American game designer Elizabeth Magie (1866–1948) was the largely forgotten creator of Monopoly, which became one of the world's bestselling games after Parker Brothers launched its copycat version in 1935. A journalist, inventor, and political progressive, Magie had previously applied for and received two patents for her Landlord's Game from the U.S. Patent Office in Washington, D.C., in 1904 and 1924.
Elizabeth Magie was born on May 9, 1866, in Macomb, Illinois. Her father James Kingsley Magie was a newspaper editor and publisher who hailed originally from New Jersey. Active in the abolitionist cause before the U.S. Civil War, the elder Magie had served in the Union Army and knew Abraham Lincoln before he became U.S. president. The family, which included brother Edward and mother Mary, later lived in Canton, Illinois, when James became owner-publisher of the Canton Register, near Peoria. When Magie was in her teens, the family moved to Washington, D.C., where her father took a civil service job. In The Monopolists: Obsession, Fury, and the Scandal behind the World's Favorite Board Game, journalist Mary Pilon posited that the Magie family may have suffered a financial setback in the late 1870s or early 1880s, necessitating the end of Elizabeth's formal schooling and her decision to train as a stenographer-typist and work full time to support the household.
For a few years, Magie worked for the Dead Letter Office in Washington, D.C., where she and other female clerks were tasked with sorting undeliverable mail and tracking down the intended recipients. Because the job entailed dealing with money and valuables, it was restricted to a team of women, the idea then being that female staffers were less corruptible. As a young woman in the D.C. area, she enjoyed an active social life, performing in theater productions and even testing out stand-up comedy routines at amateur vaudeville events. Magie also wrote short stories and articles that were accepted for publication in leading magazines of the 1890s, including Godey's Lady's Book, but for much of her adult life her primary mission was promoting the work of Henry George, then a moderately well-known figure and a writer whose 1879 book Progress and Poverty prompted national debate.
Magie was introduced to George's bestseller by her father, who had been politically active during his years in Illinois. George was a self-made success story whose career included stints as a newspaper typesetter, gas-meter inspector, and even New York City mayoral candidate after the unexpected reception of Progress and Poverty. In his book, he argued that the growing income inequality of the late 19th century was a sign that the world's major economic powers—such as the United States and Britain—had successfully transitioned from a reliance on chattel slavery to wage slavery as the ultimate basis of their financial dominance. George's theory gained force as the Gilded Age and the opulent conspicuous consumption habits of robber baron tycoons prompted some to call for a national tax on income. The Georgists were part of this movement and they championed the idea of a single-tax model for the United States. Instead of the current scheme of levying taxes on goods and services, which disproportionately affected lowly wage earners and the middle class, they argued that the federal government should instead adopt a model whereby landowners would be taxed. This would automatically make the inequitable accumulation of land an imprudent path to financial wealth.
Magie belonged to a Georgist group in the Washington, D.C., area, and she began thinking about a way to instruct others in the principles set forth in Progress and Poverty. She devised an educational board game she called the Landlord's Game as a way to demonstrate the dangers of land monopolism. It was a square board with 40 spaces, the majority of them bearing the choice “For Rent” or “For Sale.” Players could buy a property and demand the assigned rental fee when another player landed on their square. Some landing spaces required a player to go either to Jail or to the Poor House, while others offered an unexpected windfall, for example, “Legacy—$100.” A game piece landing on a railroad or “Absolute Necessity” square like coal or bread compelled its holder to pay $5 into the Public Treasury, located in the center of the board. Every time a player advanced past the “Start” corner with the Mother Earth globe, they received $100 in wages. This space bore a maxim from Henry George: “Labour upon Mother Earth Produces Wages.”
Magie is believed to have had friends in Arden, Delaware, a utopian community established by Georgists. Its founders had ties to the Quaker (Society of Friends) religious sect, and the crusading journalist Upton Sinclair lived there for a time after gaining fame with his Chicago meatpacking exposé The Jungle. Magie's game was played avidly at Arden, although members made some modifications to its rules. From Delaware, the Landlord's Game spread to other states over the next 20 years. The economist Scott Nearing had lived at Arden for a time and later promoted it to his students at the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School of Business. Columbia University students played it, as did students at Williams College in Massachusetts, where it became a minor craze among members of the Delta Kappa Epsilon fraternity during the late 1920s. Magie also lived in Chicago for a few years and promoted her Landlord's Game there.
