So!! Once upon a time there was a very determined man and there were a lot of odds against him, but he just couldn’t be held back by “The Man,” and he pulled himself up by those bootstraps we’re always hearing so much about, and he figured out a totally honest and admirable way to make himself rich and provide a service that people really, truly wanted, and everything was great and cool forever and ever. That is the story of a book I would never want to read. But, I mean, nobody really needs to write that kind of book anymore; we all know that story like the back of our capitalist hands.
In 2009, Mary Pilon was writing for The Wall Street Journal and wanted to include a line about how we all know the story of Monopoly—the classic origin tale of Charles Darrow, an unemployed and broke man who sold his board game to Parker Brothers during the Great Depression, just the kind of uplifting rags-to-riches story people love to hear. Like so many other stories that fit into archetypal narratives, it was total bullshit.
Charles Darrow was, perhaps, the last person to create the game Monopoly as we know it, but the game had been invented by a woman named Lizzie Magie in the early 1900s. Magie was a writer, an inventor, and an outspoken feminist, and she invented something she called “The Landlord’s Game” and patented it in 1904. Her version included both a “monopolist” set of rules and an “anti-monopolist” set of rules, and it became kind of fashionable with certain prominent public figures like Upton Sinclair.
People made their own boards with their own set of rules and started casually referring to the game as “the monopoly game,” like the Quaker community of Atlantic City, who created a board to reflect their neighborhoods. One such Quaker invited Charles Darrow and his wife over to play their board, and, I mean, I’m sure you can see where this is going: Darrow copied their board, sent it to Parker Brothers, complete with a perfectly packaged revisionist mythology that just so happened to suit the values, aspirations, and beliefs of American society at that time.
Magie’s story might have been lost if it hadn’t been for Ralph Anspach, an economics professor who tried to make his own version of the game called “Anti-Monopoly.” His goal was to have a “better” capitalist board game, one that encouraged players to produce better goods as governments destroyed existing monopolies. Parker Brothers sued for an unauthorized use of the brand name that they owned, but as Anspach and his lawyer quickly found out, it wasn’t even their brand name to begin with. What happened after that? You’ll just have to read The Monopolists, in stores today, to find out!!!
Mary and I spoke about the five years she spent writing this book, the importance of telling Lizze Magie’s story, and—whoops—how much I hate Monopoly.