Monopoly: How the Original Game Was Made to Condemn Monopolies & the Abuses of Capitalism

The great cap­i­tal­ist game of Monop­oly was first mar­ket­ed by Park­er Broth­ers back in Feb­ru­ary 1935, right in the mid­dle of the Great Depres­sion. Even dur­ing hard times, Amer­i­cans could still imag­ine amass­ing a for­tune and secur­ing a monop­oly on the real estate mar­ket. When it comes to mak­ing mon­ey, Amer­i­cans nev­er run out of opti­mism and hope.

Monop­oly did­n’t real­ly begin, how­ev­er, in 1935. And if you trace back the ori­gins of the game, you’ll encounter an iron­ic, curi­ous tale. The sto­ry goes like this: Eliz­a­beth (Lizzie) J. Magie Phillips (1866–1948), a dis­ci­ple of the pro­gres­sive era econ­o­mist Hen­ry George, cre­at­ed the pro­to­type for Monop­oly in 1903. And she did so with the goal of illus­trat­ing the prob­lems asso­ci­at­ed with con­cen­trat­ing land in pri­vate monop­o­lies.

As Mary Pilon, the author of the new book The Monop­o­lists: Obses­sion, Fury, and the Scan­dal Behind the World’s Favorite Board Game, recent­ly explained in The New York Times, the orig­i­nal game — The Landlord’s Game — came with two sets of rules: “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.” Phillips’ approach, Pilon adds, “was a teach­ing tool meant to demon­strate that the first set of rules was moral­ly supe­ri­or.” In oth­er words, the orig­i­nal game of Monop­oly was cre­at­ed as a cri­tique of monop­o­lies — some­thing the trust- and monop­oly-bust­ing pres­i­dent, Theodore Roo­sevelt, could relate to.

Patent­ed in 1904 and self-pub­lished in 1906, The Land­lord’s Game fea­tured “play mon­ey and deeds and prop­er­ties that could be bought and sold. Play­ers bor­rowed mon­ey, either from the bank or from each oth­er, and they had to pay tax­es,” Pilon writes in her new book.

The Landlord’s Game also had the look & feel of the game the Park­er Broth­ers would even­tu­al­ly bas­tardize and make famous. Above, you can see an image from the patent Philips filed in 1904 (top), and anoth­er image from the mar­ket­ed game.

Magie Philips nev­er got cred­it or resid­u­als from the Park­er Broth­ers’ game. Instead, a fel­low named Charles Dar­row came along and draft­ed his own ver­sion of the game, tweaked the design, called it Monop­oly (see the ear­li­est ver­sion here), slapped a copy­right on the pack­ag­ing with his name, and then sold the game to Park­er Broth­ers for a report­ed $7,000, plus resid­u­als. He even­tu­al­ly made mil­lions.

As they like to say in the US, it’s just busi­ness.

For more on the ori­gins of Monop­oly, read Mary Pilon’s piece in The Times.

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Relat­ed Con­tent:

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