The Monopoly Nobody Doesn’t Like

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George’s idea of a single tax on land was never taken seriously by mainstream economists, but it had a great appeal to many ordinary people, who saw it as a cure-all, a one-stroke solution for the economic ills of their time. They formed clubs and ran for office on platforms based on his ideas.

Like most one-issue campaigns, the single-tax crusade faded in time, but Henry George’s philosophy left behind one enduring legacy. For George, who would have been astonished to say the least, is the direct philosophical forefather of the game Monopoly. In 1904 one of his more ardent disciples, Elizabeth Magie, known as Lizzie, of Maryland, patented a board game she called the Landlord’s Game. Its resemblance to Monopoly is startling: It has 40 spaces around a square board; 4 of them are railroads, each placed in the middle of a side; 2 are utilities—a water company and an electric company; and 22 are rental properties whose value increases clockwise around the board. There’s a jail, a go-to-jail space, and a park. The luxury tax is present, but there is no Community Chest or Chance.

Board games in the nineteenth century were often used as teaching tools, and they almost always had a didactic nature. The Landlord’s Game was no exception. As Magie explained in the introduction to the rules, “The object of the game is not only to afford amusement to players, but to illustrate to them how, under the present or prevailing system to land tenure, the landlord has an advantage over other enterprisers, and also how the single tax would discourage speculation.”

Magie made up sets for friends in Maryland and later in Chicago, when she moved there, but didn’t try to commercialize her idea until 1924, when she took a revised version to Parker Brothers. The Parker company had been founded on the idea that there was profit to be had in board games that were not didactic but just fun, as chess, backgammon, and bridge are fun. George Parker, one of the owners, could see that the Landlord’s Game was about as much fun as a too-long sermon and turned it down.

But The Landlord’s Game had found its way into the economics departments of universities near where Lizzie Magie had lived—the University of Chicago and the University of Pennsylvania among them—and it was there that the ideas of grouping properties, allowing increased rents when someone had a monopoly of properties in one group, and developing the properties to raise their value still further were introduced to the game. This new version, informally called Monopoly, was suddenly fun because it was a bit like the real economic world. It was competitive, you could become rich, you could ruin your friends!

A company named Knapp Electric put out a version of this new improved game and called it Finance. Sold only in the Midwest, it was the first commercial version to have the Chance and Community Chest features. In 1933, Charles Darrow was introduced to Finance on a homemade set that used place-names from Atlantic City, New Jersey. Darrow began making sets by hand to sell to friends that look much as the game looks today (although “Mr. Monopoly,” modeled on the Wall Street financier Otto Kahn, did not appear until 1936).

Although Darrow would die a millionaire thanks to Monopoly, he really had little to do with its development. When the game turned into a phenomenal success, the earlier versions quickly came to light, and Parker Brothers, with equal quickness, bought the rights to them. It paid Lizzie Magie $500.

A couple of years later a reporter tracked down the now-elderly woman and asked if she had any regrets about selling her game so cheaply. But she said no, that as long as the principles of Henry George were spread by the game, it was fine with her. They weren’t, of course. Instead, in the depths of the Great Depression, Monopoly taught the joys of being rich.

Capitalism works in mysterious ways.