Monopoly Was Designed to Teach the 99% About Income Inequality

By Mary Pilon for smithsonianmag.com

In the 1930s, at the height of the Great Depression, a down-on-his-luck family man named Charles Darrow invented a game to entertain his friends and loved ones, using an oilcloth as a playing surface. He called the game Monopoly, and when he sold it to Parker Brothers he became fantastically rich—an inspiring Horatio Alger tale of homegrown innovation if ever there was one. 

Or is it? I spent five years researching the game’s history for my new book, The Monopolists: Obsession, Fury, and the Scandal Behind the World’s Favorite Board Game, and found that Monopoly’s story began decades earlier, with an all-but-forgotten woman named Lizzie Magie, an artist, writer, feminist and inventor.

Monopoly Was Designed to Teach the 99% About Income Inequality

The story you’ve heard about the creation of the famous board game is far from true

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Some of the game’s early tokens doubled as prizes in Cracker Jack boxes. (Tony French / Alamy)

By Mary PilonSMITHSONIAN MAGAZINE |
JANUARY 2015749571K

In the 1930s, at the height of the Great Depression, a down-on-his-luck family man named Charles Darrow invented a game to entertain his friends and loved ones, using an oilcloth as a playing surface. He called the game Monopoly, and when he sold it to Parker Brothers he became fantastically rich—an inspiring Horatio Alger tale of homegrown innovation if ever there was one. 

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The Monopolists: Obsession, Fury, and the Scandal Behind the World’s Favorite Board GameBUY

Or is it? I spent five years researching the game’s history for my new book, The Monopolists: Obsession, Fury, and the Scandal Behind the World’s Favorite Board Game, and found that Monopoly’s story began decades earlier, with an all-but-forgotten woman named Lizzie Magie, an artist, writer, feminist and inventor.

Magie worked as a stenographer and typist at the Dead Letter Office in Washington, D.C., a repository for the nation’s lost mail. But she also appeared in plays, and wrote poetry and short stories. In 1893, she patented a gadget that fed different-sized papers through a typewriter and allowed more type on a single page. And in 1904, Magie received a patent for an invention she called the Landlord’s Game, a square board with nine rectangular spaces on each side, set between corners labeled “Go to Jail” and “Public Park.” Players circled the board buying up railroads, collecting money and paying rent. She made up two sets of rules, “monopolist” and “anti-monopolist,” but her stated goal was to demonstrate the evils of accruing vast sums of wealth at the expense of others. A firebrand against the railroad, steel and oil monopolists of her time, she told a reporter in 1906, “In a short time, I hope a very short time, men and women will discover that they are poor because Carnegie and Rockefeller, maybe, have more than they know what to do with.” 

Read more here.

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