Special Feature — October 19, 2012, 2:52 pm

Monopoly Is Theft

The antimonopolist history of the world’s most popular board game

The players at Table 25 fought first over the choice of pawns. Doug Herold, a forty-four-year-old real estate appraiser, settled on the car. The player across from him, a shark-eyed IT recruiter named Billy, opted for the ship and took a pull from a can of Coors. The shoe was taken by a goateed toxic-tort litigator named Eric, who periodically distracted himself from the game on a BlackBerry so that he “could get billable hours out of this.” The dog was taken by a doughy computer technician named Trevis, who had driven from Canton, Ohio, as a “good deed” to help the National Kidney Foundation, sponsor of the 25th Annual Corporate Monopoly Tournament, which is held each year in the lobby of the U.S. Steel Tower in downtown Pittsburgh. On hand for the event, which had attracted 112 players, divided into twenty-eight tables of four, were the Pittsburgh Steelers’ mascot, Steely McBeam, who hopped around the lobby grunting and huzzahing with a giant foam I beam under his arm; three referees dressed in stripes, with whistles around their necks; and a sleepy-looking man, attired in a long judges’ robe and carrying a two-foot-long oaken gavel, who was in fact a civil-court judge for Allegheny County donating his time “to make sure these people follow the rules.”

I had spoken the night before with Doug, who won the previous year’s tournament, about his strategy for victory. “Well, last year I managed to get Boardwalk and Park Place, and then everybody landed on them,” he explained, chalking his success up to dumb luck. “What you have to do,” he said, “is get a monopoly, any monopoly, as quickly as you can.” I asked him if he knew the secret history of the game. He confessed that he did not.

The official history of Monopoly, as told by Hasbro, which owns the brand, states that the board game was invented in 1933 by an unemployed steam-radiator repairman and part-time dog walker from Philadelphia named Charles Darrow. Darrow had dreamed up what he described as a real estate trading game whose property names were taken from Atlantic City, the resort town where he’d summered as a child. Patented in 1935 by Darrow and the corporate game maker Parker Brothers, Monopoly sold just over 2 million copies in its first two years of production, making Darrow a rich man and likely saving Parker Brothers from bankruptcy. It would go on to become the world’s best-selling proprietary board game. At least 1 billion people in 111 countries speaking forty-three languages have played it, with an estimated 6 billion little green houses manufactured to date. Monopoly boards have been created using the streets of almost every major American city; they’ve been branded around financiers (Berkshire Hathaway Monopoly), sports teams (Chicago Bears Monopoly), television shows (The Simpsons Monopoly), automobiles (Corvette Monopoly), and farm equipment (John Deere Monopoly).

The game’s true origins, however, go unmentioned in the official literature. Three decades before Darrow’s patent, in 1903, a Maryland actress named Lizzie Magie created a proto-Monopoly as a tool for teaching the philosophy of Henry George, a nineteenth-century writer who had popularized the notion that no single person could claim to “own” land. In his book Progress and Poverty (1879), George called private land ownership an “erroneous and destructive principle” and argued that land should be held in common, with members of society acting collectively as “the general landlord.”

The Landlord's Game, 1906

The Landlord’s Game, 1906. Image courtesy of Thomas E. Forsyth. Special thanks to Forsyth (landlordsgame.info) for his assistance with board images.

Magie called her invention The Landlord’s Game, and when it was released in 1906 it looked remarkably similar to what we know today as Monopoly. It featured a continuous track along each side of a square board; the track was divided into blocks, each marked with the name of a property, its purchase price, and its rental value. The game was played with dice and scrip cash, and players moved pawns around the track. It had railroads and public utilities—the Soakum Lighting System, the Slambang Trolley—and a “luxury tax” of $75. It also had Chance cards with quotes attributed to Thomas Jefferson (“The earth belongs in usufruct to the living”), John Ruskin (“It begins to be asked on many sides how the possessors of the land became possessed of it”), and Andrew Carnegie (“The greatest astonishment of my life was the discovery that the man who does the work is not the man who gets rich”). The game’s most expensive properties to buy, and those most remunerative to own, were New York City’s Broadway, Fifth Avenue, and Wall Street. In place of Monopoly’s “Go!” was a box marked “Labor Upon Mother Earth Produces Wages.” The Landlord Game’s chief entertainment was the same as in Monopoly: competitors were to be saddled with debt and ultimately reduced to financial ruin, and only one person, the supermonopolist, would stand tall in the end. The players could, however, vote to do something not officially allowed in Monopoly: cooperate. Under this alternative rule set, they would pay land rent not to a property’s title holder but into a common pot—the rent effectively socialized so that, as Magie later wrote, “Prosperity is achieved.”

