Do not pass go: the tangled roots of Monopoly

The classic Great Depression rags-to-riches story of how the enduringly popular board game came to be invented isn’t quite as simple as it seems.

Sign Up

Get the New Statesman's Morning Call email.

The Monopolists: Obsession, Fury and the Scandal Behind the World’s Favourite Board Game
Mary Pilon
Bloomsbury USA, 313pp, $27/£20

My dad was born in 1924, five years before the great crash of 1929. One of the founding stories of my childhood was about his childhood: how, as a poor kid in New Haven, Connecticut, he really wanted a Monopoly set but couldn’t dream of affording one – and so he made his own. The board, the counters, the money, the whole nine yards. He was about ten or 11 at the time, at least that’s what I recall. But it was only after reading The Monopolists, Mary Pilon’s entertaining and revelatory account of the game’s origins, that I realised there’s one question I never asked him: which Monopoly set did he make?

Up until now I’d always bought the story that Parker Brothers (now part of Hasbro Inc) sold me: one day in 1934, Charles Darrow, an unemployed salesman from Germantown, Pennsylvania, came up with the idea for the game pretty much out of the blue, made the first sets by hand, and then made his fortune when Parker Brothers bought his invention the following year. It’s a classic Great Depression rags-to-riches story. The official version passed its 80th anniversary this March; over the years, more than 275 million copies of the game have been sold, in 47 languages. Hasbro prints $30bn of Monopoly money every year – $3trn since 1935.

Except, it turns out, the story of Monopoly isn’t that simple. How could my father have made a set when he was ten, a good year before Parker Brothers’ and Darrow’s game was released on the market? Easily: because Monopoly was a game that long pre-existed the version that now has, shall we say, a monopoly on our idea of what the game should be. Its first inventor wasn’t Darrow, but a remarkable, politically active woman called Lizzie Magie, and its political aims the very opposite of those the now-famous version espouses. Magie’s game – patented in 1904, 30 years before the Parker Brothers version appeared – was called The Landlord’s Game, and it was designed as a teaching tool to promote the economic theories of Henry George, whose progressive ideas on both taxation and women’s rights remained Magie’s lifelong passion. She called the game she’d created her “brain-child” and believed – when Parker Brothers bought the rights to it for $500 outright – that it would find a wide audience. But of course, it didn’t. Monopoly did.

The Monopolists is Pilon’s first book; she is an award-winning sports reporter for the New York Times, and her tale is a work of energetic, in-depth reportage. While Magie is a central, striking figure in this story, it is peopled with all sorts of colourful characters who keep it galloping along. For Lizzie Magie wasn’t the only inventor of Mono­poly; a version of it was played in Quaker circles. The Quaker community, perhaps surprisingly, had a big hand in building up the resort of Atlantic City, New ­Jersey and it is the streets and avenues of this city that provide the archetypal locales of the original game (I still find it strange whenever I see “Park Lane” instead of “Park Place”, or “Bond Street” instead of “Pennsylvania Avenue”.)

Pilon shows that even though Monopoly was not quite the generic game that poker or chess is, one legacy of the Gilded Age – in which families such as the Carnegies and the Rockefellers could almost wholly control the markets in which they operated, and when they amassed fortunes that are a source of wonder even by today’s oligarchical standards – was many versions of the game, which coexisted for quite a while. It wasn’t just my father making his own set: that was pretty standard practice, I learned. But Parker Brothers determined to eliminate the competition, and the twists and turns of this book catalogue some valiant ­attempts to fight back, not least by one Ralph Anspach, who created a game called Anti-Monopoly in the 1970s and incurred the wrath of Parker Brothers as a result.

Occasionally Pilon’s new-journalism style can be grating (“Ralph Anspach, professor of economics at San Francisco State University, slammed his car door shut. Finally he was home . . .”), but for the most part her intriguing discoveries carry the reader happily along.

Pilon takes the epigraph for one of her chapters from Voltaire: “All the ancient histories, as one of our wits says, are just fables that have been agreed upon.” Yet what she shows is that the fable of Monopoly’s creation was more than just a good story: it was an attempt to echo what the Parker Brothers game encourages its players to do: “The last player left in the game wins.”

Erica Wagner is a New Statesman contributing writer. A former literary editor of the Times, she has twice judged the Man Booker Prize. Her books include Ariel's Gift: Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath and the Story of “Birthday Letters”, the novel Seizure and, most recently, Chief Engineer: The Man Who Built the Brooklyn Bridge

This article first appeared in the 19 June 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Mini Mao