Pilon's book traces the history of Magie's invention, which she modified ahead of a second U.S. Patent Office approval granted in 1924. One Williams College graduate took it to his hometown in Indianapolis, Indiana, where a young woman named Ruth Hoskins learned to play it. When Hoskins moved into a community of Quakers in Atlantic City, New Jersey, she introduced it to Ruth Harvey, a fellow teacher at the Atlantic City Friends School. From her home on Pennsylvania Avenue, Harvey began making sets for friends and “monopoly” game nights became a weekly pastime for the Quaker community in the resort city during the early years of the Great Depression. The Atlantic City Quakers added new features onto their version, including naming the property parcels after local streets like Baltic Avenue and Marven Gardens, and placing hotels in order to boost revenue from a square.
In mid-1932 a Philadelphia couple visited family in Atlantic City, played the monopoly game, and introduced it to their neighbors back home, Olive and Charles Todd. Coincidentally, Charles Todd was actually an apartment-building owner and real-estate investor and loved the game. One day, he ran into a friend from his school days, and they agreed to get together for a board-game night with their respective spouses. The friend was Esther Darrow, whose husband Charles was an unemployed plumber. Charles Darrow developed his own version of the game on a round oilcloth, recruiting an illustrator friend, Franklin O. Alexander, to provide a few stock-comic characters, and he had some success selling his version at the Philadelphia department store Wanamaker's in late 1933. Parker Brothers, like other game manufacturers, initially rejected Darrow's proposal to sell it Monopoly for mass marketing, but when the game began selling well at New York City toy emporium F.A.O. Schwartz, a member of the Parker family noticed and a deal was inked.
To secure its legal claims, Parker Brothers struck deals with Magie and a few others who had sold modified versions of her game under different names. Company executive George Parker visited her in Arlington, Virginia, in November of 1935 and offered her $500 plus a deal to manufacture and market two other games she created, Bargain Day and King's Men. Neither did well, but Darrow's version of Monopoly sold 1.7 million sets in 1936 and restored the gamemaker to profitability after a long slump. Darrow became a millionaire through the royalties paid to him, an arrangement that went into effect through a complicated deal in 1935. Two years earlier, Darrow had received a patent for the game board, but had not applied for a game-rules patent. after he applied for his own patent, then sold the rights to it to Parker Brothers. “It's still unclear how Parker Brothers received approval for the Monopoly patent, given the two Landlord's Game patents that had come before it,” Pilon wrote in The Monopolists. “It's also unclear how the patent was issued in an astonishingly fast four months. Typically, the U.S. Patent Office rejected applications that had strong similarities to ones that were already on file.”
Magie was predictably outraged when the Parker Brothers’ Monopoly board game became a craze in 1936. The company publicized Darrow, the unemployed plumber who was now a millionaire, as its inventor. She roused media interest, and the Washington Post and Washington Evening Star newspapers ran feature stories on her that informed readers that Monopoly was not a sudden new craze but a board game once played by their grandparents at college or while visiting Atlantic City hotels. She died in Arlington, Virginia, in 1948, at age 82. Her original 1904 and 1924 patents were uncovered in the 1970s by an economics professor at San Francisco State University, Ralph Anspach, who had created a game he introduced to students and later sold as Anti-Monopoly. Parker Brothers sued Anspach for trademark infringement and the case wound through the courts for more than a decade. Among the witnesses who testified were members of the Atlantic City Quaker community, who had played Magie's version during the 1920s and early ’30s.
Pilon, Mary, The Monopolists: Obsession, Fury, and the Scandal behind the World's Favorite Board Game, Bloomsbury, 2015.
New York Times, February 15, 2015.
Single Tax Review, fall 1902, p. 56.
Washington Post, October 14, 1906, interview with Magie.❑