For close to thirty years after Magie fashioned her first board on an old piece of pressed wood, The Landlord’s Game was played in various forms and under different names—“Monopoly,” “Finance,” “Auction.” It was especially popular among Quaker communities in Atlantic City and Philadelphia, as well as among economics professors and university students who’d taken an interest in socialism. Shared freely as an invention in the public domain, as much a part of the cultural commons as chess or checkers, The Landlord’s Game was, in effect, the property of anyone who learned how to play it.

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is a writer based in New York City. His last piece for Harper’s Magazine, “Stop Payment!,” appeared in the January 2012 issue. Find more of his work at christopherketcham.com .

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  • Kevin Tostado

    Chris,
    Thanks for your story! I enjoyed reading it, and encountered many of the same individuals during my time making the documentary, “Under the Boardwalk: The MONOPOLY Story.” We did actually make it to the US & World Championships that you made it to and filmed every game, but never had the opportunity to film with Richard Biddle. I hope you’ll check out my film, and let me know what you think!

    Kevin Tostado
    Director, “Under the Boardwalk: The MONOPOLY Story”
    http://www.MonopolyDocumentary.com

  • Wyn Achenbaum

    The Landlord’s Game goes back a year or two further than this. See an Autumn, 1902, piece in The Single Tax Review, online at http://lvtfan.typepad.com/lvtfans_blog/2011/01/lizzie-magie-1902-commentary-the-landlords-game.html.

    The Prosperity rules strike me as a very dull game, but they create a sustainable community in which all of us can live, without being systematically taken advantage of by others. Monopoly is an exciting game for a couple of hours, but not much of a model for a society.

  • Daditim

    Growing up my family used an unwritten “pot” rule whereby $500 from the bank was put in the middle of the board and all taxes (income, luxury, poor tax chance card…) were placed in the pot. Landing on Free Parking would win you the pot. Then another $500 was put there from the bank and all taxes. The effect this had on the game would depend on who landed on it. If the poor won the pot they stayed in the game longer, if the ricj won the pot it would turn into houses/hotels and the game would shorten.

    • http://lvtfan.typepad.com/ lvtfan

      Others played this way, too. Sounds like a version of the lottery!

  • http://twitter.com/CityEconomist John Tepper Marlin

    Monopoly doth never prosper
    Why is that so?
    If monopoly doth prosper
    It has all the dough.

  • http://www.facebook.com/Robert.Wagner.VT Robert Wagner

    Thanks for this excellent history. As I am from Vermont, I had long been looking for the Scott Nearing connection to Monopoly and Georgism… you found it!

    Vermont is a land speculator’s paradise, the ‘green’ image unearned, but it is an incredibly valuable real estate tool. Much of the best land is owned by outsiders, either corporations like AIG or wealthy individuals, and the tax-free profit on land speculation is about 17% per year, according to the UVM Gund Institute.

    Vermont is the only State to give away all its natural resources to corporations; a tax-free $1.2 billion per year. That’s $7,000 per year per Vermont family of four. Think of what we could do if this money went into a permanent fund. We’d actually be able to build a green economy with public transport, good infrastructure and accessible health care, for openers.

    The speculative bubble forces housing (residential land) prices up far beyond median wages. Housing prices are going up again, thanks to the bailouts… but wages are not. Young people are leaving Vermont, businesses are closing, and farms selling out to speculators like Peter Shumlin who snap them up at fire sale prices, then sit on them for years, virtually tax-free.

    Localvores indeed: Vermont imports over 90% of its food. We must become a net exporter. We must get repressive farm regulations off our backs. Bureaucrats, go regulate Wall Street, leave our farms alone!

    Why should a Vermont town that can barely keep its small school open, be forced to give up its groundwater to a corporation that drills it out and then ships it out-of-State to be bottled and sold? Why shouldn’t the town be able to make the same money, and develop the resource at a sustainable rate that doesn’t suck homeowners wells dry?

    The remedy? Vote out the sitting Legislature, these professional party politicians who are directed by lobbyists & “environmental” groups, financed and directed by the very speculators who get rich off our land and natural resources. Right now they’re closing schools, taxing the middle class into the ground, enacting austerity policies, and at the same time building new armouries & police stations, buying tasers, helicopters, surveillance cameras & vans, and the governor hides behind riot police who shoot rubber bullets at peaceful protesters. The corporate-state monopoly must go. End the game.

    Vote ‘em out and restore the Citizen Legislature, terminate the corporate welfare and let’s make Vermont into a place where young people want to be, businesses stay and expand, schools can keep their doors open, farms thrive & multiply.

    Robert Wagner

    Prosper Vermont

    http://ProsperVermont.com

  • WonTann

    You have got to admit dude that is pretty slick. Wow.

