Monopoly is perhaps the world’s most famous board game, with official sales of 250 million sets. You can get versions tailored to tie in with anything from blockbuster film franchises to local towns and cities. More than anything, the ethos of capitalism runs through it. Players start out with the same amount of money, but win by becoming wealthy at the expense of others, accumulating a property empire and squeezing out rents from other players.
Yet as Mary Pilon’s fascinating book reveals, Monopoly’s modern image is far from what its original creator intended. Parker Brothers (now part of Hasbro), which holds the rights to the game, spun the fable that Monopoly was invented by Charles Darrow, a down-on-his-luck unemployed man during the 1930s depression, who then went on to be wealthy. This book, however, explains that its origins lie with Lizzie Magie.
Magie was a feminist activist and supporter of the anti-monopolist economist Henry George, whose most famous policy was the ‘single tax’, to replace all taxes on the ownership of land. George’s was a populist philosophy that reflected the plight of the urban poor in the US, crammed into its burgeoning cities, and aimed to re-found capitalism on a wider, more equitable basis.
Magie sought creative outlets to explain these ideas, speaking at meetings, but also writing short stories and appearing on stage. In the early 1900s, she launched her most inventive way of conveying the single tax idea: what she called ‘The Landlord’s Game’. It included a number of the features of modern Monopoly: the size of the board, a ‘Go to Jail’ space, paper money and buying property deeds, as well as the collection of money when a circuit had been completed.
Likewise, players won by accumulating the most money. However, Magie created two sets of rules. One was of a society based on George’s ideas, to show how it was more harmonious than the other version which led towards the creation of monopolies and players having to crush each other to win.
The Landlord’s Game was a modest success, becoming known as ‘The Monopoly Game’ among a model single-tax community in Arden and then through students at Ivy League colleges. Many of the sets were handmade with their own variations. The classic names on Monopoly squares were based on Atlantic City and were created by Quakers living there.
Charles Darrow was taught the game by acquaintances. Yet he would go on to conspire with Parker Brothers to create the story which has taken years to unpick. A number of details, however, demonstrated that something was amiss with that tale all along. For example, in the Parker Brothers Monopoly board, one square based on Marven Gardens was misspelled Marvin Gardens for many years. This was because of a mistake on the version that Darrow copied.
While this is the basis for Mary Pilon’s book, the real meat is in how Parker Brothers covered its tracks, buying up rights to any variations based on The Monopoly Game, which had been published in the meantime. It is another demonstration of the lengths to which large corporations will go to defend their profits. It shows how capitalism will try to find a way to incorporate everything, including attempts to critique and expose the system – and find some way of exploiting them to make a profit.
On the other hand, Monopoly can still have the effect that Lizzie Magie intended: frustration at the sight of wealth accumulating in the hands of the couple of players who happen to own the most properties. The squeezing of people by rack-renting landlords is indeed a feature of capitalism that has come back with a vengeance. The truth running through this tale is that, no matter how capitalism attempts to beautify itself, eventually, its ugly, oppressive core always shows through.
By Mary Pilon
Published by Bloomsbury, 2015
Reviewed by Iain Dalton