The Lady Who Invented Monopoly

Recently a long-time blog reader, named Jack French, reached out to me with a story for a blog post:  “Elizabeth “Lizzie” Magie Phillips, the real inventor of Monopoly, not Charles Darrow, the guy history incorrectly credits as inventing this game”.  As anyone who has read more than a few posts here on the Margins can guess, this is the kind of story I find irresistible.  It more than lived up to my hopes.

Take it away, Jack:

Photo from Washington Evening Star 1936

 

In Atlantic City, NJ today a prominent plaque honors Charles Darrow, termed the inventor of Monopoly, a classic board game in which all the streets are named for those in Atlantic City. The only problem is….Darrow did not invent Monopoly (a woman did) and he didn’t even name the streets (another woman did.) The creation of this game, which has sold over 200 million sets, resulted in a convoluted and fascinating historical narrative.

Elizabeth Magie, born in Illinois in 1866, always called herself Lizzie. She became a writer, an actress, a reformist, and the inventor of seven published games. In 1904 she obtained a patent on a board game she called The Landlord’s Game. It had 40 spaces, 22 properties, 4 railroads, and both JAIL and GO TO JAIL spaces, exactly the same as Monopoly would eventually have. Lizzie designed the game, not for fun, but to demonstrate the avarice of landlords of that era.

In 1910 she married Albert Phillips and later revised her board game while living in Washington, DC, changing some rules and adding draw cards such as: “Caught robbing the public; players will now call you ‘Senator’.” Lizzie patented this version in 1923 but Parker Brothers turned it down as “too political.”

Throughout the U.S., individuals and groups, ignoring her patents, formatted her game into their own versions, usually with local street names. About 1930 Ruth Hoskins, principal of a Quaker school in NJ, reformatted the game by assigning all streets the names of ones in Atlantic City. It was this version of the game that fell into the hands of Charles Darrow, an unemployed engineer in Philadelphia. He was trying to support his small family during the Great Depression by creating and selling puzzles and games. He had previously tried wooden jig saw puzzles and a revised bridge game score pad.

Around 1932 he began making his own version of Lizzie’s game (ignoring her patents) starting with a large circle of oil cloth, rather than the more expensive pressed paper-board. Later he switched back to the square board. Darrow did all the printing himself and then marketed the games in person. He was fairly successful and presented it to both Parker Brothers and Milton Bradley in 1934. Both refused it, stating that the game took too long and was too complicated.

But he persevered, getting department stores in Philadelphia to sell it and those substantial sales finally convinced Parker Brothers to take it on in 1935. In working out the contracts, Lizzie’s patents were finally recognized. Parker Brothers went to her and bought out her 1923 patent (the 1904 one had lapsed.) They paid her a lump sum of only $ 500, but contracted to market three more of her other games. In addition, Parker Brothers agreed to put her name as originator on the cover of all Monopoly games. But that promise quickly deteriorated and by the 1940’s the firm was promoting Darrow as the sole inventor. Over the years, Parker Brothers and Darrow would go on to make millions from Lizzie’s invention.

Lizzie died in 1948 at the age of 82. She is buried in Columbia Gardens Cemetery in Arlington, VA, located about a mile from the National Cemetery. She is resting in good company; among the other notables interred in this cemetery are Roy Buchannan, esteemed guitarist, and Jerome Karle, chemist and Nobel Prize winner.

 

+++++++++++++++++++

SOURCES:

Timeless Toys; Classic Toys and The Playmakers Who Created Them  by Tim Walsh (Andrews McMee Publishing, 2005)

90 Years of Fun by Parker Brothers (Parker Brothers, 1973)

The Billion Dollar Monopoly Swindle by Ralph Anspach (Palo Alto, 1998)

 

Jack French is a former Navy officer and retired FBI Agent in Virginia. He is a vintage radio historian and the author of two published books on the subject. Jack is a guest lecturer whose topics include: Civil War Heroines, History of Toys & Games, and the Golden Age of Radio. 

Gone Fishin’

My Own True Love and I are celebrating our tenth wedding anniversary this week!  The first out-of-town guests have already arrived.  Over the next week there will be food, music, dancing, champagne toasts, laughter, and story telling.  Maybe even a little romance. But there won’t be any blog posts.  I’ll see you back here at the Margins on September 10 with some good stuff.

 

 

Mrs. Wright’s Guard

One of the recurring themes in accounts of the home front in war—any war—is the formation of a home guard, official or unofficially. It is usually described as being made up of the men and boys who were left behind because they were too old, too damaged or too young to join the army. That description leaves out the fact that women, too, were often part of the home guard, especially if the home guard was an improvised affair.(1)

Case in point: Mrs. Wright’s Guard

Prudence Cummings Wright and her husband, David Wright, lived in Pepperell Massachusetts, which appears to have been a hotbed of anti-British sentiment in the years leading up to the American revolution. Prudence and David were both supporters of the revolutionary cause. (Two of her brothers supported the Crown. A point you should remember.) (2)

When news reached Pepperell of the skirmish at Lexington on April 19, 1775, David and the other male Patriots of the town marched off to join other Patriot forces in the fight. (3) After they left, the women of Pepperell learned that Loyalists planned to pass information to the British on the road that ran through town. Determined to stop the Loyalists, some thirty to forty townswomen formed themselves into a female militia, electing Prudence as their captain. Calling themselves the “Prudence Wright guard” they dressed themselves in male clothing, armed themselves as best they could with farm implements and whatever muskets their men had left behind,(4) and marched(5) to Jewett’s Bridge, on the Nashua River between the towns of Pepperell and Grotton, where they intended to stop any messengers who might try to pass.

It was late before two horsemen approached the bridge, heading toward Boston. Prudence blinded them with her lantern and demanded to know their names and their business. When the horsemen tried to flee, the women surrounded them. One of the horsemen, a known Loyalist named Captain Leonard Whiting, prepared to fight his way through, sure the women couldn’t stop him. The other, Prudence’s brother Samuel, had recognized his sister’s voice. He warned Whiting, “She would wade through blood for the rebel cause.”

Members of Mrs. Whiting’s Guard searched the two men, and confiscated dispatches aimed for the British command in Boston. They guarded their prisoners in a local house overnight. The next morning, they delivered the men and the dispatches to Groton. The men were set free on the condition that they would leave the colony. Prudence never saw her brother Samuel again.

Prudence died in 1823. The epitaph on her tombstone does not read “loving wife and mother,” though presumably she was both. (6) Instead it reads “In Memory of the Captain of the Bridge Guard.”

(1) And possibly the most able and active part, since women in the home guard were not too old, too damaged, or too young to join the regular army. They were just too female.
(2) We will hereafter refer to Patriots and Loyalists—both titles that beg a number of questions beyond the scope of this blog post.
(3)  Or at least they are described as marching off. My guess is that early in the war American militiamen walked briskly in what only the charitable would call a formation. The British, now, they MARCHED.
(4) The improvised nature of the weaponry is a recurring theme of stories about women who form improvised home guards.. Do not underestimate the power of a pitchfork.
(5) See previous caveat and multiply it many times. Local militias had some experience of drilling, often trained by British officers. The minutewomen of Pepperell had none.

(6) She had eleven children, nine of whom made it to adulthood.