Photography / Travel

A Short History of Monopoly

by Tim Darling (email) - January, 2008; (Return to main Monopoly page)

Background: Big Business versus the Working Class (1890-1910)

The time during which Monopoly was born and grew up spanned one stock market crash (in 1893) to another (in 1929). After the 1893 stock market crashed, unemployment among the working class rose significantly. The U.S. Treasury ran out of gold and was forced to sell high-yield bonds to J. P. Morgan and the other Wall Street monopolists at low rates. Debt-ridden farmers called on the government to initiate an income tax to make taxation more fair to lower-income households (they finally did with the 16th Amendment in 1913), among other reforms.

President McKinley's 1896 campaign was paid for by big business and he was unpopular with the working class, who favored his opponent, Williams Jennings Bryan. But business had the money and the power in the country and McKinley was elected on a tickey simply promising to do nothing and to make no major changes. During this time, Teddy Roosevelt who was well-tuned to the popular sentiments, was stirring up trouble as an anti-corruption and tax-levying governor from New York. He was added as McKinley's Vice-President in 1898 simply to put him in a position that officially had no power.

But in 1901, Teddy Roosevelt became president after McKinley's assassination by Leon Czolgosz. Czolgosz's last words before his execution by the state were "I killed the President because he was the enemy of the good people - the good working people. I am not sorry for my crime."

With his new power, Roosevelt proceeded to take a big stick to the major monopolies of the day: Rockefeller's Standard Oil, J. P. Morgan's banks, and Cargenie's steel. He pushed enforcement of the 1890 Sherman Antitrust Act.

Still, the economy was slow to recover and the public became disillusioned with capitalism. Lenin's 1917 Bolshevik Revolution guaranteed capped working hours and salaries to all of its workers while many struggling American workers began to question whether capitalism was right. After the Great Depression of the 1930s, many people thought that capitalism had failed and that it was only a question of how government would regulate it. Milton Friedman and his wife were among the lone voices during this time arguing that democratic capitalism was right (and Marxism was not). They famously claimed that freedom was the equality of opportunity and not of outcome.

And similarly, it is because everyone is equal and hopeful at the start of a Monopoly game - but not at the end - that we play it time and time again.

Monopoly is born, travels to Columbia University, Atlantic City, and then the world

It was during this era of disenchantment that Elizabeth Magie invented "The Landlord's Game" and applied for a patent for it in 1903. Magie's game was politically-charged. She meant to demonstrate how the accumulation of land allowed the rich to get richer at the expense of the poor. The game reflected the economy of the time: there was virtually no tax on land or income and you couldn't buy a property to get a start in the race unless you could afford to pay the full purchase price up front (mortgages were not available at the time to help buyer's amortize the costs over a long period, as is true in the game).

Magie's Landlord's game was passed around and people made their own copies. One copy was taught to his students by Rexford Tugwell, a liberal professor at Columbia University. Tugwell would later be fired from Columbia for criticizing the big businesses who supported the school. He would then go on to help FDR formulate the New Deal programs, such as the WPA, and the discoupling of the Treasury from the Gold Standard, which would revitalize the worker-driven economy after WWII.

In 1929, the Landlord's game traveled to Atlantic City where the new street names and rents were added. In 1932, Charles Darrow, an unemployed laborer, was invited to a friend's house to play it. Darrow made his own copy, adding the color bands to each property, the iconic Railroad and other images. The drawing of the man in Jail is his; it is supposedly a charicature of himself. His first version of the game on oil cloth is in the Forbes magazine's gallery in New York City.

During the Great Depression, Darrow earned $4 a day building and selling copies of this game, now called Monopoly. Darrow's handmade versions didn't come with tokens. His niece and her friends used small metal bracelet charms to play the game. When Parker Brothers became interested in the game and bought the "rights" for it from its supposed inventor Darrow, they already had a relationship with the charm bracelet manufacturer. Future versions of the game thus included small metal tokens, such as the thimble.

Interesting trivia footnote

One final interesting note: the "Mr. Monopoly" character that appears on the game boxes and the Chance and Community Chest cards (originally named Rich Uncle Pennybags) is based on J. P. Morgan.


All text and pictures copyright © 2008 Tim Darling.