Making Monopoly: A History of the Origins of America’s Favorite Board Game

The Strong’s collections of games and materials related to games are uniquely suited to chronicle the story of Monopoly and its little-known forerunner, The Landlord’s Game. Developed by a woman devoted to demonstrating anti-monopolistic economic theories, her game evolved into the fun and familiar capitalistic contest we love to play today.

Monopoly Advertisement (1940)The Strong National Museum of Play

America’s Game

Everyone knows the goal of Monopoly. Dominate industry, control property, maximize profit, and drive competitors to bankruptcy. It has long symbolized the centrality and celebration of capitalism in the United States. But few realize that Monopoly evolved from an earlier ANTI-capitalist game. This exhibit explores Monopoly’s unlikely origins.

King's Men A New Game (1937) by Parker BrothersThe Strong National Museum of Play

A game to change the world

In the 1800s millions of people lived in poverty while rich plutocrats controlled most property and paid almost no taxes. Reformer Henry George proposed remedying these inequalities with a single tax on land. Many followers, including the family of Elizabeth Magie, embraced his ideas. She carried his cause into the 20th century and even led his supporters (who called themselves “Georgists”) after his death.

Landlord's Game Patent Page 1 (1904-01-04) by L. J. MagieThe Strong National Museum of Play

Patent Granted: A Game to Teach

Magie’s love for games inspired a uniquely playful way to spread Henry George’s philosophies. Her innovative game design—for which she received a patent in 1904—required that players travel a path, buying or paying rent on properties. Whenever players had to pay rent or go to jail (after landing on “Lord Blueblood’s” estate) they learned about the unfairness in inequalities in land ownership.

Landlord's Game Patent Page 2 (1904-01-04) by L. J. MagieThe Strong National Museum of Play

The Landlord's Game (1910) by Elizabeth MagieThe Strong National Museum of Play

The Landlord’s Game

Magie published her game in 1906. Players started on Mother Earth, passed Lonely Lane, did time at Beggerman’s Court and Rickety Row, got fleeced by the Slambang Trolley, and paid food and clothing taxes in the “Absolute Necessity” squares. The game’s social critique was obvious enough that some university professors used it in their classrooms. It was also fun to play and its popularity spread.

Stryker Landlord's Game (1927) by Roy Emerson StrykerThe Strong National Museum of Play

Play and Social Justice

During the 1930s, Roy Stryker earned fame as a photographer for the Farm Security Administration documenting the hardscrabble lives of agricultural workers during the Great Depression. A decade earlier he had learned about The Landlord’s Game from Columbia economics professor Rexford Tugwell, who later became one of the architects of Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal. Stryker and his wife made their own version in the 1920s.

Board game:Monopoly Board game:Monopoly (1914) by John HeapThe Strong National Museum of Play

The Name of the Game

In her 1904 patent Magie mentioned alternative rules for the Landlord’s Game that some players preferred. These variations—such as not stopping the game after five times around the board and foregoing the option to buy properties before the game began—became popular as a variant known as “monopoly.” John Heap of Altoona, Pennsylvania made one of these custom sets sometime before 1920.

Charles Darrow Round Monopoly (1933) by Charles DarrowThe Strong National Museum of Play

Creating the game we know

When friends taught Philadelphian Charles Darrow a folk game called “monopoly” on a hand-drawn board, he asked them to write down the game’s rules. He soon drew and painted his own version on a round oilcloth board and produced paper property cards. He fashioned the houses and hotels from wood molding. This is the earliest Darrow handmade Monopoly.

"Tie Box" Monopoly "Tie Box" Monopoly (1933) by Charles DarrowThe Strong National Museum of Play

Darrow’s Pluck and Luck

Out of work because of the Great Depression, Charles Darrow began producing copies of Monopoly in his home. He and his family hand-colored the boards, typed the property cards, and used wood molding for houses. He labeled inexpensive necktie boxes and sold the games through Wanamaker’s Philadelphia department store.

Darrow Deluxe Monopoly (1934) by Charles Darrow and Parker BrothersThe Strong National Museum of Play

Buying Monopoly

Darrow began manufacturing the game in two editions in 1934. The game boards are marked with his copyright alone. Noting the buzz around the game, Parker Brothers purchased the rights to publish it in 1935 and sales skyrocketed.

The Landlord's Game (1939) by Parker BrothersThe Strong National Museum of Play

Writing Her Out of the Story

In 1935 Parker Brothers paid Magie $500 for the rights to her Landlord’s Game so the firm could continue to manufacture Monopoly without legal challenge. The deal included re-designing and publishing her original game, which failed miserably. The company gave her no public record for creating the game, celebrating Charles Darrow but forgetting Magie.

Monopoly Board Game Monopoly Board Game (1935) by Parker BrothersThe Strong National Museum of Play

Conclusion: making monopolists

By 1936, despite (or perhaps because of) Americans’ straightened finances during the Great Depression, Parker Brothers could barely meet demand for the game. Americans gleefully bankrupted their opponents and gouged them with excessive rents. Despite its origins as a piece of social critique, many came to see the game as an unbridled celebration of capitalism. Today, Monopoly remains a perennial bestseller.

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Produced by The Strong National Museum of Play.

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