When Charles Darrow sold the first version of Monopoly to Parker Brothers in 1935, the deal made him a very rich man. Parker Brothers perpetuated the lore surrounding Darrow’s story as an alleged rags-to-riches phenomenon - according to them a down-on-his-luck, depression-era man rose from the ashes through hard work and the desire to entertain his friends and family. In the end, he struck economic gold with his real estate board game that celebrates the highs and lows of a capitalistic society. Only this isn’t entirely true.
The real origin of the Monopoly properties - one of the most popular board games in history - involves a feminist inventor named Elizabeth Magie who was interested in single tax theory, a board game that was passed around various intellectual communities, and a small patent dated 30 years before Darrow ever sold Monopoly.
The game was created to teach players about the evils of a monopolist society and land grabs and to encourage socialist thought. However, after Darrow and Parker Brothers repackaged the game - making millions in the process - Magie’s magnum opus ironically became a symbol of capitalist greed, predatory land grabs, and unhealthy financial competition.
Elizabeth Magie, or Lizzie, was born in 1866 in Macomb, IL. From an early age, Magie was surrounded by intellectual conversations and concepts.
Magie’s father James worked as a newspaper publisher, and even ran for office in Illinois on an anti-monopoly ticket, although he lost. He spent the last 1850s accompanying Abraham Lincoln around the country debating politics. According to the New York Times, Magie took after her father. She said:
I have often been called a ‘chip off the old block… which I consider quite a compliment, for I am proud of my father for being the kind of an ‘old block’ that he is.
Magie spent years perfecting The Landlord’s Game, and finally secured legal claim at the US Patent Office on March 23, 1903. In Magie’s original game, players received $100 in wages each time they passed the Mother Earth Space for having “performed so much labor on Mother Earth,” as an homage to anti-monopolist writer Henry George.
Players were sent to jail if they trespassed on private land, and Absolutely Necessary spaces had shelter and bread, while Franchise rectangles worked as modern utility spaces, providing water and light.
James Magie gave his young daughter Elizabeth Magie Progress and Poverty, a book by Henry George, who believed people should own the entirety of whatever they make or create while land belongs to everyone. This text influenced Magie’s understanding of the economy and taught her the concept of “land value tax” or the “single tax.”
The single tax idea suggests land - rather than people - should be the only entity taxed by the government. Theoretically, this model would hold wealthy persons and landowners responsible for paying the majority of an area’s taxes.
This concept was very popular in the late 1800s due to the stark contrast between enormously wealthy families like the Rockefellers and everyday Americans, many of whom were living in poverty.
Over several years in the late 1890s, Magie created a board game called The Landlord’s Game to teach players about the ills of land grabs and monopolies. The game could be played two different ways, “monopolist” and “anti-monopolist.”
The monopolist version relied on the human desire for competition and the drama of destroying your opponents, while the anti-monopolist version saw all players rewarded whenever anyone earned wealth. Magie wanted players to understand the two sides of the economic coin, so to speak. She wrote in a political magazine called The Single Tax Review:
It is a practical demonstration of the present system of land-grabbing with all its usual outcomes and consequences… It might well have been called the ‘Game of Life’, as it contains all the elements of success and failure in the real world, and the object is the same as the human race in general seem[s] to have, ie, the accumulation of wealth.