    Privacy-Wiz.tk

  • Gretchen

    This history was reported in an excellent article in the New Yorker by Calvin Trillin back in the early 1980s (could even have been the late 70s). Surprised it has resurfaced as a new “secret” history. I should not complain: how many people read Trillin’s original piece or remember it?

  • aspenguy

    It’s no surprise that the capitalist game thrived and prospered and the socialist game withered away. Long live capitalism!

    • http://www.facebook.com/martinbadams Martin Adams

      Aspenguy, you mistake the early game for a

      • All Together Now

        Socialism can mean a lot of things, but “seizing the fruits of people’s honest work” seems a deliberately uncharitable characterization of the philosophy. I am curious who you imagine doing the “seizing” in your understanding. Authoritarian state socialism, if that’s what you are thinking of, is no more essential to the idea of socialism than authoritarian state monopoly capitalism is to the idea of capitalism. As most people are rightly opposed to authoritarian state anything, this narrow and demonizing characterization of socialism is simply a convenient straw man, and an all-too-common one. Since the most broadly shared characteristic of the many definitions of socialism is that ownership and control over means of production are vested in a community, how then is the community to be understood to be robbing from the fruits of its own collective production? Socialism recognizes that there is no such thing as “private wealth” made privately, no “self-made” millionaires: all wealth is socially produced, and everyone is better off when all are better off. Albert Einstein wrote a thoughtful, well-reasoned, non-dogmatic case for socialism

        • http://www.facebook.com/martinbadams Martin Adams

          I understand your point that there is

      • http://www.facebook.com/people/Jake-Johnson/100000143405252 Jake Johnson

        “Seizing the fruits of people’s honest work”? Sounds like someone needs to take a history class.

      • http://www.facebook.com/people/John-Waterways/100003400434958 John Waterways

        “Socialism means seizing the fruits of people

    • fbear0143

      Think about what you are saying. What you people vall socialism is, these days simply a little bit of human compassion for those who are less fortunate. And capitalism, which, by the way, is NOT mentioned in the constitution

      • aspenguy

        What’s wrong with unbridled greed?

        • http://twitter.com/laurelrusswurm Laurel L. Russwurm

          There’s nothing wrong with unbridled greed if you’re terribly immature or a sociopath. Mature human beings capable of empathy would prefer a future where other human beings don’t have to starve to death to pay for the toys of the 1%

          • aspenguy

            Screw that! Greed rocks!

        • http://www.facebook.com/people/John-Waterways/100003400434958 John Waterways

          Nothing I suppose. Indirectly Henry George encouraged it through enterprise – you keep all your earnings and no sales taxes either. All the fruits of your labour stay with you. If that is greed of course.

        • Michael71

          What is wrong with unbridled greed? Greed is all about hierarchy. Criminals, the uninformed, those not curious, or the not-so-smart can only see the hierarchy.

          We are here to evolve. Evolution is a network not a hierarchical tree. Evolution is information building on information (i plus i). The energy transferred through evolution is propagated hierarchically which then overlaps to produce a rhizomatic (aka semi-lattice structure). The more complete formula would then read (i plus i)^h.

          The semi-lattice is a geometrical pattern that many would say is a fundamental aspect of beauty and morality. The geometrical pattern is the semi-lattice. A semi-lattice is formed when hierarchies overlap. Christopher Alexander explains this pattern thoroughly in his short essay A City is not a Tree”.

          “A City is not a Tree” is a short essay online:

          http://www.patternlanguage.com/archives/alexander1.htm

          Here’s a commentary regarding “City Is Not A Tree’ essay:

          http://www.rudi.net/node/20538

    • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1486669626 Mark W. Schumann

      Georgism isn’t a kind of socialism opposed to capitalism per se. It’s opposed to feudalism really.

      • wmyl

        It is technically socialism, but it is just and honest socialism. It is simultaneously better socialism and better capitalism.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=690926718 Karl Fitzgerald

    What a pity the game was changed from one of sharing to one of blaring greed, making your siblings cry. A well written piece by Ketcham as always. For more on the principles of Henry George watch http://realestate4ransom.com/

    • http://twitter.com/homleand homleand sequrity

      Greed is good. Greed is right. Greed works.

  • gutengliebengotengloben

    Judge with a 2 foot gavel, ref with a whistle. Reads like an old Stephen Glass article

  • David Biddle

    As always, Harper’s provides us with a real, in-depth, intelligent essay that incorporates social and cultural issues with politics and a piece of our unsung history. I’m so grateful for this kind of writing in this Age of the Temporary and Short. Great, thoughtful writing is so precious now.

    • fbear0143

      Right you are, though your observation will be decried by the uninformed as somehow a betrayal of all that is precious to them, primarily the right to be swindled by those who they believe are protecting our great constitution through their capitalism run amok, all dressed up as “free-enterprise.”

