Monopolizing History

It is a story for the ages: You roll a 3, and instead of collecting $200 you land on Boardwalk, with two houses on it. Your friend smiles fiendishly as he tabulates your rent. Your broke so you flip the board in anger, just as your father and your grandfather did before you. Monopoly has been a mainstay on the shelves of Americans for generations, but the history of the game is filled with as much intrigue and infuriating rage as the game itself. So before your next foray into land ownership on that colorful board of Parker Brothers, take a ride in a small silver car down the Baltic Avenue of history.

Taking a Chance
Did you know that in World War II the British used Monopoly boards to smuggle maps and escape kits to their POWs trapped behind German lines? The Germans never questioned it or caught on, because even by the start of the war Monopoly had become known worldwide as the iconic mainstay of board games. According to Hasbro more than 250 millions copies of the game have been sold across the globe, with games in every major language. The gaming giant also estimated that nearly 500 million people have played Monopoly. However the origins of the famous game are not as ubiquitous as its distribution, or as ubiquitous as the feeling 500 million people have felt when failing to avoid Park Place for the third time in a row.

The established legend of Monopoly tells that Charles Darrow was the unemployed and nearly broke man who sold the game to the Parker Brothers in 1933 -also known as the Great Depression- for more money than it takes to buy hotels on Boardwalk. Like JK Rowling or JK Simmons it was the kind of rags to riches story that helped sell the product and give everyone that warm feeling, which was good because in the 1930’s most people couldn’t afford actual blankets. The story goes that Darrow would play the game with friends and one day had one of those friends write down the rules. Then, within months he found himself as rich as Mr. Monopoly himself, who was originally named Uncle Pennybags. However, Darrow’s story -though true- is also as deceptive as that time Todd tried to convince us that he rolled a 13.

The real inventor of the game was Elizabeth Magie, a progressive and brilliant woman who invented the game in 1903. Magie was unlike any other woman of her time. She did not marry until she was 44. She worked as a stenographer and a secretary in the dead letter office in DC. On the side she wrote poetry, short stories, and performed comedic routines onstage. She created Monopoly -originally called the Landlord’s Game- at the turn of the century as a way to educate people about the dangers of monopolies like those held by Rockefeller and Carnegie. She received $500 for the game that she patented, but was largely forgotten in the history and legend of the Darrow story.

Passing Down and Passing Go
The Landlord’s Game was also, not exactly like Monopoly. Magi created the game to show the evils of monopolies and excessive greed, because that was how she rolled. Originally, players could buy property before the game began. They did not have to land on the property first to purchase it. Also, there was a second set of rules called the anti-monopolists rules, where players paid their rent to a communal pot. Essentially, the Landlord’s Game was created to promote a very socialist message. It was meant to show that monopolies are terrible. In fact, the “Go” space used to be labeled, the “Labor Upon Mother Earth Produces Wages” space, which granted seems a little heavy-handed for a board game that 8-year olds play. So what happened?

Viral marketing happened, well as much as it could happen in a time before the telegraph. The Landlord’s Game circulated among the country and with each new person or group of friends the rules often changed, just a slight bit. You know how when you play Monopoly with friends who did not grow up in the same household as you, and they have a strange rule for how to handle “Free Parking” or you get into that argument of whether you get $500 or $200 if you end your turn on “Go”? That is still a remnant of the original idea that the Landlord’s Game was meant to be changed by each new player in each new city. It even mentions this idea in Magi’s original patent. The rules were not set in stone, which is part of the reason why Darrow and the Parker Brothers were later able to make Monopoly their personal “Community Chest.”

Some of the most notable changes came from the Quaker communities of New Jersey and Pennsylvania, most notably Atlantic City. For instance, the original game had spaces that were named after streets in New York City, with the most expensive being, Broadway, Fifth Avenue, and Wall Street. The Quakers took this idea and changed the names to places around Atlantic City. They also put the prices for the property on the board so “Good Quaker Children” would not have to yell or haggle over prices. Originally spaces were auctioned and we suppose that got a little raucous for mommy and daddy Quakers. They also, changed the game pieces. Instead of using standardized colored markers they used little trinkets that they had around the house, hair pins, tie clips, thimbles, and presumably the household dog. This Quaker version of the game is the one that eventually made its way to Charles Darrow and was the forerunner of the game we know today.

Luxury Tax
Perhaps the greatest irony of the game was not that time when Todd had to mortgage his hotels because he trusted the strategy of “how often am I going to land on those railroads anyway.” No the greatest irony is that the game of Monopoly -or the Landlord’s Game- was created to educated the 99% on the evils of capitalism, where the modern game seems to be doing just opposite. It became more Donald Trump than Bernie Sanders. Darrow and the Parker Brothers made the game more fit for a world that believed they could have it all, every piece, every house, and hotel. In a way Monopoly became more about the American belief that we were all just one “Go” space away from hitting it rich.

These days Elizabeth Magi would probably be appalled at the state of her game. Not only does it no longer teacher an anti-monopolist message, but it has become one of the biggest and most recognizable icons of capitalism, associated in almost every way with the thing she was trying to educate people against. Like Coca Cola or McDonalds it has become this quintessentially American brand, the monopoly of board games. In fact, you can even play Monopoly at McDonalds, once a year by scratching off tickets to win a free piece of processed meat stuffed between two vaguely bread-like objects, all smothered in questionable sauces. You can play it on your computer or even your iPhone. Greed has become the name of the game, almost literally.

The last mention of Magi, was on the 1940’s Census, where her occupation was listed as “Maker of Games,” and her income was listed as $0.00. Charles Darrow died in 1967. Atlantic City placed a commemorative plaque on The Boardwalk in his honor. As for the game, it has come a long way from its humble beginnings. Now it is more of a brand than ever. Do you like Star Wars, Lord of the Rings, or the NBA? How about Bass Fishing, Sun Maid Raisins, QVC, Blackberry Phones, or even a small British town named Swindon, because those are all Monopoly editions that exist. But hey, isn’t that lesson that Monopoly teaches us all? You wheel and deal until you make it rich or you flip the board and storm out of the room.


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