Monopoly’s Weird Political History

by Jillian Kay Melchior

Monopoly lovers from more than 120 countries chimed in on Hasbro Inc.’s decision to replace one of its tokens with a new one. A cat won the popular vote, but the real winner was the game itself, beloved by millions.

Hasbro reports that more than a billion people have played the game, and more than 275 million Monopoly sets have been sold across the globe.

In its report on the new cat trinket, the Associated Press writes that “the pieces identify the players and have changed quite a lot since Parker Brothers bought the game from its original designer in 1935.” But actually, Charles Darrow, famed for inventing Monopoly, almost certainly plagiarized the idea.

And the story has more to do with politics and economic theory than most players know:

[Darrow] had copied the game from a number of players and enthusiasts who had created similar games — the first of whom designed her game to critique capitalism, not to celebrate it.

Elizabeth “Lizzie” Magie was a devotee of the 19th-century economist Henry George, who wanted to do away with the land-tenure system, arguing that rent-based property only enriched the wealthy and permanently weighed down the poor. To teach this point, Magie created the “Landlord’s Game,” patented in 1904, featuring a rectangular board on which players could land in a poorhouse, in a jail and on land owned by “Lord Blueblood” — trespassing on which would send you to jail. The other tiles were property that could be rented low or bought high. The game revealed that such a system would leave one person the master of wealth and property at the others’ expense.

Magie patented her game twice and tried to sell it to Parker Brothers, but was rejected. Still, certain aspects of her game caught on, and it gained popularity. All told, the game that Darrow claimed to have invented had been strongly influenced by at least a dozen people.

Monopoly’s version of capitalism has an undeniable appeal. No other product for ages eight and up so effectively teaches the same lesson about risk, reward, and the merits of personal property.

And in the end, it appears, even Magie sold out. Parker Brothers caught wiff of a potential problem and bought off all the other prospective inventors. Magie got $500.

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