912 her game was adapted by the Scottish Newbie Game Co under the name Bre'r Fox and Bre'r Rabbit and other adaptations began to appear around the US.

An updated version was later also patented by Magie in 1924 after her original one expired in 1921. In 1936 she was heavily critical of the Parker Brothers in a Washington newspaper which prompted the company to publish two more of her games "Bargain Day" and "King's Men" in 1937. 

Today very few examples of her "The  Landlord's Game" exists but "Bargain Day" and "King's Men" are less rare. 

Magie would later die in Staunton, Virginia in 1948 at the grand old age of 82. She was buried with her husband in Albert Wallace Phillips in Arlington, Virginia. 

Was the original game anti-capitalist? What is Georgism?

In short no. Magie was a Georgist, not an anti-capitalist. Her and Georgist's in general, ideology was one opposed to the monopolization of land ownership and dangers or long-term renting. 

During the time she devised her "The Landlord's Game" very few very wealthy individuals owned most of the land in the United States. This was called "land-grabbing" and Magie wanted to educate people about owning their own property.

Georgism, or geoism or single tax, was an economic philosophy built in the principle that people should own the fruits of their labor but any economic value derived from land or natural resources should belong equally to all members of society. In this sense, it can be thought of as pro-capitalist except for any wealth derived from the ownership of land or resources which should be considered as belonging to the people. 

It was derived from the writings of Henry George that focussed on the principles of land rights and public finance in an attempt to integrate economic efficiency and social justice. George and Georgist argued that taxation of ground rent is very efficient, fair and equitable for all which could, in theory, eliminate other taxes like income, trade or purchase taxation. 

Any tax levy raised would then be used to provide dividend payment to the people as a form of supplemental income. It was an economic philosophy that would become popular in the late 19th and early 20th Century but has since been largely ignored. 

monooply georgism
Georgist campaign button from the 1890s. Source: Dahn/Wikimedia Commons

How did the truth come out?

During the 1970's a professor Ralph Anspach had created his own board game, "Anti-Monopoly", that was created to illustrate the principles of monopolies and trust busting. Because of his choice of name he was issued with a copyright infringement lawsuit by the Parker Brothers (rather their parent company General Mills).

As part of this legal battle, Anspach and others discovered the earlier versions that Parker Brothers had bought the rights to back in the 1930's. Their research formed part of their legal filings and was now officially entered into United States court records.

In 1979, the parties reached a settlement allowing Anspach to continue marketing Anti-Monopoly. In a 1983 US Supreme Court case, Anspach won the "Anti-Monopoly".

monopoly anti-monopoly
Source: Amazon

Anspach then wrote a book about the true history of monopoly and his legal fight over monopoly, The Billion Dollar Monopoly Swindle.

Despite these settlements, the case wouldn't be fully resolved until 1985. The case ruled in the Parker Brothers favor cementing it as a registered trademark as well as reinforcing design elements of the game from board design to logo.