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  • Writer's pictureDebora Ellen Blodgett

Advance to Go: The Curious Origin of the Monopoly® Game

Updated: Jan 5


1952 Ad for Monopoly Game

What could be more fun than receiving a new game at Christmas?   In 1935, adults and children alike probably wanted Santa to bring them the newest board game sensation, Monopoly.   Have you ever thought about the origins of the game Monopoly?


Well, before we talk specifically about the origins of Monopoly,  we need to have a general understanding about the development of early board games and the manufacturers that created and sold games in the late 19th century and early 20th century.  


The Mansion of Happiness Game, 1843

Early Origins of Board Games


Early board games sought to teach or endorse moral behavior.  One of the earliest board games printed in America, about 1843,  that illustrates this principle was a game called The Mansion of Happiness.[1]   This game was available in England as early as 1800.[2] 



Early patented board games were improvements on the boards for traditional games like chess, backgammon, and checkers.   One of the earliest patented board games was granted in 1856 to Edwin O. Goodwin of Connecticut for his backgammon and checker board.[3]


Many early board games were educational in nature such as the Game of the Government created by H. Jackson of New York, patented in 1868.  This game sought to teach players the different departments and functions of governmental offices.[4] 


Beginning in the late 1890s, Americans had more time for leisure activities. Factors such as employers decreasing work day hours and instituting a half-day off on Saturday allowed workers more free time. The use of electric lighting extended the evening, perhaps allowing for some evening game play. [5] 


The popularity of board games continued, reflected in the number of inventors seeking patent protection for their inventions.   By the year 1900, there were over 1,600 patents issued pertaining to indoor games such as card and board games.[6]


By 1900, the prominent United States game manufacturers were located in the Northeast. The firms of W. & S. B. Ives of Salem, Massachusetts; McLoughlin Brothers of New York; Milton Bradley Company of Springfield, Massachusetts; Parker Brothers of Salem, Massachusetts; and Selchow & Righter of New York were all successful game producers. [7]


Both Milton Bradley Company and Parker Brothers are part of the story behind Monopoly.


Milton Bradley Company


1866 Patent, Checkered Game Of Life, Milton Bradley

Milton Bradley was a young printmaker prior to the Civil War. Milton was introduced by a friend to the game The Mansion of Happiness and he was immediately impressed.  Being in the printing business, Milton thought he could invent a game and print it himself.   His first game he called the Checkered Game of Life.  Milton started by printing 400 copies which sold quickly.  Many businesses were hard hit during the Civil War and sales of Milton's new game dropped.  Noticing many soldiers in Springfield with idle time, Milton decided to modify popular games to be travel-sized, able to be placed into a pocket.  Milton adapted checkers, chess, dominos, and his new game the Checkered Game of Life.  Sales of these new travel-sized pocket games skyrocketed with a reported 270,000 copies sold within the first year.  This cemented his new company as a major player in the burgeoning game industry.[8]  Milton Bradley received a patent on his game the Checkered Game of Life in 1866.[9] Milton Bradley continued to make games, puzzles, and even croquet sets.  The Milton Bradley Company created educational and fun games and marketed these games to children, which was innovative at the time.   "By the 1890s, he's the leading game maker in the United States."[10]


Parker Brothers Inc.


The Office Boy Game, 1889, Parker Brothers

George Parker was interested in creating games that were fun to play.  George's first game was called Banking, which he developed when he was in high school.  After being rejected by Boston publishers, George hired a printer and self-published 500 copies of his game.  George sold nearly all of his games and he was inspired to enter the game industry.  He enlisted his brother Charles to join his growing new firm and in 1888 they established themselves in Salem, Massachusetts as Parker Brothers. [11] Developed in 1889, a popular Parker Brothers game was The Office Boy.  Players started the game as an office boy with the end result goal to be the head of the firm.[12] Parker Brothers created many role-playing adventure themed games such as Crossing the OceanThe Bicycle Game, and Lost in the Forest.   George traveled to England to secure additional novel games, such as Tiddledy Winks and Ping Pong.[13]  Sales revenues from these games enabled Parker Brothers to be a leading contender in the game industry.  Like many businesses, Parker Brothers struggled with decreasing sales due to the Great Depression.   In order to survive this difficult time, Parker Brothers needed to find a new moneymaker.



The Inventors


The recognized inventors that played a part in the development of the board game Monopoly are Elizabeth Magie and Charles Darrow.


Elizabeth (Magie) Phillips


Elizabeth Magie, 1908

Elizabeth  “Lizzie” J. (Magie) Phillips was born 9 May 1866 in Illinois, the daughter of James K. Magie and Mary Jane (Ritchie) Magie.   She died on 2 March 1948 in Staunton, Virginia.[14] Elizabeth was a woman of many talents.  She was  a stenographer, public speaker, author, inventor, and graduate of a theater school.[15] It was probably her work as a stenographer and typist that led her to invent an improvement to a type-writing machine.  Elizabeth  received her first patent for a Type-Writing Machine in 1893.    Her invention sought to improve the way a piece of paper moved through the typewriter rollers.[16] Elizabeth was politically active and followed the teachings of political economist Henry George.   Elizabeth wanted to teach others the principles set forth by Henry George and invented a game to teach people about the evils of greedy landlords who increased rents to the point of driving people into poverty.[17]  Elizabeth was granted a patent in 1904 for her game The Landlord’s Game.  [18]  Her  game is unique in that the board had no ending square or point.  Rather, the player could continue around the board multiple times during game play.  Elizabeth self-published the game and began to sell it locally.  Elizabeth wanted her game to have a larger reach and impact so approached Parker Brothers in 1910 to see if they would be interested in publishing her game.  Parker Brothers turned her down, thinking that a game that emphasized morals and values would not be popular in the current market.[19] 


1924 Patent, The Landlord's Game, Elizabeth Magie

Over the twenty years since its introduction, The Landlord's Game achieved success in the niche market of the Northeast college crowd. When students went home, they brought the game with them. Games were adapted by the players and the squares of the board game were customized by individuals to mirror their hometown streets and landmarks.  Players made their own boards and also adapted the rules, to the point that the original rules that Elizabeth developed were lost during the transformation of the game over the years.[20]   Elizabeth continued to improve and modify her game and received another patent in 1924.[21]  Player inspired game variations continued to be played on college campuses from 1920 to 1932.[22]


Charles B. Darrow


Charles Darrow

Charles B. Darrow was born on 10 August 1889 the son of William Allan Darrow and Elizabeth (Dilley) Darrow.  He died on 28 August 1967 in Ottsville, Pennsylvania.  On his death certificate, his occupation was noted as game inventor.[23] Charles was working as a heating repair man but during the Great Depression he was unemployed and struggling to support his family.[24] At some time in the early 1930s, Charles was introduced by friends to a finance game that was being played in the Atlantic City area, popularized by area Quakers. Charles adapted and improved this game, although the rules and some elements of the game board were similar to The Landlord’s Game. [25]  In  October 1933, Charles obtained a copyright on his game version, which he called Monopoly.[26]


In early 1934, Charles decided to make a go of selling his game.  Charles approached both Milton Bradley Company and Parker Brothers to produce his game.  Both companies rejected him.  Charles decided to self-publish his game and he was able to convince Wanamaker’s in Philadelphia and FAO Schwarz in New York City to carry his board game in their stores.[27]  The game was a hit.  By the Christmas of 1934, Charles had sold 1,000 copies of his game.[28] Charles sold his rights to Monopoly to Parker Brothers.  In a news article from 1957, the creation story of Monopoly was again repeated stating that "In his spare time, he put together a little game. He called in [sic] Monopoly."  Charles retired at the age of 46 living on his royalties from the game.   "My first royalty check, in 1935, was for $7000..."  The article reported Charles was a millionaire.[29]


Monopoly is a Success


1935 Ad for Monopoly Game

Parker Brothers learned of the success of the board game Monopoly and approached Charles Darrow to acquire his rights to the game.  This was the break Parker Brothers was looking for to save them from financial ruin.  In March 1935, Parker Brothers acquired the rights to Monopoly and wasted no time getting it into production.  By June of 1935, Parker Brothers made 10,000 copies and the game sold well.[30]    The new game was advertised in prominent newspapers.[31]


Parker Brothers became aware of other games that were similar in principle to Monopoly such as Finance and Easy Money and worked to gain rights to those games. Of concern to Parker Brothers was the game The Landlord’s Game.  Reenter Elizabeth Magie.   While Parker Brothers turned down Elizabeth twenty-five years earlier, by 1935, they sought her out. Given that Elizabeth’s updated version of The Landlord’s Game, from 1924, bore striking similarities to Monopoly, Parker Brothers desired to own the rights to this game. [32]  In November 1935, Elizabeth sold the company the rights to her patent for the sum of $500 and received no further royalties.[33]  Parker Brothers agreed to market Elizabeth’s game The Landlord’s Game and two other games designed by Elizabeth, but the games did not sell well.[34]


1935 Patent for Monopoly Game

Charles applied for a patent for his version of Monopoly on  31 August 1935 and the patent was granted on 31 December 1935.  The patent was assigned to Parker Brothers.   The game was described in the opening lines of the patent description as "a game of barter." [35] 

 

By Christmas 1935, Parker Brothers had sold 250,000 copies of the game and within one year sold 1.8 million copies.[36]  This was amazing, given that the country was still suffering from the effects of the Great Depression.   “It’s the biggest success the board game industry had ever seen.”[37] 





Elizabeth Magie Phillips 1936

It is likely that Elizabeth harbored some hard feelings about the success of Monopoly.   She went to the press in 1936, and an article entitled "Designed to Teach, Game of "Monopoly" Was First Known as "Landlord's Game."" sought to retell her version of the game origin story. This article retells the story of the creation of The Landlord's Game.  Under the heading Engineer Popularizes Game, it said "Charles B. Darrow, ...retrieved the game from the oblivion of the Patent Office and dressed it up a bit..."[38] 


At this point, Parker Brothers had already purchased the rights to Elizabeth's game and the Charles Darrow origin story was pretty cemented in the press and marketing materials set forth by Parker Brothers.    The article did acknowledge that Elizabeth had sold her rights and noted that Elizabeth probably spent more money developing her game then she received for her patent rights, given the printing costs and attorney fees to obtain her patents. [39] By the 1950s, sales of Monopoly reached 13.5 million dollars.[40]


The early history of Monopoly may have been lost to the annals of time had it not been for Ralph Anspach, president of Anti-Monopoly Inc. and creator of the game Anti-Monopoly.  In a court case from 1979, Anti-Monopoly, Inc. v. General Mills Fun Group, Inc., the early history of Monopoly was revisited and rediscovered.  This case challenged the validity of the Monopoly® game trademark. [41]


From Humble Beginnings


The origin story of Monopoly certainly had a few twists and turns.   But can’t that be said of every great invention?   One person invents it, another improves it, still another markets it to its successful end. 


What can be said about Monopoly is that it is a game that has endured in its success for over 88 years.  It was recently ranked as the third most popular board game (after chess and checkers, respectively) selling over 275 million copies.[42]  Today, Hasbro lists 57 versions of Monopoly for sale on its website, having a game version to appeal to every age group.[43]  Monopoly "is sold in 114 countries and printed in 47 languages."[44]   Monopoly is  woven into the fabric of American history as a beloved game that crosses the generational line and sparks fond memories for all who have played it. 


That’s it in a nutshell! 



For More Information

"Board Game Empires," The Toys That Built America, 19 December 2021,  History


"Ruthless: Monopoly’s Secret History," American Experience, 20 February 2023,  PBS


Images


Cover Photo: "Monopoly advertisement," Life Magazine,  15 December 1952, Google Books (https://books.google.com : accessed 22 December 2023), vol. 33, no. 24, p. 50.


Elizabeth Magie: "Miss Elizabeth Magie Finds that Many Girls Are Slaves Because They Don't Dare to Strike for Their Freedom," The Evening World, 25 October 1906, HTML edition, archived, "Chronicling America," Library of Congress (https://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov : accessed 21 December 2023), p. 3, image 3.


Sources


Monopoly is a registered trademark in the United States, owned by Hasbro, Inc.


[1] "A Look Back at Board Games," Library of Congress, Picture This, 3 April 2014,  Library of Congress (https://blogs.loc.gov : accessed 21 December 2023), para. 2.

[2] "Mansion of Happiness, Laurie & Whittle, English, 1800," Collections, V&A (https://collections.vam.ac.uk : accessed 21 December 2023), accession number E.1757.1954.

[3] "Patent Public Search," digital images, United States Patent and Trademark Office (https://www.uspto.gov/patents/search: accessed 14 December 2023), Edwin O. Goodwin, Backgammon and Checker Board, patent no. 16,116 (1856).

[4] "Patent Public Search," digital images, United States Patent and Trademark Office (https://www.uspto.gov/patents/search: accessed 14 December 2023), H Jackson, Game, patent no.  74,368 (1868).

[5] "America at Work, America at Leisure: Motion Pictures from 1894 to 1915," Library of Congress, Digital Collections, undated,  Library of Congress (https://www.loc.gov : accessed 21 December 2023), para 1.

[6] "Advanced Search," Google Patents (https://patents.google.com : accessed 16 December 2023), classification A63F, 1790-1900, 1658 results.

[7] Bruce Whitehill, "American Game Companies in Brief," The Big Game Hunter, American Game Companies, 1997, The Big Game Hunter (https://thebiggamehunter.com : accessed 21 December 2023), para. 4-12.

[8] "Board Game Empires," The Toys That Built America, 19 December 2021,  History (https://www.history.com : accessed 16 December 2023), S1, E4.

[9] "Patent Public Search," digital images, United States Patent and Trademark Office (https://www.uspto.gov/patents/search: accessed 14 December 2023), Milton Bradley, Social Game, patent no. 53,561 (1866).

[10] "Board Game Empires."

[11] "Board Game Empires."

[12] "The office boy. Parker Brothers., c. 1889," image, Library of Congress (https://www.loc.gov : accessed 21 December 2023), control number 97196328.

[13] "Board Game Empires."

[14] "Virginia, U.S., Death Records, 1912-2014," database with images, Ancestry (https://www.ancestry.com : accessed 14 December 2023), entry for Elizabeth Magie Phillips, 1948, cert. 6169, image 254.

[15] "To Tell Story in Moline,"  Rock Island Argus , 14 October 1908, HTML edition, archived, "Chronicling America," Library of Congress (https://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov : accessed 21 December 2023), p. 5, image 5.

[16] "Patent Public Search," digital images, United States Patent and Trademark Office (https://www.uspto.gov/patents/search: accessed 14 December 2023), Lizzie J. Magie, Type Writing Machine, patent no. 498,129 (1893).

[17] "Board Game Empires."

[18] "Patent Public Search," digital images, United States Patent and Trademark Office (https://www.uspto.gov/patents/search: accessed 14 December 2023), Lizzie J. Magie, Game Board, patent no. 748,626 (1904).

[19] "Board Game Empires."

[20] "Ruthless: Monopoly’s Secret History," American Experience, 20 February 2023,  PBS (https://pbs.org : accessed 16 December 2023), S35, E3.

[21] "Patent Public Search," digital images, United States Patent and Trademark Office (https://www.uspto.gov/patents/search: accessed 14 December 2023), Elizabeth Magie Phillips, Game Board, patent no. 1,509,312 (1924).

[22] Mark A. Lillis, Decisions of the United States Courts Involving Copyright 1979

(Washington : Copyright Office Library of Congress, 1985), Google Books (https://books.google.com : accessed 23 December 2023 ), p.37-38.

[23] "Pennsylvania, U.S., Death Certificates, 1906-1970," database with images, Ancestry (https://www.ancestry.com : accessed 22 December 2023), entry for Charles B. Darrow, 1967 certificate no. 075475-67.

[24] "Board Game Empires."

[25] "Ruthless: Monopoly’s Secret History."

[26] Lillis, Decisions of the United States Courts Involving Copyright 1979, p.37-38.

[27] "Board Game Empires."

[28] "Ruthless: Monopoly’s Secret History." 

[29] "Creator of 'Monopoly' In Retirement Business," The Springfield Union, 22 November 1957, HTML edition, archived, GenealogyBank (https://www.genealogybank.com : accessed 23 December 2023), p. 48, col. 1.

[30] "Ruthless: Monopoly’s Secret History." 

[31] "Monopoly advertisement," The Evening Star, 1 November 1935, HTML edition, archived, "Chronicling America," Library of Congress (https://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov : accessed 22 December 2023), p. B-16, image 36.

[32] "Ruthless: Monopoly’s Secret History."

[33] "Designed to Teach, Game of "Monopoly" Was First Known as "Landlord's Game"," The Evening Star, 28 January 1936, HTML edition, archived, "Chronicling America," Library of Congress (https://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov :accessed 22 December 2023), p. A7, image 7.

[34] "Ruthless: Monopoly’s Secret History." 

[35] "Patent Public Search," digital images, United States Patent and Trademark Office (https://www.uspto.gov/patents/search: accessed 14 December 2023), Charles B. Darrow, Board Game Apparatus, patent no. 2,026,082 (1935).

[36]  Jordan Grant, "Playing Monopoly [and its discontents] on its 80th anniversary," National Museum of American History, Stories , 24 November 2015, Smithsonian (https://americanhistory.si.edu : accessed 23 December 2023), para. 1.

[37] "Ruthless: Monopoly’s Secret History." 

[38] "Designed to Teach, Game of "Monopoly" Was First Known as "Landlord's Game"."

[39] "Designed to Teach, Game of "Monopoly" Was First Known as "Landlord's Game"."

[40] "Board Game Empires."

[41] Lillis, Decisions of the United States Courts Involving Copyright 1979, p.37-38.

[42] Fun Monster, "The Best-Selling Board Games of All Time, Ranked," Fun, (undated), Fun.com (https://www.fun.com : accessed 23 December 2023), image.

[43] "Hasbro Shop," Hasbro (https://shop.hasbro.com : accessed 23 December 2023), results of search for Monopoly, 57 results.

[44] "Board Game Empires."



Copyright 2023 - Debora Ellen Blodgett












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