In Monopoly's Origins: a Warning About Landlords

Board game was meant to show the dangers of dog-eat-dog capitalism
By Polly Davis Doig,  Newser Staff
Posted May 28, 2017 3:05 PM CDT
In Monopoly's Origins: a Warning About Landlords
This March 11, 2015 photo shows a Monopoly board in Atlantic City, NJ, the city on whose real-life streets the Monopoly board game is based.   (AP Photo/Wayne Parry)

You might think of Monopoly as a board game version of Capitalism 101, but its origins are rooted in anti-landlord sentiment, worries about wealth inequality, and an obscure economist. In the late 1800s, Henry George argued in favor of a tax on "land value" that would prevent landowners from getting rich for doing nothing, eliminate the need for all other taxes, and promote income equality. Writing for Vice, Tristan Donovan traces the story back to George devotee Elizabeth Magie, who in 1902 designed The Landlord's Game, which she wrote showed "how the landlord gets his money and keeps it," a power grab that would teach kids to "see clearly the gross injustice of our present land system." Magie began making copies of the game, and offered it to Parker Brothers, which said no thanks—"It's too political and too complex, they told her," writes Donovan. The game lapsed into obscurity.

Except not quite: Handmade copies got passed around university economics departments and living rooms, acquiring names like Monopoly and Finance, and eventually going home with a Quaker schoolteacher in Atlantic City, who modeled the squares after places in her city. Eventually, down-on-his-luck father Charles Darrow swiped a copy of Monopoly from a friend, added illustrations, copyrighted it, and offered it to Parker Brothers. Nope, too complicated, they said. But Darrow's game started selling. Parker Brothers noticed, and in 1935 bought the game, which quickly became a juggernaut that sold a quarter-million copies that year. Parker Brothers also struck a deal with Magie to publish The Landlord's Game, which flopped. "All that was left was Monopoly," writes Donovan, "the Frankenstein's monster she had inadvertently created." His full piece is worth a read. (More Monopoly stories.)

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