Do not pass go: The secret history of Monopoly
Monopoly turned 80 this year. Check out its website and you’ll see that you can celebrate the anniversary with a special edition of the ‘classic fast-trading property game that features tokens from 1935 all the way to 2015! With a retro board and cards, the game takes you back to when it all began.’ And, by the way, ‘Monopoly and all related characters are trademarks of Hasbro’.
And there hangs – or is buried – a tale. A largely unknown tale that journalist Mary Pilon has dug deep to unearth and recount in The Monopolists, taking us back to when she believes it all started.
As a game designer, I’ve been involved in the toy business for decades, so of course I’m drawn to any story about this industry and to the history of games in particular. But I think anyone in the business of developing and marketing novel products will find Pilon’s inside story of Monopoly as compelling a read as I did. Why?
Because, the global toy industry is a big, big business; $60bn big. And Monopoly is not just any old game. Since the mid-1930s more than 270 million Monopoly games have been sold and it’s estimated that over a billion people have played the game, which is published in 43 languages and sells in 111 countries.
It’s a property that over the past century many people have traded, borrowed and sued to own, but whose architect they found it expedient to forget. Parker Brothers, which acquired the rights to Monopoly in 1935, chose to circulate the (tallish) tale that Charles Darrow, an unemployed salesman living in Philadelphia, with no money and no prospects and a wife and two children to support had had a sudden inspiration for a game featuring Atlantic City streets and properties, which he immediately dubbed Monopoly.
When in fact, according to Pilon, Monopoly’s origins can be traced back to 1904 when Elizabeth (Lizzie) Magie was granted a patent for a diversion she called The Landlord’s Game. Magie, who liked to say: ‘I am happy to have been taught how to think but not what to think,’ was an outspoken and independent woman with strong political, anti-monopoly views. It’s somewhat ironic that the game she created as a serious practical example of the immorality of rent gouging, and of land and corporate monopolies, evolved to become Monopoly, a game that encourages all such practices – albeit playfully.
The game that Charles Darrow claimed came to him in a flash of inspiration, fully formed, name and all, was certainly a direct copy (misspelled street names included) of a variation of Magie’s game, which a group of Quakers in Atlantic City devised in the depths of the Great Depression to play among themselves. Already referred to as Monopoly, the Quakers’ version of the game was introduced to Darrow by his neighbour Charles Todd, who had lived in Atlantic City.
As Pilon acknowledges, she owes much to Ralph Anspach, a professor of economics, who unearthed a lot of Monopoly’s early history in the process of defending himself against a trademark infringement lawsuit brought by Parker Brothers. The suit was over his 1974 Anti-Monopoly game and lasted until 1984, when he won after the US Court of Appeals overruled earlier court decisions and declared the trademark ‘Monopoly’ was invalid as the word had become ‘generic’.
Following this ruling, and fearing for the fate of their own well-known marks, other companies joined Parker Brothers in successfully lobbying Congress to revise trademark law. As a result, Monopoly was restored as a valid trademark of Parker Brothers and the case was settled once and for all, with Anspach assigning his Anti-Monopoly trademark to the company, but retaining the ability to use it under licence.
The Monopolists is part exciting legal thriller, part absorbing social history. More important still is that Pilon’s revelations about the origins of Monopoly, and the battles fought to own the game, highlight the need for continuing the debate about whether or not ideas should be treated as property, whose owners may decide who can to use them and on what terms. And whether or not intellectual property laws that exist to protect ideas – trademarks, patents, copyrights etc – help or strangle the creativity and innovation they were designed to promote.
Monopoly may be 80, or it may have been born 126 years ago, but one thing’s for certain: its story, like the game itself, is an evergreen, and it makes a cracking good read today.
The Monopolists by Mary Pilon is published by Bloomsbury at £20