How Author Mary Pilon Found the Woman Inventor of What Became Monopoly

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How Author Mary Pilon Found the Woman Inventor of What Became Monopoly

We’ve all heard the story of how Monopoly was invented in the depths of the Great Depression by Charles Darrow, a man down on his luck—until he started tinkering with a board game inspired by happier days in Atlantic City…

Sadly, it’s bunk. But as Mary Pilon’s The Monopolists: Obsession, Fury, and the Scandal Behind America’s Favorite Board Game details, the truth is even more fascinating.

You see, what would evolve into Monopoly was actually invented in 1903 as the Landlord’s Game. Its author was a woman, Lizzie Magie, who wanted to protest monopolies and promote the economic theories of “single tax” advocate Henry George (who held that nothing but property should be taxed, the idea being land should be a communal good but anything you create is yours). The game would spread across the Northeast and Midwest in university towns and other liberal enclaves, including the Quaker community of Atlantic City, who introduced their own modifications. One person would teach another on handmade boards, until finally somebody taught Darrow—who was broke and at his wit’s end, trying to figure out how to get the expensive care his disabled son needed. He enlisted a talented illustrator to create the board you’d recognize today and sold the whole thing to Parker Brothers.

Pilon interweaves the story of the game’s origins with that of Ralph Anspach, a professor who—not knowing the first thing about Lizzie Magie—invented his own political, educational board game and named it Anti-Monopoly. Then came the cease and desist letter from Parker Brothers, which got Anspach digging.

I chatted with Pilon about how she uncovered all this, why we don’t remember Magie and the sheer volume of shit you just can’t find on Wikipedia.

How did you come to the project? How did the book happen?

It was a total accident. This was in 2009, 2010; I was writing about business at the Wall Street Journal, and I had grown up loving games, puzzles, all of that, and history. I had this throwaway line in a totally unrelated story about Monopoly being invented during the Great Depression. And I thought, well, everybody knows it was invented during the Great Depression. So I was looking around and looking around, and it wasn’t adding up and I was totally frustrated. I’m writing about derivatives and I can’t get the Monopoly story right? What’s wrong with me?

So I came across Ralph Anspach and his lawsuit. I’m an advocate of the reporter trick of calling counterparties in lawsuits, because often if you sue somebody or you’ve been sued by somebody, you do a lot of research. I contacted Ralph on a whim and I said, “Hey, I know this is crazy, but I’m a reporter at the Journal and I’m just trying to find out the truth about Monopoly.” He wrote back right away. He started talking about his lawsuit and Lizzie and what happened in the 30s with Darrow. And I just was like, Oh my gosh. So I completely stumbled into this by accident.

I ended up writing the original story for the Journal about Ralph and his lawsuit. And then usually, when you’re done with a story you’re so sick of it, but this time I had more questions. I wanted to know more about who this woman was, I wanted to know more about what happened. I just kept reporting out what eventually became the book proposal and then eventually the book.

I love it when you try to nail down a basic fact and it turns out to be something amazing. There’s so many things people take for granted because it’s on Wikipedia and then you do a little digging and it’s not the case at all.

Right. It’s funny you mention Wikipedia. This book was such an interesting research process for me, because I love doing narrative investigative work. I love talking to people, I love finding things in closets and corners and nooks and crannies and things that aren’t on the Internet. And in journalism, so much is happening in real time that that process is kind of a given, especially if you’re in a more traditional newsroom. With this, most of the people I was writing about were dead. So it was a lot more solitary gathering process. And it was amazing to me how, as much as the Internet has given us—and there were aspects of this research that were made so much easier because of things like U.S. census records being digitized and and Google Books—I think there’s this idea today that if knowledge doesn’t exist on Google, it doesn’t exist. And I would say the vast majority of my book was stuff that either wasn’t on Google or didn’t exist before. It was also a very humbling reminder that even when we think we know everything we often know, like, nothing.

Yeah, there are just reams of newspapers that haven’t been digitized and there’s gold in there.

Right, right. There’s Ralph—his archives were the backbone of the book and what he did in the ’70s was he went around and interviewed people—the depositions and things he had for the case we wouldn’t have had otherwise. He had a problem in the 70s with a lot of people having passed away. I mean, imagine if I’d tried to do it. And he found all these boards and things that were sitting in people’s closets. This was information that even then wasn’t out there and now it’s even harder to get. The history of the game is frankly indebted to him and his lawsuit because if it hadn’t happened, I don’t know that the story would have gotten out or gotten out the way it did.

How did you go about the research for this? Ralph was your entry point?

