The Original Version Of Monopoly Was About A Progressive Tax Policy


Joshua Hoehne

As a kid I remember learning about money in school. They taught you basics, the various denominations, and coinage — a very general lesson. Somehow it always ended with how many hotdogs you could buy at a baseball game with a set amount of cash.

But, in the end, school didn’t teach me about money. I learned about it through another traditional way — the board game Monopoly. It was a cut-throat competition with siblings and friends. Winner took all and it seemingly never ended. It forced you to think about spending, saving, and investment.

Every kid instantly became a wheeler and dealer, trying to accumulate a block of properties. Everyone also remembers feeling the dread of counting out your move as you passed “Boardwalk” and “Park Place” with a few hotels on them.

Landing there could crush your dreams in an instant. While very cartoon-like, it was an effective trial-by-fire way to learn about money with little consequences. Well, except the usual shouting matches between kids.

However, the history of the game is far from what we understand it to be today. Most learn it as a child. Plus, it’s marketed as amusement not as a learning tool.

But Monopoly’s predecessor, The Landlord’s Game, was designed for adults. Its primary purpose was to teach an idea on taxation. The idea proposed that taxing land instead of income and sales could lead to a fairer society. Entertainment was a secondary concern.

According to Christopher Ketcham in Harper’s Magazine, by 2012 at least a billion people played Monopoly from over 100 countries. By that time, the game had also been translated into 43 different languages. Don’t forget the different versions as well: Stranger Things Monopoly, Super Mario Monopoly, Lord of the Rings Monopoly, and Lunar New Year Monopoly.

You’ve likely invested at least a few hours sitting in front of the board. You might even have it tucked away in a closet. But do you know how it came to be?

Join me for a quick history of the game Monopoly, or as it was originally called The Landlord’s Game.

The Anti-Monopoly Beginnings Of Monopoly
US Patent#748,626 “The Landlord’s Game” (1904) — Wikimedia Commons [Public Domain]

According to Mary Pilon in the New York Times, one version awarded players for creating wealth (“anti-monopolist”). The second awarded players for viciously creating monopolies. Magie’s whole point of the game was to poke an accusatory finger at “monopolists” like Carnegie and Rockefeller.

Her idea wasn’t odd when you discover her background. Her father, a known abolitionist, traveled with senate candidate Abe Lincoln (R-Springfield) during his debates with US Senator Stephen A. Douglas (D-Illinois). He was also a newspaper reporter involved in politics, losing on an anti-monopolist platform.

Pilon explains Elizabeth received a book from her father called Progress and Poverty by Henry George. The economist argued that people had a right to all they created. However, any benefit gained from land or natural resources belonged to the state — or the people.

George and his followers (Georgists) called for a “single tax” or a tax only on land-derived wealth. They believed this would shift the weight of taxes to the rich and relieve the poor. This idea stuck with Elizabeth for the rest of her life.

The movement also attracted members of the new feminist movement sweeping the country, which also called to Elizabeth Magie.

Attracting Attention And Spreading A Message
Elizabeth “Lizzie” Magie (1892) — Unknown Photographer Via Wikimedia Commons,_and_Other_Poems.jpg

Elizabeth moved from Illinois to Washington DC and got a job as a stenographer. In her 20’s Pilon says she was awarded a patent for a device that improved a typewriter. She also performed in plays after work, winning acclaim for her comedic roles and wrote a book of poetry.

After George died, she started working on a game to promote his ideas for the public. She also thought of a way to promote her own beliefs. Elizabeth was one of the few women in the nation with a patent and owned her own home. Marriage in her eyes was a prison that trapped women.

So, she decided on a publicity stunt to push this idea. Magie offered herself up for sale to the highest male bidder in a newspaper ad. Obviously, this created controversy, but also got her a job at a newspaper.

