Monopoly's origin story debate

Author Ed Anderson
Who really invented the iconic board game?Photo byMaria Lin KimonUnsplash

Charles Darrow has long been hailed as the first millionaire game designer. His signature work was Monopoly, the game that launched millions of family feuds. As of May 2022, it is estimated that 250,000,000 copies of the game have been sold.

For many years, the official history of Monopoly said that Charles invented the game in 1933, the year Parker Brothers published the boards. But that part of the story is false, according to The Guardian.

The truth is that Charles had very little to do with the invention of Monopoly. Instead, he sat down with friends one night for dinner and game night. He came away with the knowledge of a game being played by many in the community.

He knew there was money to be made from it. And Charles needed money as he was laid off from his job after the Great Stock Market Crash of 1929.

But the road to getting his version of the game off the ground was not smooth. The Parker Brothers didn’t want to buy the game from him and, in fact, gave him a list of 52 things that were wrong with it in 1934.

Charles did not let that deter him.
The game is beloved by millions but not everyone who created itPhoto byRobert LinderonUnsplash

Railroad To Success

The true origin of Monopoly is a bit more complicated than the straightforward version put forth by Parker Brothers and later Hasbro. For many years, at least one person involved in creating the game was entirely dismissed by the powers that be.

Lizzie Magie is largely considered the grandmother of Monopoly now. In the early 1900s, she was considered a left-wing feminist. Unmarried and working as a stenographer, the young woman often said she was as capable of inventing a game as a man. Many thought she was doomed to a lonely and poor life because of her beliefs.

In 1903, she invented a game called The Landlord’s Game. Spooner Central says that her goal for the game was to teach people the ill effects of monopolies and promote a more ideal vision of capitalism.

There were two versions of the game, one called Monopoly, where the goal was to bankrupt the other players. The one was called Prosperity; in this version, the goal was to interact and work with the other players to create more wealth.

After playing a few times, Lizzie adjusted the game. She tried to sell it to game manufacturers, but nobody bought it. In 1904, she patented The Landlord’s Game. She continued to sell boards to neighbors and others in her Brentwood, Massachusetts community.

Not long after being granted her patent, Lizzie moved to Chicago to be with the love of her life, Albert Philips.

Her patent on the game expired in 1921. She and Albert revised the game and applied for a new patent. After it was granted for a second time, she worked with a new game distributor, Adgame Company, in 1932.

Fate was set to intervene, though.
Parker Brothers holds the patent and copyright but should they?Photo byAedrianonUnsplash

Go Straight To Atlantic City

One of the women who played the game distributed by Adgame was Ruth Hoskins. She lived in Indianapolis and worked as a teacher. After she left her teaching job and moved back to Atlantic City, she changed the board.

According to Sciendo, she changed the property names to streets in her hometown. Ruth and her friends also changed the rule of auctioning the properties to a player buying them when they land on it. Some have argued about the reason for this change, though most people think that it is because the auctions became too loud.

It was this version that Charles and Olive Todd learned from friends. They invited Charles and Esther Darrow over for dinner and game night in 1932. The couples enjoyed the game and the conversation that flowed as the tokens moved around the board.

Charles Darrow asked his friend for the game’s rules, but it didn’t seem as though they had been written down to this point in time. An idea clicked for him, and he began to write things down.

After the Todds taught him how to play the game, Charles and Esther Darrow dropped them as friends.

Armed with the knowledge of the rules and what the Atlantic City board looked like, Charles and his son began to draft their version of the game. He used a drafting pen and round pieces of oilcloth. Once he finished with that, Esther and their son would color in the property spaces; they also worked on the Community Chest and Chance cards.

The Darrow family began to distribute the game themselves.

A strategy emerged to get the gamePhoto byAedrianonUnsplash

Free Parker Brothers

With copies of Monopoly selling like hotcakes, Charles once again tried to sell the game to Parker Brothers. This time they saw the cash cow that the game was and bought it from him. He was awarded money upfront and a piece of the profits that were generated by selling the game.

During the first blush of success with the game, the press fell in love with Charles. Though, they started to notice that he couldn’t answer specific questions. In particular, he couldn’t answer about how he invented the game; his answer was that it was “entirely unexpected and illogical.”

Charles Darrow became the first person to become a millionaire by designing a game.

Parker Brothers became concerned about all of the knock-off games that were being sold. They began legal cases against several game manufacturers, including one from Texas that was selling a game called Inflation. This was a turning point for Monopoly’s history because executives learned that Charles was not the sole inventor of the game.

Robert Barton, who was president of Parker Brothers, looked into the game’s origins. He learned of The Landlord’s Game and questioned Charles, who admitted that he stole the concept after playing it with friends.

Parker Brothers had Charles sign an affidavit despite his admission, saying that he created it. They wanted to hold on to their patent and keep selling the game to make as much money as possible. A new agreement was reached between the two sides, one with reduced royalties paid. On the other hand, Charles would not need to pay legal fees regarding claims on Monopoly.

Executives at Parker Brothers uncovered Lizzie’s 1924 patent for The Landlord’s Game, The Guardian reports. Instead of making her fight, they offered her a settlement. Lizzie gave them the rights to the game, and they gave her $500 but no royalties for the game.

After getting her signature on a contract, Parker Brothers attempted to bury Lizzie’s involvement in creating the game. It would take another 40 years for her role to be brought to the public’s attention.

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Ed Anderson is a true crime and gossip writer from Detroit, Michigan. Ed is the author of several true crime books, most recently Financing Doubt.

Rochester, MI

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