How Henry George’s Principles Were Corrupted Into the Game Called Monopoly

Edward J. Dodson, December, 2011

History is filled with surprising stories of how people and ideas are connected. One such story is that of the origins of the most popular board game in modern history. It’s an American classic: each new generation of Monopoly players learns to love (harmlessly) indulging its cutthroat, ruthless, greedy impulses. Players begin the game as equals. Luck — and a bit of strategy — eventually enables one player to dominate all others. That player ends up amassing a huge fortune in cash and real estate. Most Monopoly players don’t know (or care) that this game was originally the product of a passion for social and economic justice. In the late 1800s, a young woman named Elizabeth Magie was introduced to the writings of Henry George by her father. She eventually became one of many people who took on the task of trying to teach others what she had learned from studying Progress and Poverty and George’s other works.

Collaborating with friends in her Brentwood, Maryland community, Elizabeth Magie created The Landlord’s Game. She applied for a patent, which was granted on January 5th, 1904 (No. 748,626). She explained that the game was to be a “practical demonstration of the present system of land-grabbing with all its usual outcomes and consequences.”

While still a young, single woman, Elizabeth — or “Lizzie” as she came to be called — became a regular visitor to the Single Tax enclave of Arden, Delaware. This was around 1903. Whether on her own or in conjunction with other Single Taxers in Arden, Lizzie continued to work on the design of The Landlord’s Game as a way to explain how Henry George’s system of political economy would work in real life.

Arden landmarks: Stephen’s Theater and the Craft Shop. For a close-up look at the game board used in Arden, Click here.

In 1906, Elizabeth moved to Chicago, Illinois, where she met, and in 1910 married, Albert Phillips. I have not been able to find any reference to Albert as a follower of Henry George, but evidently he was sympathetic to his wife’s efforts. At some point in 1906 Elizabeth and a number of other followers of Henry George established the Economic Game Company of New York, which published The Landlord’s Game.

Sometime soon thereafter Elizabeth and Albert moved to Clarendon, Virginia, in the Washington D.C area and eventually patented a new edition of The Landlord’s Game in 1924 (No. 1,509,312) under her married name of Elizabeth Magie Phillips. This new edition, published by the Washington, DC firm, Adgame Company, appeared in 1932 and included named streets and other changes in the appearance of the board. More importantly, the new edition included a second, alternative, set of rules and a second name for the game, Prosperity.

Connections with Academe

Around 1900, Scott Nearing was introduced to The Landlord’s Game by either Lizzie Magie or other residents of Arden. He was at the time a full-time resident of Arden. Nearing went on to become a member of the economics department at the University of Pennsylvania in 1906, where he used The Landlord’s Game in his teaching. His support of Henry George’s proposals to raise pubic revenue exclusively from those who owned land, and his opposition to child labor, caused him to be dismissed from the university in 1915.

Burton H. Wolfe, in “The Monopolization of Monopoly” (San Francisco Bay Guardian, 1976), says that “Nearing played The Landlord’s Game with his brother, Guy Nearing, who lived in the Henry George single tax community of Arden, Delaware.” Then:

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”.

Burton Wolfe also tells us that a young Rexford E. Tugwell was one of the players. One of Tugwell’s own students, Priscilla Robertson — long-time editor of The Humanist — provided the following details on the early history of the game: “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.” (I am obliged to note here the considerable misrepresentation of the objectives pursued by Single Taxers who shared Henry George’s principles. Defeating monopoly in all its forms (but, particularly, monopoly of nature), not capitalism, was — and is — the cause embraced then and today.)

Other writers note the game was played by students at Princeton University and Haverford College. Changes were made to the board design, gathering the properties into groups, allowing buildings to be added to the locations and increasing the amount of rent charged based on the number of like properties owned.

By the late 1920s, the version of the game being played by college students and others had evolved quite a bit from Elizabeth’s design. The game was now generally referred to as “Monopoly.” A young student at Williams College (Reading, Pennsylvania) produced a commercial version under the name Finance, but the game was essentially Monopoly. Then, a woman named Ruth Hoskins who learned the game in Indianapolis moved to Atlantic City, New Jersey and supposedly created the version that included the Atlantic City street names.

Then the plot thickens. The game was introduced by Eugene (Colonel) and Ruth Raiford, friends of Ruth Hoskins, to Charles Todd, who lived in Germantown, Pennsylvania; and, Charles Todd then introduced the game to Charles and Esther Darrow. Eugene Raiford, Charles Todd and Esther Jones Darrow all attended the Quaker Westtown School from 1911 to 1914 or 1915. The subsequent connection with Atlantic City occurred because of the close association of the Westtown School with the Atlantic City Friends’ School. As Todd later recalled: “The first people we taught it to after learning it … was Darrow and his wife Esther. …It was entirely new to them…. Darrow asked me if I would write up the rules and regulations and I wrote them up … and gave them to Darrow.”