She patented The Landlord’s Game in 1904 and that began to catch on as well. However, the game was generally played in intellectual circles by the wealthy at Ivy League colleges. While she designed the game to explain the plight of the poor, the rich and educated seemed the most interested in it.

Ketcham says many features of the original board are recognizable. There were railroads and utilities. The board also had block-shaped properties and the players went around the square, rolling dice to decide movement. Cash was distributed as well in addition to a familiar luxury tax and community chest. Although the “Go” box instead read “Labor Upon Mother Earth Produces Wages.”

David Parlett in his article in the Board Games Study Journal says her game was truly unique in many ways:

  • It might have been the first instance of a player purchasing a space and charging another for landing on it.
  • It was a “role-playing game” within a board game. Players were encouraged to figure out solutions to situations when no rules applied.
  • A player could be sent to “jail” if they didn’t follow the agreed upon rules.
Diagram Of Zohn Ahl Board — Picture By Phil wink Via Wikimedia Commons [Public Domain]

Although Philip M. Winkelman in his article in the same journal claims Magie borrowed some ideas from a Native American game called Zohn Ahl. This too is a closed loop board, with a beginning but no true end. Winkelman claims Magie coincidentally had a friend who wrote a book about the game which she likely read.

Quakers And Monopoly
Landlord’s Game (1924) — Picture By Lucius Kwok Via Wikimedia Commons
“Before being monopolized by a single person working in tandem with a corporation, Monopoly had in fact been “invented” by many people.”
— Christopher Ketcham, Harper’s Magazine

According to Parlett, by 1910 the anti-marriage campaigner had moved to Chicago and gotten married. But she never gave up her work with game design. Magie created a company with fellow Georgists to make and distribute The Landlord Game. She also made a connection with Parker Brothers, producing a different game with them — they showed no interest in The Landlord Game.

In addition to the intellectual circles, her game also was adopted by Quaker communities. Magie herself spent summers in the Northeast in these communities. Soon the Quakers were spreading the game and making modified versions of it themselves.

According to Ketcham, players in New Jersey eventually changed the names of properties to many local street names in the area and changed a few rules. As the game was passed around, a man named Charles Darrow copied the game and new rules. He started marketing “Monopoly” in 1932.

Parlett says by 1935 it was in the hands of Parker Brothers. However, George Parker didn’t trust Darrow’s claims of being the original developer. He had heard stories that the game had been spread among the Quakers. Parker also found Magie’s patent on The Landlord Game and purchased it and two other games for a total of $500.

Magie’s hopes were soon dashed when Parker Brothers only published the monopolist version of her game. This was soon buried by the company’s smash hit Monopoly. It had a stark resemblance to her own game.

Despite protests to the media, Magie’s original game became an obscure remnant of history. Furthermore, Charles Darrow is currently given the credit for creating the game.

Monopoly Of An Idea

So, the simple game you play is in no ways simple. It taught me as a kid how to wheel and deal with paper money. In the early 1900s it taught a Progressive economic theory, which caught on with educated elites and Quakers. Today, it shows us something much different.

While a patent may give someone a right to make money off an idea, thoughts are often group ventures. Monopoly doesn’t belong to Elizabeth Magie or Charles Darrow. The game developed over time into what it is today through many different hands. It took a team to pass Go.

The original Landlord Game likely isn’t nearly as entertaining as Monopoly — the Quakers modified it for a reason. Plus, the current version of the game wouldn’t exist without Magie. Perhaps her game would have never been invented without Zohn Ahl or the works of Henry George.

As Parlett mentioned, there is a role-playing game within the overall game. Similarly, there’s an overall example of the dispersion of ideas within the development of Monopoly. In the end, the game might be a much wider teaching tool than we could have ever imagined.

Just think about this next time you land on Boardwalk.

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Work out fanatic, martial artist, student, MBA, and connoisseur of useless information. I try and work a combination of history and philosophy into modern day life. I can be interesting and awful at the same, but you'll generally learn something worthwhile when you donate some of your time to read my work.

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