The Origins of the Board Game Monopoly

Difficulty    

This was composed for a speech given to the crowd at Shipping and Receiving,
during Funky Sundays by Keep Fort Worth Funky, in Fort Worth, Texas, on March 8, 2015


Introduction

We all remember sitting down and playing the game, Monopoly. Monopoly is a common point of cultural reference. Little do most know of Monopoly’s controversial origins.

Originally known as The Landlord’s Game, it was created to show young people how rampant poverty spreads: By landlords leaving others with nothing. You heard right: The original intent of Monopoly the family board game we all know and love, was to show us how landlords, once they have the best plots of land, can take all of the land, leaving the rest of us bankrupt.

Who would have guessed such a family classic was also an act of subversion?

 Lizzie Magie and Henry George

The Landlord’s Game was an invention of a young woman by the name of Elizabeth “Lizzie” Magie. “Lizzie” developed The Landlord’s Game because she felt she had a remedy to the problem of poverty.

Elizabeth Magie was a follower of the remedy proposed by the populist economist, Henry George. Henry George had written a book which had rivaled the sales of the Bible in his day, called Progress and Poverty. In this book he suggested that the cause of abundant poverty amidst abundant progress was due to landlords taking all of the wealth in the form of rent. This formed the basis of the game today called Monopoly.

As a solution to the problem of absentee landlords taking all of the wealth, Henry George proposed that land be used as the exclusive basis of taxes, to fund all public services. Since land is not a product of human labor– that is, since no one created the Earth–, taxing it and sharing its benefits does not reduce one’s incentive to produce, nor does it take from the laborer what he or she, himself or herself, created, their wages. It merely distributes the profits of monopoly— called rent— socially. Henry George believed the community should be the landlord, and should share in the benefits of the rent.

The movement following after Henry George’s proposal to tax only the land called themselves “Single-Taxers.” It was with fellow Single-Taxers in her Economic Game Company that Lizzie would publish The Landlord’s Game.

The Lesson Taught

The Landlord’s Game was developed firstly as a tool of instruction, but it later developed into a game for its own sake. Quoted in The Single-Tax Review, Lizzie says,

 It was the original intention of the author simply to work out a demonstration of how the landlord gets his money and keeps it, but while doing this there gradually developed a game which has proven one of amusement as well as of instruction and one which has attractions for both old and young.[i]

Lizzie says, describing the game further, in the same Single-Tax Review, “It is a practical demonstration of the present system of land-grabbing with all its usual outcomes and consequences.” She says further,

It might well have been called the ‘Game of Life,’ as it contains all the elements of success and failure in the real world, and the object is the same as the human race in general seem to have, i. e., the accumulation of wealth. […] [M]oney, deeds, mortgages, notes and charters are used in the game; lots are bought and sold; rents are collected; money is borrowed […] and interest and taxes are paid. [ii]

Monopoly was intended to reflect daily economic life, so that we may better understand our situation.

The ultimate determinant for winning the game is based on the land. Lizzie did account for chance, however. “Good luck” in the game comes from “rolling a double” of the dice. Likewise, there are those times we get lucky in real life; run across a new job opportunity, meet an economically endowed partner. These times, like “rolling a double” in the game (representing our luck in nature), can give us an edge up. But can luck account for fairness? In the end, there always remains one landlord, and the land determines the winner. If our luck doesn’t get us land, quickly, and in a good location… we lose.

Little is it known that Monopoly, then The Landlord’s Game, had another set of rules that could be played, offered in a later edition. This version of the game was called Prosperity. It demonstrated the remedy to land monopolization.

The Lesson Learned

The Landlord’s Game went through various editions. Even before the Parker Brothers had gotten their grubby little fingers on it, DIY editions of the game had come to be known simply as Monopoly. In a work by Georgist author, Edward J. Dodson, he quotes Burton H. Wolfe, saying, about a “single tax community of Arden, Delaware,” that

As the students and single taxers played the game, they began a process … of altering the rules. The main change was that instead of merely paying rent when landing on a property block, the players could hold an auction to buy it. They also made their own game boards so that they could replace the properties designated by Lizzie Maggie with properties in their own cities and states; this made playing more realistic. As they drew or painted their own boards, usually on linen or oil cloth, they change the title “Landlord’s Game” to “Auction Monopoly” and then just “Monopoly.”[iii]

The author, Edward Dodson, says further, citing Priscilla Robertson, by way of Burton Wolfe’s account, that

In those days those who wanted copies of the board for Monopoly took a piece of linen cloth and copied it in crayon. It was considered a point of honor not to sell it to a commercial manufacturer, since it had been worked out by a group of single taxers who were anxious to defeat the capitalist system. [iv]

Still, the game managed, itself, to become appropriated from the Georgists, co-opted, and monopolized. Dodson Writes,

During the last few decades, details of how the game Monopoly came to be owned — and the profits from sales monopolized — have come to light because of circumstances that could not be controlled by Parker Brothers.

