Behind the Board: The Controversial Journey of Monopoly

Anithya Balachandran | March 2, 2024 | Wealth

“An imbalance between rich and poor is the oldest and most fatal ailment of all republics.”
— Plutarch, Greek historian

Ah, the delicate dance of diplomacy shattered by the thunderous roll of dice! The mere mention of Monopoly is enough to conjure visions of family feuds and friendships tested on the crucible of capitalism. In the realm of board games, where tensions often simmer like a pot left unattended, Monopoly reigns supreme as the merciless maestro of mayhem. Its mere presence can transform a cosy gathering into a battleground of ruthless negotiations and cunning strategies. Yet, amidst the chaos and clamour, there lies a curious truth: Monopoly, with its unapologetic embrace of cutthroat competition, has carved its name in the depths of cultural history, forever altering the leisurely pursuit of indulging in board games.

Monopoly is celebrated for its portrayal of industry dominance, property acquisition, and profit maximisation, becoming a cultural icon worldwide. However, its roots trace back to an earlier game called “The Landlord’s Game,” created by Elizabeth Magie in the early 20th century. This precursor carried an anti-capitalist message, highlighting the dangers of monopolistic land ownership and wealth inequality. Thus, while Monopoly has since evolved into a symbol of unfettered capitalism, its humble beginnings serve as a poignant reminder of the complexities and contradictions inherent in the human pursuit of economic power.

‘Monopoly’ by Gordon Johnson

In the 1800s, a significant portion of the American population endured poverty, contrasted sharply by the dominance of wealthy plutocrats who held extensive property ownership and faced minimal taxation. Henry George, a reformer, proposed a remedy to these disparities: a singular tax targeting land. His ideas found resonance among many, including Elizabeth Magie’s family, who ardently supported his cause. Magie remained dedicated to advancing George’s principles into the 20th century, assuming a leading role among his followers, who identified themselves as “Georgists,” even after his demise.

In the early 1900s, Elizabeth Magie, affectionately known as Lizzie among her friends, faced a daunting reality: the enormity of society’s ills, the staggering income disparities, and the formidable power of monopolists seemed insurmountable for an unknown woman to address, particularly one working as a stenographer. Yet, driven by a sense of duty and conviction, she embarked on a seemingly improbable mission. Night after night, following her office duties, Lizzie diligently retreated to her home, immersed in the creative process of designing a board game. Her aim was clear: to infuse her progressive political views into this seemingly trivial medium. At the dawn of the 20th century, board games were gaining prominence in middle-class households, recognised not merely as diversions but as conduits for social commentary. Undeterred, Lizzie poured her energy into crafting what she termed “The Landlord’s Game,” a tangible critique of the prevailing system of land ownership and its associated consequences.

March 23, 1903, marked a pivotal moment as Lizzie filed for a patent at the US Patent Office, securing her legal claim to the Landlord’s Game. Several years later, she collaborated with the Economic Game Company, a New York-based firm of which she was a part-owner, to publish a version of her creation. The game resonated strongly with left-leaning intellectuals and gained traction on college campuses, gradually evolving over the following decades. Its influence spread to unexpected corners, notably among a community of Quakers in Atlantic City, who personalised the game with local neighbourhood names. Eventually, the game made its way into the hands of Charles Darrow, setting the stage for its transformation into the household favourite known as Monopoly.

Amidst the economic upheaval of the Great Depression, Charles Darrow found himself among the ranks of the unemployed. With meticulous care and craftsmanship, Darrow and his family undertook the laborious task of producing copies of Monopoly. Each board was painstakingly hand-coloured, property cards meticulously typed, and houses fashioned from wood moulding. Emblazoned with labels on modest necktie boxes, these artisanal creations found their way to eager customers through Wanamaker’s esteemed Philadelphia department store.

(L-R) Monopoly scaled-up; Milburn Pennybags as street art

In 1934, Darrow elevated his production efforts, offering Monopoly in two distinct editions. Notably, the game boards bore only his copyright, a testament to his singular vision and entrepreneurial spirit. As whispers of Monopoly’s allure echoed far and wide, Parker Brothers took notice, recognising the game’s undeniable potential. In a watershed moment in 1935, they acquired the rights to publish Monopoly, propelling it into the stratosphere of commercial success. With Parker Brothers’ expansive distribution network and marketing prowess behind it, sales of Monopoly soared, cementing its status as a beloved classic in gaming history.

In a move rife with disregard for the contributions of Elizabeth Magie, Parker Brothers secured the rights to her Landlord’s Game in 1935 for a meagre sum of $500. This heart-breaking transaction not only served to stifle potential legal disputes but also underscored a glaring attempt to overshadow Magie’s pivotal role in the game’s genesis. The agreement included the redesign and publication of her original creation, a venture that proved unsuccessful and further diminished Magie’s involvement. Despite her integral part in its conception, Parker Brothers opted to highlight Charles Darrow while relegating Magie to obscurity, denying her the recognition she rightfully deserved.

By 1936, as the Great Depression continued to tighten its grip on American finances, Parker Brothers found themselves struggling to keep pace with the overwhelming demand for Monopoly. Despite—or perhaps because of—the nation’s economic woes, Americans embraced the game with fervour, relishing the opportunity to bankrupt their adversaries and assert dominance through exorbitant rents. What began as a piece of social critique soon metamorphosed into an unabashed celebration of capitalism, reflecting the irony of the era!

Words by Anithya Balachandran.
Featured image ‘Adaptation of Monopoly’.

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