  • Potomacker

    Am I misreading or does the tax method of Henry George resemble that of the Brazilian economist Pagau?

    • wmyl

      The concepts are very related. Henry George was not actually against private land ownership though; he thought it should remain in private control but that monopolizers of locations should pay for the value of nature they were excluding others from.

  • Brian Van Slyke Andrew Stachiw

    We’re glad to see this being written about in the mainstream media, particularly as not many people seem to know about Monopoly’s history. We recently gave a TEDx talk about this topic–about the history of Monopoly, that how it’s a projection of the capitalistic system we have now, and how people around the country (indeed, around the world) are working to make the economy more fair and equitable. We even created a board game, Co-opoly, as the antidote to Monopoly’s principles of crushing your opponents until they
    are debt-ridden and defeated, and as a way for people to have a great time working together to create a better economy for their communities.

  • Paul Chernoff

    Very nice article. I enjoyed it as a gamer and as someone who studied urban planning. Serious at ps by people in the left and right have advocated taxing land at 100%, but not buildings. Land trusts have also been inspired by Henry George. But I never knew how he was vilified in his time.

    Monopoly was not the only game inspired by the Landlord Game. Another of my childhood games was Easy Money, which I believe was published by Milton Bradley.

  • http://twitter.com/matth0dge mhodge

    Whether you like it or not, Monopoly is about getting rich and competing in a market place. It is not about saddling us all with misery as “communal land ownership” would.

    • http://www.facebook.com/people/John-Waterways/100003400434958 John Waterways

      Monopoly is about land speculation, which was the root of the 1929 and 2008 crashes. Gains on land are tax free. In short the land values, created by the community, not the landowners, were appropriated. Taxing land values “reclaims” that commonly created wealth – the best method is the misnomer Land Valuation Tax.

    • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1486669626 Mark W. Schumann

      It’s about destroying a marketplace. That’s actually the point of Georgism: Land “ownership” is contrary to a market economy.

  • Munkybunny

    Bank error in your favor, collect 50 dollars.

  • Norman Eschenfelder

    There’s an fantastic JURASSIC PARK MONOPOLY in the interwebz.

    Everyone of you should check it out!

    https://www.facebook.com/JurassicParkMonopoly

  • Kathy

    Interesting article. Sounds as though a woman, Lizzie Magie originally created the game . . . who knew! Most of this is over my head, but, what stood out was the idea that the object of the game is not to accumulate properties and money, but rather to bankrupt your opponent. It caught my eye because if you look at the economic condition of the U.S. and the rumors of bankruptcy and debt rampant in our Country [city & state levels], it would appear as though other countries are playing Monopoly with us and they are winning. To quote Martha Beck [Finding Your Way in a Wild New World] “How the hell did we get here, and what the hell do we do now?!”

  • obpirate

    Uh, so what?

  • northierthanthou.com

    Awesome piece.

  • http://luisabelardoperez.wordpress.com/ Luis A Pérez

    The game is called MONOPOLY not CAPITALISM. That is why when you land on someone else’s property, like Board Walk, you get screwed.
    If the game were CAPITALISM a competition would ensue, among the players owning properties, to offer the least expensive stay. Under CAPITALISM there is cooperation through competition. Now you are not screwed!
    Under the rules of MONOPOLY no cooperation can be arranged between the players. This is not prohibited under CAPITALISM.
    This is a lame effort to sell socialism/communism/collectivism as superior to CAPITALISM. There will always be supporters of these kind of systems, even on the height of the millennium when all the information is accessible about how disastrous these systems are, because as Raymond Aron implied Marxism is a religion; the opium of the intellectuals. All you need is to keep the faith and spread the message. Whether it actually works or not is irrelevant.
    As Reagan once said, freedom is always a generation away from being lost. There will always be those defending the indefensible and doing their most to seduce the new generation.

    • Devin_MacGregor

      Capitalism is simply the accumulation of wealth. There is a LOT of non cooperation in our so called free market system. The property in the game are simply of different land values just like we have in real life. Beach property is more expensive that inland valley property no matter what type of improvement you put upon it.

  • Elm

    Henry George was not a social-ist, but an individual who embraced and strove to further the economic principle of social justice. Whereas the first is an ideology, the latter is an economic ideal or moral principle, like “Thou shalt practice honest weights and measures.” To be sure, George was a true capitalist, in that he who creates the wealth is entitled to its fruits — that labor is a man’s most private form & source of capital — that all labor creates its own wage no matter at what stage of production — that labor is neither a demand nor a liability upon the capital or wealth of another, in the case of Lizzie’s Landlord game, the feudal landlords. Today, this must include the Corporation, a Feudal Entity that misconstrues labor as a “cost of doing business.”

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