After the story ran (and I had interviewed him and did what I could here in New York), a few months later I flew out to San Francisco on my own dime, on vacation days, stayed with family, and met with Ralph. At the time he had this tiny apartment downtown, and he had said, “I have documents.” Often when you’re a reporter and somebody says “I have documents” like Deep Throat, there’s no there there. You listen to everybody and you want to take everybody seriously, but I’m just so cynical about when people say these things. So I show up and he just has boxes of depositions and recordings and photographs and newspaper clippings and things that just make your investigative journalist heart sing. Because once you have documents—everything he was saying was being substantiated and if anything he was underselling some parts of his story.

I said Ralph, per Wall Street Journal/New York Times policies I can never pay you, I can never give you editorial control, but would you be comfortable with me going through these documents? And he said yes, I have nothing to hide, I’m happy to have you go through them and walk you through things. Because his case ended in ’83 and he had written about it, but even today the vast majority of people still think the game started in the Great Depression. So he was pretty transparent about, “I want my story out there and I want this story out there.”

So I Fedexed those documents to myself in New York City and I’ve moved several times and they’re still in my apartment. I started going through them little by little. Structuring the book was really hard, but I started with what I had, which were these depositions. There were little details in them that I started reporting out because Ralph just wouldn’t have been interested in them. For example, the history of Atlantic City and the Quaker descriptions of what it was like to live there. From a legal standpoint that wasn’t going to be interesting, but to me, as somebody who was trying paint a picture, that was interesting. Ralph knew about Lizzie Magie and he knew she invented the game, but I wanted to write almost a mini biography of her, because I felt she was the lifeblood of the story. Any detail I had in his documents about her I started to really dive into and go further.

I knew she was a single taxer; I didn’t know what that meant, I didn’t know who Henry George was, I didn’t know what he was about. So I just started going off in tangents. Something else that Ralph’s court files didn’t have was the early history of Parker Brothers and board games, so the whole sequence of the book in the 1800s, that was somewhere I felt like I needed context. A lot of these documents needed context. With Lizzie’s section in particular, I went, one, with figuring out based on census records, ancestry records, what news clippings I could get of her, where she was when, the basics of her life, a timeline. Then I went through again—I was like, I don’t know what any of this means. What did it mean for a woman to be patenting something in 1904? I needed to do more research on women inventors.

But the very first thing I did was make a timeline. It was a Google Doc, and any time I found a document whether it was Ralph in the 70s or Lizzie at the turn of the century and especially in the 30s, where the order of events becomes really important with the Parker Brothers deal, I just had to have straight in my head how things went chronologically. That was definitely the first thing to do because it was so unwieldy. There was just so information.

Every page there was some tangent that could’ve been its own book—like the single-tax communities in places like Fairhope, Alabama.

I did background research and it just hit the cutting room floor because, again, I needed context. I needed to understand it. And then Joseph Fels, the guy who financed it, the soap magnate, I have a biography of him and he’s super interesting. But I had to focus on the game. The game itself isn’t a character but, I thought of The Red Violin or The Orchid Thief or Cod, which is another book that my editor at Bloomsbury did. When you have a book about a thing, the trick is to make it not about the thing. It’s about the people who’ve been impacted by it. So that was definitely a struggle—tapering down what actually had to do with the game and what didn’t.

It was so interesting the way Lizzie Magie invented this Landlord’s game and it clearly had some legs, given its popularity in Northeastern intellectual circles and so forth. But she never seemed to make much money off it. Why do you think she didn’t make it big?

There’s a few things. One is access. When you look at how board games were manufactured at the turn of the century and in the 30s, a lot of things happened. They became cheaper to make, which is something that she would benefited from. Another thing is, one of the reasons the 1935 version of the game is so great is it was product tested. Her game wasn’t perfect. The big group that should get a lot of credit are the Quakers of Atlantic City. They took her game that was very much a teaching tool and some critics might say its a little bit wonky, and they made it really accessible. They made it easier for kids to play.

A couple of weeks ago at the NYU Game Center we played auction Monopoly, which is the pre-Quaker version, where every time you land on a property it goes up for auction. And it’s really confusing, and it is a very different game. It’s fun, but it’s different. When you play that, you’re like, the fixed prices actually do make the game a lot simpler. So I think one of the reasons her game didn’t take off right away is it hadn’t yet done its best work. It needed a little bit of tweaking. And that to me is one of the big takeaways of the book. We love lightbulb moments, we love invention stories. But the truth is, one of the groups I hear from a lot regarding this book are tech people. They can attest to this, too. The iPhone isn’t made by one person overnight. There’s trial and error, there’s messing around, it’s a collaborative effort.

So I think her original patent lays out the foundation, but it still needed to fumble around a little bit to get to the more mass-marketed version.

It’s such a great story and people have clearly been trying to tell it since the 30s, practically. Why don’t we remember her? Why has her story taken so long to come out?

First of all, I think the Darrow story, even if it’s not entirely true, is a beautiful story. So she’s got that going against her. It’s an amazing story, and we naturally just really want to believe it. That’s a really strong headwind right there.

