The true story behind the board game Monopoly

For decades, Parker Brothers, the game company, liked to claim that the game Monopoly was invented by “a plucky entrepreneur named Charles Darrow in the middle of the Depression,” author Steven Berlin Johnson explains. But in fact, Monopoly began more than thirty years earlier, with a game patented in 1903 by a brilliant and multitalented political radical named Lizzie Magie. It was called The Landlord’s Game.

Born in Illinois in 1866, Magie had an eclectic and ambitious career. She worked at various points as a stenographer, poet, and journalist. She invented a device that made typewriters more efficient, and worked part-time as an actress on the stage. For a long time, her greatest claim to fame came through an act of political performance art, placing a mock advertisement in a local paper that put herself on the market as a “young woman American slave” — protesting the oppressive wage gap between male and female salaries.

Magie was also a devotee of the then-influential economist Henry George, who had argued in his bestselling 1879 book Progress and Poverty for an annual “land-value tax” on all land held as private property — high enough to obviate the need for other taxes on income or production. Many progressive thinkers and activists of the period integrated “Georgist” proposals for single-tax plans into their political platforms and stump speeches. But only Lizzie Magie appears to have decided that radical tax reform might make compelling subject matter for a board game.

As Johnson explains, Darrow would eventually be immortalized as the sole inventor of Monopoly, but was actually one of the great charlatans in gaming history. “Without altering the rules in any meaningful way, Darrow redesigned the board with the help of an illustrator named Franklin Alexander, and struck deals to sell it through the Wanamaker’s department store in Philadelphia and through FAO Schwarz. Before long, Darrow had sold the game to Parker Brothers in a deal that would make him a multimillionaire.”

In unrelated Monopoly news, a World War II intelligence officer named Christopher Clayton Hutton used Monopoly to smuggle escape plans and tools to prisoners in German POW camps.

Games like Monopoly were often allowed in the prison camps, as Germans believed it was a diversion for soldiers who might otherwise use their free time to plot escapes. Unbeknownst to them, some prisoners were actually receiving contraband within the game sets like silk maps—which could help them navigate to safety once outside of the prisons, and were quieter than paper maps. Along with the maps, the Monopoly boards could contain a small compass, a saw, and a file. Real money could even be concealed with the play money of the game.

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