Charles Darrow was the first to capitalize on the evolution and popularity of the game. He secured a copyright for his enhanced edition of the game […] The game’s origins apparently were not appreciated by the Patent Office clerks. Sales of the game mushroomed, and Charles Darrow became wealthy. Parker Brothers became a major company on the profits of Monopoly. [v]

Something which had been developed in the community for years on end was later taken by a private individual and patented, becoming the exclusive provider of the game. George S. Parker, the founder of Parker Brothers, had previously failed to succeed in pushing his own game, called Banking. Had Charles Dorrow not approached him, suggesting Monopoly as his own creation, and patenting it, Monopoly would still be a community game, like hop-scotch or musical chairs. There may be manufacturers of boards and pieces, but they themselves would not be a monopoly.

Conclusion

Monopoly when looked at historically, is not all fun and games. It describes a dark reality that we are all stuck within, and it demonstrates the attitudes that come with such an atmosphere. Lizzie Magie suggests,

The rallying and chaffing of the others when one player finds himself an inmate of the jail, and the expressions of mock sympathy and condolence when one is obliged to betake himself to the poor house, make a large part of the fun and merriment of the game. [vi]

Despite its dark origins, and the fun gained at the expense of others in the game, Lizzie Magie believed that it may contribute to a destiny without such hardships, particularly through the virtues of children:

Children of nine or ten years and who possess average intelligence can easily understand the game and they get a good deal of hearty enjoyment out of it. They like to handle the make-believe money, deeds, etc., and the little landlords take a general delight in demanding the payment of their rent. They learn that the quickest way to accumulate wealth and gain power is to get all the land they can in the best localities and hold on to it. There are those who argue that it may be a dangerous thing to teach children how they may thus get the advantage of their fellows, but let me tell you there are no fairer-minded beings in the world than our own little American children. Watch them in their play and see how quick they are, should any one of their number attempt to cheat or take undue advantage of another, to cry, ‘No fair!’ And who has not heard almost every little girl say, ‘I won’t play if you don’t play fair.’  Let the children once see clearly the gross injustice of our present land system and when they grow up, if they are allowed to develop naturally, the evil will soon be remedied. [vii]

The original intent of Monopoly the family board game we all know and love, was to show us how landlords, once they have the best plots of land, can take all of the land, leaving the rest of us bankrupt. The game, itself, fell to the monopolies it was created to criticize. It is up to us to teach our children the morals that exist behind the play.


[i] N/A, “Lizzie Magie’s 1902 commentary on The Landlords’ Game, on which Monopoly is based,” LVTFan’s Blog, excerpts from The Single Tax Review, Autumn, 1902. Accessed: Feb. 27, 2015: http://lvtfan.typepad.com/lvtfans_blog/2011/01/lizzie-magie-1902-commentary-the-landlords-game.html

[ii] N/A, “Lizzie Magie’s 1902 commentary on The Landlords’ Game, on which Monopoly is based,” LVTFan’s Blog, excerpts from The Single Tax Review, Autumn, 1902. Accessed: Feb. 27, 2015: http://lvtfan.typepad.com/lvtfans_blog/2011/01/lizzie-magie-1902-commentary-the-landlords-game.html

[iii] Edward J. Dodson, “How Henry George’s Principles Were Corrupted Into the Game Called Monopoly,” Henry George Institute (2011). Accessed Feb. 27, 2015:http://www.henrygeorge.org/dodson_on_monopoly.htm

[iv] Edward J. Dodson, “How Henry George’s Principles Were Corrupted Into the Game Called Monopoly,” Henry George Institute (2011). Accessed Feb. 27, 2015:http://www.henrygeorge.org/dodson_on_monopoly.htm

[v] Edward J. Dodson, “How Henry George’s Principles Were Corrupted Into the Game Called Monopoly,” Henry George Institute (2011). Accessed Feb. 27, 2015:http://www.henrygeorge.org/dodson_on_monopoly.htm

[vi] N/A, “Lizzie Magie’s 1902 commentary on The Landlords’ Game, on which Monopoly is based,” LVTFan’s Blog, excerpts from The Single Tax Review, Autumn, 1902. Accessed: Feb. 27, 2015: http://lvtfan.typepad.com/lvtfans_blog/2011/01/lizzie-magie-1902-commentary-the-landlords-game.html

[vii] N/A, “Lizzie Magie’s 1902 commentary on The Landlords’ Game, on which Monopoly is based,” LVTFan’s Blog, excerpts from The Single Tax Review, Autumn, 1902. Accessed: Feb. 27, 2015: http://lvtfan.typepad.com/lvtfans_blog/2011/01/lizzie-magie-1902-commentary-the-landlords-game.html

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