February 6, 2011

The color of money

Really, is there no American cultural monument free of the taint of chicanery – is nothing sacred?  The question is rhetorical because the answer of course is, I have yet to find one.

In 1935, the first Monopoly sets went on sale on this date and now another myth is shattered.

The story – about the unemployed guy named Charles Darrow who created Monopoly at his kitchen table during the Depression – that for years was the received truth turns out not to be true. (N.B. I think I’m supposed to put a little trademark circle next to the name of the game but I don’t know how, so please imagine it every time you see the word, because that game is trademarked by gum and if you don’t think Parker Bros. – now owned by Hasbro – is serious about it, read on.)

Thanks to Ralph Anspach, a retired economics professor from San Francisco State University, the entire unsavory truth has come out.  Anspach created a game called Anti-Monopoly which starts out with everything owned and involves trying to get back to a free-market system.

Parker Brothers sued Anspach for copyright infringement, of course, but – are you sitting down? – Anspach won in the US Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals.

It seems that PB had for years convinced everyone that they had bought the rights to the game from Darrow and they threatened to sue anyone who tried to use it.  Apparently Prof. Anspach was the first person who didn’t back down.

PB couldn’t buy the rights from Darrow because, even though Darrow had created his own version of the game, the original patent for Monopoly belonged to a nice Quaker lady named Elizabeth Magie.  She had filed in 1903 and again in 1924; there is a real dearth of material on exactly what her connection to PB was (although they did publish some of her games in the 30’s), but the patent seemed to have expired.

Ironically – and this is the best part – Magie was a follower of tax progressive Henry George and her game was an effort to show how the inequity of wealth in land ownership could be alleviated by George’s land tax.  She called her game The Landlord’s Game and it’s clear her purpose was altogether anti-capitalist.

(You can read about George here.)

Henry George

When Parker Brothers lost the case against Anspach in 1982, they did what any right-thinking corporation would do – they went straight to Congress and got the Trademark Act of 1946 amended.  (PB wasn’t such a big deal, but their parent company – General Mills – seems to have lobbied successfully.)

Since the Ninth Circuit had ruled that the word ‘monopoly’ was generic and therefore not protected, the 1985 amendment specifically protected longstanding trademarks that might be considered generic. What’s good for General Mills is good for the USA.

Now, as antidote to these distasteful shenanigans, here is a good story about Monopoly: John Waddington Co. of England got the rights to sell an English version from PB a year after it appeared.  In WWII, the British Secret Service asked Waddington to make a special version for British prisoners of war being held by the Nazis.  They did.  Inside the games were real money, maps and compasses and other oddments to help prisoners escape.

P.S. Lest Hasbro be accused of free-market tendencies, they bought Anti-Monopoly and publish that too.



  1. I’m glad to hear that Elizabeth Magie’s role in Monopoly ™ history is secure. I heard about her in the ’50’s at college. Swarthmore is a Quaker-founded institution near Philadelphia, and members of the Quaker community used to spend time in the summer at Atlantic City to escape the heat. During the Depression The Landlord Game was still an entertainment staple. The parents of several of my classmates grew up playing it in the summers at the shore.


    Comment by Jane McCullam — February 6, 2011 @ 6:24 am | Reply

  2. This story is dear to me because I first heard it from the grandson of one of the creators. Cyril Harvey was one of my favorite college professors at Guilford College and he told us the story of the game his family and friends played when he was young. A traveling salesman was in town one evening and he joined the group of Quaker families playing the game with a fabric board they had created. He asked to borrow the board and took it to Parker Brothers and sold it as his own idea, giving his hosts no credit. Cyril Harvey created another game for his geology students called The Quaker Quadrangle. It fictitious land in the format of a USGS 7.5″ quadrangle and we spent a semester drilling imaginary cores using computer data to map the layers and write an essay explaining the geologic history. It was the best college class I ever took.


    Comment by Jessie — February 6, 2011 @ 7:37 am | Reply

  3. thanks for the info y’all – and i live for the day a game involving drilling for imaginary core samples catches on…lol


    Comment by jchatoff — February 6, 2011 @ 8:20 am | Reply

  4. Terrific account of the history of Monopoly! and terrific comments.


    Comment by GALYA TARMU — February 6, 2011 @ 11:01 am | Reply

  5. ha! great story! =)


    Comment by nina c — February 7, 2011 @ 11:54 am | Reply



    Comment by avery — February 8, 2011 @ 7:34 am | Reply

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