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24 March 2017
Morning Sedition

Buy Land, ‘Cause They Ain’t Making it No More

Monopoly evokes a unique emotion, the surge of thrill you get when you know you've wiped out a friend.

— Shelly Berman

Early Parker Brother's Monopoly board

Early Parker Brother's Monopoly Board

The board game Monopoly is an institution. It is available in in many variants (link, link link, and link) and even some parodies (Ghettopoly and Anti-monopoly). Versions exist for most major cities, and even for such specialized areas as football, the military, and the space program. Even the Franklin Mint has a version. (You know something has hit the bigtime when the Franklin Mint has an edition.) All teach the joys of unfettered capitalism and world domination, not to mention a little math, too. (I can picture how none of the other children wanted to play monopoly with a young Bill Gates.)

T-Shirt with parod of Monopoly showing Microsoft

Microsoft Monopoly Parody

The "official" origins of Monopoly are on the Hasbro Website, but these are, to be blunt, absolute lies. And therein lies a tale. First, consider the official, and fraudulent, version of the origins:

Today, it's the best-selling board game in the world, sold in 80 countries and produced in 26 languages including Croatian. But where did the game come from? How did this phenomenal pastime get its start? tells the legend best.

It was 1934, the height of the Depression, when Charles B. Darrow of Germantown, Pennsylvania, showed what he called the MONOPOLY game to the executives at Parker Brothers. Can you believe it, they rejected the game due to "52 design errors"! But Mr. Darrow wasn't daunted. Like many other Americans, he was unemployed at the time, and the game's exciting promise of fame and fortune inspired him to produce it on his own.

With help from a friend who was a printer, Mr. Darrow sold 5,000 handmade sets of the game to a Philadelphia department store. People loved it! But as demand grew, he couldn't keep up with all the orders and came back to talk to

History of Monopoly, Hasbro

New York version of Monopoly

New York Version

Parker Brother has always asserted that the inventor of Monopoloy was Charles Darrow. He does, in fact, hold United States Patent number 2,026,082 for it, and the rights to the patent were sold to Parker Brothers. The fact is that Parker Brothers invented a nostalgic history to cover up a fraud. First, the history:

His is a nice little story, with an appropriately capitalist theme. An unemployed Depression-era radiator repairman invents a game in which down-on-their-luck Americans trade pricey properties and connive their way to fantastic riches. The game catches on with a cash-starved public looking for cheap entertainment. The unemployed repairman fills his pockets with wads of real money.

National Public Radio report on Monopoly

The fact is that Darrow had nothing to do with Monopoly, as it is based on an earlier game called the "Landlord's Game" by a Quaker named Elizabeth Magie; she even holds the 1904 United States Patent on the game. (How could Darrow invent a game that had been patented 31 years earlier?) Magie's goal was not entertainment; it was education:

It was from Ralph Anspach, the inventor of Anti-Monopoly, that I learned that Monopoly itself had begun as a critique of the very system it has done so much to promote. The official history of Monopoly, recorded in endless Reader's Digest-like articles, holds that Charles Darrow, an unemployed Philadelphia worker, invented the game in 1933, and sold it to Parker Brothers, who in turn have sold Darrow's pro-business inspiration to the world. Anspach's research shows that the real inventor of Monopoly was Elizabeth Magie, a Quaker follower of the Single Tax economist Henry George. She invented the game in 1903 and called it the Landlord Game; Its squares carried such inspired names as "Lord Blueblood's Estate" and "The Soakum Lighting Co."

A 1925 version of her game, by now called Monopoly, which was made by Louis Thun, states in its Introduction, "Monopoly is designed to show the evil resulting from the institution of private property. At the start of the game, every player is provided with the same chance of success as every other player. The game ends with one person in possession of all the money. What accounts for the failure of the rest, and what one factor can be singled out to explain the obviously ill-adjusted distribution of the community's wealth, which this situation represents? Those who win will answer 'skill'. Those who lose will answer 'luck'. But maybe there will be some, and these, while admitting the element of skill and luck, will answer with Scott Nearing [a socialist writer of the time] 'private property.'"

BALLBUSTER? True Confessions of a Marxist Businessman by Bertell Ollman

New York version of Monopoly

Original "Get Out of Jail Free" Card

Magie's version is surprisingly similar to the game we know today:

The board for Lizzie Magie's game bears a striking resemblance to the one now labeled "Monopoly", except that names, drawings, colors and the like are different. It is painted with blocks for rental properties such as "Poverty Place" (land rent $50), "Easy Street" (land rent $100) and "Lord Blueblood's Estate " ("no trespassing - go to jail"). There are banks, a poorhouse, and railroads and utilities such as the "Soakum Lighting System" ($50 for landing on that) and the "PDQ Railroad" ("fare $100"). And of course there is the well known "Jail" block.

