An Anti-Capitalist Woman Invented Monopoly and a Man Got All the CreditRoundup
In March of 1903, a single woman in her late thirties walked into the U.S. Patent Office to secure her claim to a board game she had been diligently designing in the hours she stole from her day job as a stenographer. Lizzie Magie was an exception to the female norms of the time, not just because she had remained unmarried well beyond the conventional marry-by date, but also because she was an avid supporter of the teachings of progressive politician and economist Henry George, an outspoken and influential tax reformer who advocated policies that would keep more money in the hands of the poor and working class.
The invention Magie wanted to patent, was, in fact, a kind of tribute to George: The Landlord’s Game was “a practical demonstration of the present system of land-grabbing with all its usual outcomes and consequences,” Magie explained in The Single Tax Review in 1902. She included two sets of rules: one in which the aim was to crush opponents through monopolies, and one in which the creation of wealth rewarded all. The moral was not exactly hidden. The Landlord’s Game, Magie believed, would help make the world a better place.
By January 1904, when less than 1 percent of all U.S. patents went to women, Magie had received approval for her game. Just a few years later, it was being manufactured for sale around the country, finding pockets of fans along the Eastern Seaboard. People weren’t passing along the game so much as the idea—creating boards of their own, and tweaking the names of streets and the rules of the game. The game was successful enough that in 1935 Parker Brothers paid Magie $500 for a revised patent. But just a year later, even though many people around the country were playing a variation of the original game, its name, its “anti-monopolist” rules, and Magie herself, had been largely forgotten.
The funny thing is, you’d probably find The Landlord’s Game eerily familiar. It includes money, deeds, railroads, properties, and the words “Go to Jail.” Landing on certain squares means paying fees, a full trip around the board lets you collect fake cash, and the player with the greatest riches in the end wins. You probably call this game Monopoly, and you probably never gave a thought to its origin story—you certainly didn’t suspect it was born of an impulse to alleviate poverty. It’s a nostalgic pursuit, a way to get the family together away from the demands of their smartphones—though of course, now there’s an app, not to mention an electronic banking edition introduced in 2006 that features debit cards instead of cash, and tokens including a Segway and a flat-screen TV.
In an increasingly digital culture, traditional board games can feel like antiques, what with their printed, two-dimensional boards and pieces you move with your flesh-bound fingertips. What could these static things possibly reveal to us that we don’t already know? Mary Pilon’s new book, The Monopolists: Obsession, Fury, and the Scandal Behind the World’s Favorite Board Game, is an argument for the board game as not only a subject of investigation, but also as a powerful cultural mirror in its own right....