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'Throughline': There's more to the board game Monopoly than you might think

Monopoly is one of the best-selling board games in history — sales went up during the COVID-19 pandemic. The game is built on powerful American lore: anyone can rise from rags to riches.

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Transcript:

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

As inflation has increased to a 40-year high, home prices and rent has been on the mind of many Americans. And it just so happens that wealth, rent and land are topics many people first learn about when they play the game Monopoly. Today, Rund Abdelfatah and Ramtin Arablouei at NPR's history podcast Throughline take a look at one of the bestselling board games in history. It turns out, there's more to passing go than people think.

(SOUNDBITE OF FIRE CRACKLING)

RUND ABDELFATAH, BYLINE: It's 1879 in a small town in Illinois, where 13-year-old Lizzie Magie is curled up next to the fire with a book her father gave her.

UNIDENTIFIED VOICE ACTOR #1: (As Lizzie Magie) "Progress And Poverty" by Henry George.

ABDELFATAH: Lizzie had to stop going to school. Her family was struggling, never having recovered from the recession six years earlier. And as she dives into this book, the world begins to make a little more sense to her.

UNIDENTIFIED VOICE ACTOR #1: (As Lizzie Magie) The great cause of inequality in the distribution of wealth is inequality in the ownership of land. The ownership of land is the great fundamental fact which ultimately determines the social, the political and, consequentially, the intellectual and moral condition.

ABDELFATAH: She's there, but not really there. The words transport her.

MARY PILON: It's really important to understand that the United States after the Civil War. At this time, there was an incredible amount of wealth being created that hadn't been seen in this country anymore. And you had a very - you had a handful of people who were controlling it.

ABDELFATAH: This is Mary Pilon, author of "The Monopolists: Obsession, Fury, And The Scandal Behind The World's Favorite Board Game."

PILON: And George was asking questions about - all this money is now coming in. Our country was ripped apart. And now it's - you know, we're rebuilding. And how does - how is it distributed? And what is the government's role in, you know, taking a cut? Or, you know, how does that pan out?

RAMTIN ARABLOUEI, BYLINE: A growing number of Americans were fed up with the monopolies of the so-called Gilded Age - railroads, sugar, oil - and the growing riches of the elite few - the Vanderbilts, Carnegies and Rockefellers.

ABDELFATAH: Among those fed up was Lizzie's dad, James Magie, a staunch progressive who traveled with Abraham Lincoln during the Lincoln-Douglas debates.

UNIDENTIFIED VOICE ACTOR #1: (As Lizzie Magie) Ownership of land is the great, fundamental fact.

ABDELFATAH: He strongly believed in the ideas Lizzie was reading about and understood that whoever owned the land made the profits and maintained all the power. And he made sure that his daughter Lizzie knew it, too - not just by giving her books, but by encouraging her to live a life that transcended the societal norms of the time. And she did.

PILON: So she was absolutely a trailblazer.

ABDELFATAH: As an adult, Lizzie kept going back to the ideas of Henry George, to the book her father gave her. She became friends with Henry George's son and became the secretary of the Woman's Single Tax Club of Washington, a club dedicated to advancing George's central theory on how to solve inequality.

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PILON: So the single tax theory - the general idea was that you had a land value tax, also known as a single tax. And the general idea is to tax land and only land. So then that shifts the tax burden to wealthy landlords. Anybody who lives in New York or Los Angeles or a high-rent neighborhood, I'm sure, is kind of nodding their head at that.

ABDELFATAH: Nodding head.

PILON: And that message really resonated with Americans in the late 1800s because poverty and squalor are very much on display in urban centers. It's about income inequality. It's about, how do we tax people? How are the wealthy treated? What are we doing for those who are in poverty?

ARABLOUEI: With the single tax theory in mind, Lizzie Magie invented what she called The Landlord's Game, the very first version of Monopoly.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

PILON: And she creates The Landlord's Game as a teaching tool - because it's one thing to read about these ideas. But a game is a really wonderful way to teach someone something.

(SOUNDBITE OF DICE RATTLING)

PILON: When you look at the 1904 Landlord's Game patent, it's striking how similar it is to what we know as Monopoly today.

UNIDENTIFIED VOICE ACTOR #1: (As Lizzie Magie) The object of the game is to obtain as much wealth or money as possible. When a player stops upon a lot owned by another player, he must pay the rent to the owner. The player who has the largest sum total is the winner.

ABDELFATAH: The board game was a hit. It spread like wildfire and players started coming up with hometown versions, changing the rules to fit where and how they lived. But this also meant Lizzie wasn't making any money or fame from it.

ARABLOUEI: Enter Charles Darrow, who lived just outside Atlantic City, where the game was especially popular. It was the Great Depression. Darrow was unemployed. And after playing the game with some friends, he decided it might be his ticket to a better life. So he tweaked the game a bit and eventually pitched his version to the game companies Milton Bradley and Parker Brothers.

PILON: And he claims that he invented it.

ARABLOUEI: Both turned him down. They basically thought it was too complicated. But a few months later, Parker Brothers came back and said, wait; we do want to do it.

PILON: Parker Brothers is a company that is on the brink of destruction, like many companies. And they need a hit, and they need it fast. And so they started selling Monopoly. And they're just as surprised as anybody that this game sells like gangbusters.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

UNIDENTIFIED VOICE ACTOR #2: In its first year, 1935, the Monopoly game was the bestselling game in America. The rest, as they say, is history.

ARABLOUEI: Darrow became the face of Monopoly, along with his supposed rags-to-riches story.

PILON: So the story is all over the place. And Lizzie Magie catches wind of it. And she does not take this quietly. She calls up reporters, and she does these interviews where she is holding up her games. And she says, I have patents. I made this game.

ARABLOUEI: Parker Brothers catches wind of Lizzie's noise. They get in touch and offer her $500 for the patent to The Landlord's Game, which is roughly 10 grand today.

PILON: But there's no evidence they acknowledged her really as the inventor at all. She dies in 1948 with this, like, itty-bitty little obituary that you have to really look for.

ARABLOUEI: There wasn't a single mention of Monopoly in her obituary.

PILON: And Charles Darrow gets, like, The New York Times treatment, hailing him as the inventor when he passes, you know, decades later. I think the Darrow myth has a lot of resilience baked into it. Like, one of the themes of that story is if you work hard, you will - you'll get rich. You'll innovate. You'll make something that will heal the world and heal yourself.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

PILON: Depending on how you look at it, Monopoly is either the American dream or the American nightmare.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.