In honor of Women’s History Month, I’m happy to report that Elizabeth “Lizzie” J. Magie Phillips (1866-1948) is finally receiving due attention as the inventor of the game that eventually became “Monopoly.” A new book by journalist Mary Pilon, The Monopolists: Obsession, Fury, and the Scandal Behind the World's Favorite Board Game, has received a lot of media coverage recently for shining light on the game’s disputed history. I think this story is a great example of how the invention process is often far more complicated and interesting than the cliché of an individual inventor who has a “Eureka!” moment and comes up with a marketable product.
Born in Illinois in 1866, Lizzie Magie moved to the Washington, DC area in the 1880s as a single woman and worked as a stenographer and typist at the Dead Letter Office. Her first patent was for a “type writing machine” in 1893 that essentially helped paper move through typewriter rollers more easily. