During the Great Depression, an unemployed salesman Charles Darrow was nearing the end of his rope. He was out of work and had a family to support. So he retreated to his basement and began to draw out a board game on a piece of oil cloth featuring Atlantic City streets and properties. If he couldn’t support his family, at least he could keep them entertained.
Darrow tried to interest Milton Bradley and Parker Brothers, but both turned him down so he decided to market the game himself. The game began to sell thanks to word of mouth. Parker Brothers, itself on the verge of collapse, reconsidered and bought Darrow’s “monopoly game.”
From the mid-1930s and for decades after, Parker Brothers put that history of the game into every box of “Monopoly” it sold.
The problem was, author Mary Pilon writes in her book, The Monopolists: Obsession, Fury, and the Scandal Behind the World’s Favorite Board Game, this was not exactly true.
Pilon, an award-winning sports reporter at The New York Times and formerly a staff reporter for the Wall Street Journal, spent five years researching and then writing the book that traces the lineage of the game that nearly everyone has on their games shelf.
The book is a fascinating look at how “Monopoly” began as an obscure game called “The Landlord Game” played as early as 1904 and created and patented by Elizabeth “Lizzie” Magie as a promotion of the single-tax theory (nothing is taxed except acquired property). The game was called “the monopoly game” by 1906, later morphed into “The Finance Game,” and then later, “Monopoly,” the game with which nearly everyone is familiar.
The game, Pilon wrote, was played by college students in New England, Mid-Atlantic and Midwest states before winding up being played by Quakers in Atlantic City, where it picked up street names, including a misspelling of Marvin Gardens -- instead of the correct spelling, Marven Gardens. Some of the street names, Pilon noted, reflected actual property values in Atlantic City, with the cheaper properties being the poorer sections of town where blacks, Chinese and poor whites lived.
Pilon notes that most of these early “Monopoly” games were homemade after people played the game somewhere, became addicted, and made their own. No one had patented and sold it until Darrow did. And it seems, Darrow wasn’t quite honest about getting the patent. He took a copy of the board game, a set of rules that someone else had written out for him, when Parker Brothers bought it. Even “Mr. Monopoly,” the roly-poly man with a top hat and a walrus mustache, was drawn by someone else.
It’s hard to judge a man who is out of work and no hopes of finding work with children to feed. Who could say they wouldn’t do the same thing when faced with such choices?
Of course, much of this information may have remained undiscovered until a left-leaning economics professor at San Francisco State University, Ralph Anspach, wanted to create a game that would teach his students the evils of capitalism after the 1973 Arab Oil Embargo showed what a real monopoly could do to the world.