The other thing I tried to do in Lizzie’s story was read about how women were written about and treated in the teens, 20s, 30s. I mean, there’s overt sexism. You find that all over the place. I quote some newspaper in there, this idea that women’s brains aren’t as big as men. All this stuff that you and i know is completely hooey.

But I also think there’s something else going on, which is that women were just dismissed. They weren’t taken seriously. And I only have really written about sports and Wall Street, so you don’t have to tell me about gender inequality. So she could have an idea but because it was coming from her, it just wouldn’t have mattered, I think is a huge headwind in her story. It was easy to cast her aside, because of broader societal forces that had nothing to do with her, decisions she made. And by the time the Monopoly craze comes out, too, she’s an older woman.

And one of the things about the [Parker Brothers president Robert] Barton deposition that I thought was so striking is when he’s talking about Lizzie Magie forty years later, he talks about her politics and he’s just like, “Ugh.” The idea that she was politically outspoken I think made her a little bit more polarizing. But it’s clear that her politics were her core. Because of her father, it was very engrained. But the idea that she was really politically motivated made her maybe a little bit more dangerous or edgy than somebody who was just a nice guy who was trying to make a game. She had a lot of forces against her.

And, look, today, Hasbro still hasn’t commented for the book. So it’s a raw nerve. What’s unfortunate about that to me is I think the true story is a great story. I love that the game originated this way and had this interesting evolution.

It’s surprising her story’s out at all, quite frankly, I think.

Do you have a pet theory for why it blew up when it did?

There’s a perfect storm. One thing is board games are unusual in that they do well in recessions and downturns. They’re a cheap form of entertainment. That has proven to be the case since Monopoly, too—since 2008, there’ve been a lot more interesting games. The fact that it became more accessible, I think, is huge. In the folk game days people just made their own boards but if you can just walk into a store and buy one at a reasonable price, that changes things, too. The Darrow story and the campaigning behind it and the push by Parker Brothers made a big difference.

But I also think, to get a little metaphysical for a second, that board games, part of the reason I love them is that they give us a context to do what we can’t do in real life. They’re role-playing devices, really, when you think about it. Prior to the Landlord’s Game and Monopoly, people weren’t really as interested in finance and real estate board games. They thought they were just too technical and they weren’t going to be as interesting. But at a time when the economy was collapsing, I think the idea of being able to play with money and be a real estate baron—unless you’re Donald Trump, that’s something most of us don’t get to do every day. so i think that really spoke to people in the 30s. Now we kind of joke about it and think it’s funny and kids get a kick out of it but I think then, there was some reality to it being a powerful thing to people.

Have you gotten any response from Parker Brothers/Hasbro?

No, and I get that, to be honest. Hasbro acquired Parker Brothers in 1991, and the vast majority of the book takes place before then, so I can see why they wouldn’t be as interested. It’s not the first time that a company has declined to comment to a journalist.

I was really interested in giving people voices when I could. So the Parker Brothers history, the Darrow story, Barton—it was lucky because they were prominent enough, there was a lot of stuff out there. They had been written about, they had given interviews. And they are long-since deceased. So I still tried really, really hard to give people on the board game side of things a voice, because I don’t think it’s black and white. I think most stories are a lot of grey. I really didn’t want this book to be black and white because the decisions people made and what was motivating them—if you look at the Parker family history, there’s parts that are really tragic and really awful. And it changes the way you look at things when you look at George Parker and his empire and it’s falling apart and his two sons die. That, to me, made them more real people even though these are people who weren’t even walking on the planet at the same time as you and I.

I thought the portrayal of Darrow was really great — the packaged tale is plucky but the sheer grinding poverty of his situation is not there in the corporate history.

I talked to Ralph a lot about Darrow and his take on it. Ralph kinda feels like the problems really began with Parker Brothers.

And one thing to keep in mind with this story that I constantly had to remind myself was nobody knew they were sitting on Monopoly. Lizzie Magie didn’t know, Darrow didn’t know, Parker brothers didn’t know. There had not been a blockbuster game like this really ever. They didn’t think it was going to be something that 80 years later we’re going to be sitting here talking about it. We look at it and we say, oh my gosh, how could this guy have claimed to have invented Monopoly? Oh my gosh, how could this woman have sold her patent for $500? And it is crazy. But for these people, this was unfolding day by day. One of the things I’m constantly hearing, especially with the Lizzie Magie sequences, is lawyers who say, “She should have had a lawyer.” It’s been really funny—I tried to make it as fact-based as possible and then let people decide who they thought was good or bad or in between. That has been really fascinating over the last couple of weeks, to hear who people think the heroes and villains are, because I really wasn’t as interested in casting people that way.

Illustration by Jim Cooke, Photo by Nikola Tamindzic.

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