Public Historian and co-author of "Exploring American Girlhood in 50 Historic Treasures" (Rowman & Littlefield, 2021).
It’s the mid-1800s. Following America’s bloody civil war, the men known as “robber barons” are beginning to come into power: Andrew Carnegie, Marshall Field, J.P. Morgan, John D. Rockefeller, and Cornelius Vanderbilt . . . just to name a few.
These men and their practices—including monopolies—would shape the nation as it emerged and industrialized into the 20th century and memorialize their names as among the elite of the elite. Their families became dynasties of wealth and power whose influence would spread beyond industry as their daughters and granddaughters married into European nobility and their wealth become memorialized in buildings and monuments throughout the nation. Yet not everyone was a fan of these robber barons . . . including one woman who would invent the board game to beat them all.
Elizabeth Magie: Background
Elizabeth Magie was born in 1866 in Macomb, Illinois. Her father was a newspaper publisher and abolitionist who encouraged Elizabeth to form her own opinions. He introduced her to the writings of Henry George, an economist whose beliefs became known as the single-tax system, or Georgism. This system held that economic value derived from land should belong equally to all residents of a community, with people owning only the value that they create themselves.
We won’t go into the economics of it all here—frankly, it’s not my cup of tea. But the point to remember is that Georgism discouraged wealth—and resources—being held in the hands of a few.
The Landlord's Game
In the early 1900s, Elizabeth was already married and had children. She had worked as a stenographer, writer, comedian, and stage actress (we think), but now she was taking on a new challenge: game designer. She created The Landlord’s Game to demonstrate the economic ill effects of land monopolism and the use of the land value tax as a remedy for them. She spread the game among her friends, who quickly grew fond of it and spread it to their friends.
Within a few short years, Elizabeth’s game was well-known. The Single Tax Review featured her description of it in their Autumn 1902 issue:
“It is a practical demonstration of the present system of land-grabbing with all its usual outcomes and consequences,” says Miss Magie. “It might well have been called the ‘Game of Life,’ as it contains all the elements of success and failure in the real world, and the object is the same as the human race in general seem to have, i.e., the accumulation of wealth.”
In 1904, Elizabeth patented her game as US Patent 748,626. The patented version had a square pathway where players started on a corner featuring a map of the world with the phrase, “Labor Upon Mother Earth Produces Wages.” Players would then roll dice to advance along the spaces, paying for properties, railroads, utilities, and taxes as determined by the spaces. One corner had a Poor House and Public Park, while the other had a property owned by “Lord Blueblood” of England—if you landed on it, you had to go to jail.
The Intent Behind the Game
Her game was intended for older children and adults. Elizabeth believed that her game would help to curb the rush for monopolies and bring in a fairer economic system:
“Children of nine or ten years and who possess average intelligence can easily understand the game and they get a good deal of hearty enjoyment out of it. They like to handle the make-believe money, deeds, etc., and the little landlords take a general delight in demanding the payment of their rent. They learn that the quickest way to accumulate wealth and gain power is to get all the land they can in the best localities and hold on to it.
There are those who argue that it may be a dangerous thing to teach children how they may thus get the advantage of their fellows, but let me tell you there are no fairer-minded beings in the world than our own little American children. Watch them in their play and see how quick they are, should any one of their number attempt to cheat or take undue advantage of another, to cry, ‘No fair!’ And who has not heard almost every little girl say, ‘I won’t play if you don’t play fair.’
Let the children once see clearly the gross injustice of our present land system and when they grow up, if they are allowed to develop naturally, the evil will soon be remedied.”
Parker Brothers and Other Publishers
Two years later, Elizabeth moved to Chicago and sought to self-publish her game. During this time, she also developed a card game called Mock Trial, which was published by Parker Brothers in 1910. Parker Brothers would also publish two more of Elizabeth’s games, Bargain Day and King’s Men, in 1937.
It remains unclear as to why Parker Brothers published her these games, but not the now-popular The Landlord’s Game. Linda J. Berth’s book, A History of Inventing in New Jersey, indicates that it might have been published by Parker Brothers, but I could find no sources to verify her information and no copies of the game exist.
In 1912, a version of Elizabeth’s game was published in England as “Bre’r Fox and Bre’r Rabbit” by the Newbie Game Co.
From Success to Theft
By the early 1920s, several versions of Elizabeth’s game were in circulation. It was being played at colleges. Her first patent expired in 1921, and Elizabeth soon became aware of how many copies of her game existed and were being modified. She patented a revised version of The Landlord’s Game in 1924 as US Patent 1,509,312.
Atlantic City and Charles Darrow
Around 1929, Ruth Hoskins learned the game and began playing with her Quaker friends and acquaintances. Her group changed the place names on the board to feature streets and towns in the Atlantic City area. They also modified the spaces to include “Free Parking” and “Go” spaces.
The game spread through their contacts and, at some point, it was introduced to the then-unemployed Charles Darrow. Darrow asked his friends to write down the rules of the game . . . and the scandal began.
In 1935, Monopoly made its debut, published by the Parker Brothers. They marketed it with the story of “struggling salesman” Charles Darrow, who had created the game in his basement to support his family during the Great Depression.
What a load of bullshit.
Darrow had patented his version of the game in December 1935, right when it was published. Neither he nor Parker Brothers ever mentioned The Landlord’s Game.
The Truth Comes Out
It wasn’t until a month later that the truth began to reveal itself. On January 28, 1936, D.C.-area newspaper The Evening Star featured an article on Elizabeth’s work. She was now living in Clarendon, VA, and reported having sold her board game patent rights to Parker Brothers in November of 1935 for only $500 and no royalties. The article stated,
“Probably, if one counts lawyer’s, printer’s and Patent Office fees used up in developing it, the game has cost her more than she made from it. However, if the subtle propaganda for the single tax idea works around to the minds of the thousands who now shake the dice and buy and sell over the ‘Monopoly’ board, she feels the whole business will not have been in vain.”
Monopoly became a worldwide phenomenon with Darrow’s name touted as the inventor. Elizabeth died in 1948, her contributions to the game’s popularity—and the ethics behind her cause—vanishing into obscurity.
It wasn’t until the 1970s that a patent dispute between Parker Brothers and “Anti-Monopoly” game designer Ralph Ansspach revealed the hidden history of this classic game. He collected historical documents to present his case, which are now part of the Anspach Archives Collection. As Ralph’s researched showed, Elizabeth should have full credit for her work on The Landlord’s Game, which set up the concepts and structure of what would become Monopoly.
Elizabeth’s game blossomed into a childhood pastime—and a hidden history—that reminds us how putting power into the hands of the few can lead to the obscurity of so many.
For further reading, check out The Monopolists: Obsession, Fury, and the Scandal Behind the World’s Favorite Board Game by Mary Pilon.
The Hidden Genius of Monopoly's Rules
© 2018 Tiffany Isselhardt