The properties on Lizzie Magie's board were for rent only, not acquisition. Otherwise, the game was played much like the Monopoly of today.

Adena's History of Monopoly

When a Quaker from Indianapolis moved to Atlantic City in New Jersey, she customized Magie's version for her new surroundings. Players typically manufactured their own boards, pieces, and cards, so customizing was only a minor step beyond copying. It makes sense that when he went to Parker Brothers he would claim that the Atlantic City variant — the only one he'd seen — was his creation.

Since the game was being played in Atlantic City, it no longer made any sense to have properties named after places in Indianapolis or parts of Pennsylvania.

The discussion came up that the names were for the most part unknown to us ... Why not use Atlantic City names? ... We named them out in honor of people who belonged to our group. For instance, well, Boardwalk was first. Everybody knows that, Boardwalk. But the Joneses were living on Park Place and the Claridge was being built across the street and the Marlborough Blenheim was right there. That was obviously a very expensive part of the town and one that we wanted to honor.

"We were living on Pennsylvania Avenue ... The Copes lived on Virginia Avenue at the Morton Hotel ... So it developed gradually.

"... I know that there were the utilities and I know that the four railroads were there ... We had 'Free Parking' and we had 'Go to Jail' and we had tickets to get out of jail and you got $200 as you passed 'Go'."

Adena's History of Monopoly

What's interesting about Monopoly is how it was a boon for both Darrow's and Parker Brothers' fortunes. Darrow ended up a millionaire and Parker Brothers continues to reap huge rewards, even though their patent and copyrights have long expired. All from a game they didn't invent. But much of the success is due to George Parker's considerable business acumen:

In accordance with his ninth principle—bet heavily when the odds are long in your favor—George Parker urged [Parker Brothers President Robert] Barton to put all the company's resources behind the Monopoly game and forget making other games. It was better to apply everything Parker Brothers owned to maximize Monopoly shipments given the marketplace's insatiable appetite for the game. He was convinced that every dollar wagered would return a windfall. Unlike his vacillation with Mah-Jongg, this time he would not hesitate and give his opponents a chance to compete. He would redeem himself.

The "flood" began after New Year's Day. The post-Christmas trickle of orders for the Monopoly game turned into a torrent. It seemed that every Monopoly game purchased for Christmas had been played by many people—all of whom wanted their own copy, no matter what their financial plight. So many orders for the Monopoly game arrived in the mail and by telegraph that the firm had to store them in wicker laundry baskets in the hallways. All the workers sent home in December were quickly rehired.

How Parker Bros. Created Monopoly Mania, by Philip Orbanes

New York version of Monopoly

Redesign of Monopoly money ala US Currency to prevent counterfeiting

Not everyone, however is a fan. Not only does the game encourage bad behavior, but it presents a distorted view of how economies function:

The problem is that the game seriously misrepresents how an actual market economy operates. To review, in the free market, Mises wrote, "Neither the entrepreneurs nor the farmers nor the capitalists determine what has to be produced. The consumers do that. . . . Their buying and their abstention from buying decides who should own and run the plants and the farms. They make poor people rich and rich people poor. They determine precisely what should be produced, in what quality, and in what quantities. They are merciless bosses, full of whims and fancies, changeable and unpredictable."

That’s the real world. In the game Monopoly, owners of land and houses and hotels, through acquiring their possessions by luck, are flattered into believing they are masters of the universe, extracting profits from anyone who passes their way. There is no consumer choice and no consumer sovereignty. This is not a small detail. The entire raison d’etre of the market is missing, and thus the real goal and the guide of all production in a market economy.

Consumer choice is replaced by a roll of the dice. The player then becomes passive. Landing on property owned by another person creates not a mutual gain but a loss. In this way, trade is portrayed as "zero-sum." The elimination of consumer choice leads to the belief that businesses profit only at the consumers’ expense.

...

Monopoly may be fun to play but it leaves us with two unpleasant choices. The game either misrepresents the nature of trade in a market economy, or if slightly reinterpreted it glorifies rent seeking by making it the object of the game.

Monopoly: Parker Brothers Gets It Wrong, by Benjamin Powell and David Skarbek

Sources and Further Reading

  1. Detailed History of Monopoly
  2. History of Monopoly
  3. All things Monopoly
  4. National Public Radio report on Monopoly
  5. Collectable Variants
  6. Collectable Variants (large collection)
  7. Collectable Variants (large collection)
  8. Collectable Variants (older games)
  9. Ghettopoly
  10. Anti-monopoly
  11. Probability Analysis for Each Property
  12. Straight Dope piece on variants of official rules
  13. Animated Probability Analysis for Each Property
  14. Redesign of money ala US Currency

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