Playing Monopoly (and its discontents) on its 80th anniversary

Photograph of Monopoly board game produced in 1940s

This month marks the 80th anniversary for Charles S. Darrow's patent for the board game Monopoly. By the time Darrow was awarded the patent on December 31, 1935, Monopoly was already a financial success. Months earlier, in March, Darrow had sold his rights to Monopoly to the game manufacturer Parker Brothers. Rather than waiting for the patent, Parker Brothers had begun selling its version of the game almost immediately. The company's investment paid off. By Christmas 1935, Parker Brothers had sold a quarter of a million copies of the game. One year later, that number had grown to 1.8 million copies sold, and Parker Brothers had collected over two million dollars in profit.

Patent drawing for Monopoly, 1935

At first glance, Monopoly's initial success is quite surprising given that, when Parker Brothers started selling the game in 1935, the United States was still suffering through the Great Depression. Just two years earlier, a quarter of the nation's workforce had been out of a job, and the country's unemployment rate stayed above 15% for the rest of the 1930s. Despite the grim economy—or perhaps because of it—Parker Brothers discovered that Americans were eager to spend their leisure time playing as robber barons—buying and selling properties, cornering industries, and pushing their friends and family into bankruptcy.

Bull and Bear cards from Pit card game

Monopoly's success is even more remarkable considering that, historically, Americans have held deep misgivings toward monopolies, trusts, and other large concentrations of wealth. Thomas Jefferson's antipathy toward monopolies led him to initially oppose the U.S. patent system, and Andrew Jackson justified his 1832 veto of the Second National Bank's charter by, among other things, citing the bank's failure to repay the public for the monopoly privileges it had been granted by the government. Americans' concerns only grew more pronounced in the late 1800s as U.S. companies exploded in size and complexity, and a new generation of tycoons quashed their competition to consolidate entire industries under their control. As companies grew, Americans enacted a steady stream of laws and regulations to protect the public against the possible abuses of monopolies—from the Sherman Antitrust Act in 1890, to the Clayton Act and Federal Trade Commission in 1914, to the Robinson-Patman Act of 1936.

Next! cartoon from the magazine “Puck,” September 7, 1904

The dramatic success of Monopoly and its distinctive style of "greed is good" gameplay disappointed many contemporaries, none the least of which was Elizabeth "Lizzie" Magie. As a number of writers have shown, the Monopoly board game that Charles Darrow patented and sold to Parker Brothers in 1935 was based heavily on a modified version of The Landlord's Game, a board game that Magie—a lifelong inventor and social activist—had patented decades earlier, in 1903.

Patent drawing for The Landlord’s Game, 1903

Ironically, Magie had set out to educate the public about the dangers of monopolies. Specifically, Magie hoped that The Landlord's Game would publicize the reforms proposed by Henry George, a political economist who theorized that land monopolies were the ultimate source of inequality. In a later 1924 patent for the game, Magie explained that the object of The Landlord's Game was "not only to afford amusement to the players, but to illustrate to them how under the present or prevailing system of land tenure, the landlord has an advantage over other enterprises and also how the single tax would discourage land speculation."

Magie reportedly designed the game with two different rule sets, giving players the chance to choose whether they wanted to play as anti-monopolists or monopolists. Much to her disappointment, it was the latter variant that caught the attention of Charles Darrow and came to define Monopoly for generations of Americans.

Easy Money board game board, 1970s

Over the past 80 years, many board games have tried to unseat Monopoly and, like Elizabeth Magie, inspire players to adopt a more critical view of big business in America. In the 1970s, economist Ralph Anspach gave young people a chance to battle against monopolies in his aptly named game, Anti-Monopoly, which cast players as lawyers tasked with breaking up price-gouging conglomerates through indictments. And if the general message of the game wasn't clear enough, the rules to Anti-Monopoly II (Anspach's second version of the game), made the economist's views even more explicit: "In the real world, we're all in trouble when monopolists win because there is no second game to give consumers and competitors another chance. That's why Professor Anspach invented ANTI-MONOPOLY—to show in a fun way how our country tries to stop the monopolists with anti-monopoly laws."

Collage of photographs, including the boxes for Anti-Monopoly I and II, as well as the Anti-Monopoly II board.

Although Anti-Monopoly performed relatively well in the market, selling 200,000 copies in 1973, it also caught the attention of Parker Brothers and its parent companies, who in 1974 filed a complaint against Anspach for violating their trademark to the Monopoly name. The dispute set off almost a decade of grueling legal battles between Anspach and the game makers, but the economist eventually won the right to sell his game. Even so, it's doubtful whether Anti-Monopoly or any other title will ever secure as firm a place in popular culture as Monopoly. If the past eight years have taught us anything, it's that given the choice, many Americans, perhaps most, will choose to be the landlord.

Jordan Grant is a New Media assistant working with the American Enterprise exhibition. He has also blogged about how board games teach us to shop and six surprising objects from the history of the Internet.