Monopoly’s Inventor: The Progressive Who Didn’t Pass “Go”

For generations, the story of Monopoly’s Depression-era origins delighted fans almost as much as the board game itself.

The tale, repeated for decades and often tucked into the game’s box along with the Community Chest and Chance cards, was that an unemployed man named Charles Darrow dreamed up Monopoly in the 1930s. He sold it and became a millionaire, his inventiveness saving him — and Parker Brothers, the beloved New England board game maker — from the brink of destruction.

This month, fans of the game learned that Hasbro, which has owned the brand since 1991, would tuck real money into a handful of Monopoly sets as part of the game’s 80th “anniversary” celebration. The trouble is, that origin story isn’t exactly true.

It turns out that Monopoly’s origins begin not with Darrow 80 years ago, but decades before with a bold, progressive woman named Elizabeth Magie, who until recently has largely been lost to history, and in some cases deliberately written out of it.

Magie lived a highly unusual life. Unlike most women of her era, she supported herself and didn’t marry until the advanced age of 44. In addition to working as a stenographer and a secretary, she wrote poetry and short stories and did comedic routines onstage. She also spent her leisure time creating a board game that was an expression of her strongly held political beliefs.

Elizabeth Magie Philips, in a circa 1937 portrait. Credit The Strong in Rochester, New York Magie filed a legal claim for her Landlord’s Game in 1903, more than three decades before Parker Brothers began manufacturing Monopoly. She actually designed the game as a protest against the big monopolists of her time — people like Andrew Carnegie and John D. Rockefeller.

She created two sets of rules for her game: an anti-monopolist set in which all were rewarded when wealth was created, and a monopolist set in which the goal was to create monopolies and crush opponents. Her dualistic approach was a teaching tool meant to demonstrate that the first set of rules was morally superior.

And yet it was the monopolist version of the game that caught on, with Darrow claiming a version of it as his own and selling it to Parker Brothers. While Darrow made millions and struck an agreement that ensured he would receive royalties, Magie’s income for her creation was reported to be a mere $500.

Amid the press surrounding Darrow and the nationwide Monopoly craze, Magie lashed out. In 1936 interviews with The Washington Post and The Evening Star she expressed anger at Darrow’s appropriation of her idea. Then elderly, her gray hair tied back in a bun, she hoisted her own game boards before a photographer’s lens to prove that she was the game’s true creator.

“Probably, if one counts lawyer’s, printer’s and Patent Office fees used up in developing it,” The Evening Star said, “the game has cost her more than she made from it.” In 1948, Magie died in relative obscurity, a widow without children. Neither her headstone nor her obituary mentions her role in the creation of Monopoly.

A Born Provocateur

Elizabeth Magie was born in Macomb, Ill., in 1866, the year after the Civil War ended and Abraham Lincoln was assassinated. Her father, James Magie, was a newspaper publisher and an abolitionist who accompanied Lincoln as he traveled around Illinois in the late 1850s debating politics with Stephen Douglas.

Henry George, a politician, economist and proponent of the idea of shifting the tax burden to wealthy landowners, provided inspiration for The Landlord’s Game.

James Magie gained a reputation as a rousing stump speaker. “I have often been called a ‘chip off the old block,’ ” Elizabeth said of her relationship with her father, “which I consider quite a compliment, for I am proud of my father for being the kind of an ‘old block’ that he is.”

Because of her father’s part ownership of The Canton Register, Elizabeth was exposed to journalism at an early age.

She also watched and listened as, shortly after the Civil War, her father clerked in the Illinois legislature and ran for office on an anti-monopoly ticket — an election that he lost. The seeds of the Monopoly game were planted when James Magie shared with his daughter a copy of Henry George’s best-selling book, “Progress and Poverty,” written in 1879. As an anti-monopolist, James Magie drew from the theories of George, a charismatic politician and economist who believed that individuals should own 100 percent of what they made or created, but that everything found in nature, particularly land, should belong to everyone. George was a proponent of the “land value tax,” also known as the “single tax.” The general idea was to tax land, and only land, shifting the tax burden to wealthy landlords. His message resonated with many Americans in the late 1800s, when poverty and squalor were on full display in the country’s urban centers.

The anti-monopoly movement also served as a staging area for women’s rights advocates, attracting followers like James and Elizabeth Magie.

In the early 1880s, Elizabeth Magie worked as a stenographer. At the time, stenography was a growing profession, one that opened up to women as the Civil War removed many men from the work force. The typewriter was gaining commercial popularity, leaving many to ponder a strange new world in which typists sat at desks, hands fixed to keys, memorizing seemingly illogical arrangements of letters on the new qwerty keyboards.

When she wasn’t working, Magie, known to her friends as Lizzie, struggled to be heard creatively. In the evenings, she pursued her literary ambitions, and as a player in Washington’s nascent theater scene, performed on the stage, where she earned praise for her comedic roles. Though small-framed, she had a presence — an audience at the Masonic Hall exploded with laughter at her comical rendition of a simpering old woman.

She also spent her time drawing and redrawing, thinking and rethinking the game that she wanted to be based on the theories of George, who died in 1897.

This article is adapted from “The Monopolists: Obsession, Fury, and the Scandal Behind the World’s Favorite Board Game,” by Mary Pilon, to be published this month by Bloomsbury. A version of this article appears in print on February 15, 2015, on page BU1 of the New York edition with the headline: The Progressive Who Didn’t Pass ‘Go’. 

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