Enter Charles Darrow and Parker Brothers

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 in 1933. The familiar cardboard board, packaged in a white box, was produced and sold locally in Philadelphia. In 1935, Darrow submitted the game to the US Patent Office and was granted a patent. 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.

Challenges to Monopoly’s Monopoly

Much of the credit for the recent interest in The Landlord’s Game, Elizabeth Magie Phillips and the connection to Henry George’s social and economic philosophy belongs to Ralph Anspach.

In 1973, while on the economics faculty of San Francisco State University, Professor Anspach designed a new game, which he called Anti-Monopoly. When Anspach’s game began to compete with Monopoly on store shelves, General Mills (successor to Parker Brothers) filed a lawsuit against Proessor Anspach for patent infringement. A decade-long legal battle ensued during which the lower court actually ordered thousands of copies of Anti-Monopoly destroyed.

Professor Anspach presented the historical evidence revealing that Charles Darrow essentially taken the game virtually without change in the design or rules from the version produced by Charles Todd. The details of the legal battle to regain ownership rights is provided at the Anti-Monopoly website.

Getting back to Elizabeth Magie Phillips

References to Elizabeth’s endeavors appear in Georgist periodicals. In a 1926 issue of Land and Freedom, it was announced that “a group of Single Taxers contemplates a new and improved edition of the Landlord’s Game.” Elizabeth also remained an active Single Taxer, and in 1931 was a delegate to the Henry George Congress held in Baltimore, Maryland during October.

Parker Brothers purchased Elizabeth’s patent in 1932 for $500, under condition that Parker Brothers would continue to publish The Landlord’s Game as well as Monopoly. Burton Wolfe describes a meeting the Parker Brothers President, Robert Barton and Elizabeth:

So, Barton met with Lizzie Magie, he testified, and asked her if she would accept changes in her game. According to Barton’s recollection, she replied like this: “No. This is to teach the Henry George theory of single taxation, and I will not have my game changed in any way whatsoever.” For John Droeger of San Francisco, the lawyer taking his deposition, Barton explained why in his opinion Lizzie Magie answered that way: “She was a rabid Henry George single tax advocate, a real evangelist; and these people never change.

In a January 1936 interview in The Washington Star, Elizabeth was asked “how she felt about getting only $500 for her patent and no royalties ever. She replied that it was all right with her “if she never made a dime so long as the Henry George single tax idea was spread to the people of the country.”

A third edition of The Landlord’s Game was published by Parker Brothers in 1939, but the company did nothing to promote it. In fact, the game was almost immediately recalled from stores and almost every unsold copy destroyed. Today, very few copies survive. Consistent with the agreement with Elizabeth, the game came with two sets of rules. However, only the rules copyrighted by Parker Brothers were actually sold with the game. Purchases were required to contact Elizabeth Magie Phillips to obtain the alternative rules. Remarkably, Elizabeth’s rules were made available by Hasbro on the company’s website.

An essay written by Elizabeth appeared in the September-October 1940 issue of Land and Freedom, under the title “A Word to the Wise.” Even in her declining years, she was urging surviving Single Taxers to action:

What is the value of our philosophy if we do not do our utmost to apply it? To simply know a thing is not enough. To merely speak or write of it occasionally among ourselves is not enough. We must do something about it on a large scale if we are to make headway. These are critical times, and drastic action is needed. To make any worthwhile impression on the multitude, we must go in droves into the sacred precincts of the men we are after. We must not only tell them, but show them just how and why and where our claims can be proven in some actual situation….

Elizabeth Magie Phillips died in 1948 in Arlington, Virginia.

Fast-Forward to History Detectives

In 2004, a long-time resident of Arden, Delaware contacted the producers of the television program History Detectives asking for help identifying the history of a wooden game board that had been in his family since the early 1900s. Researching the origins of The Landlord’s Game brought the History Detectives to Philadelphia to interview Dan Sullivan, then Director of the Philadelphia Henry George School, regarding the connection between the game’s design and objectives and the teachings of Henry George. Unfortunately, this episode of History Detectives — broadcast on 28 June, 2004 — is not available for viewing at the program’s website. The episode has been rebroadcast from time to time. Watch for it.

For More Information on The Landlord’s Game and Monopoly

Thomas Forsyth is one of the most knowledgeable collectors of the original game boards and pieces related to The Landlord’s Game. He has compiled a detailed history of the game, which can be examined at The Landlord’s Game.

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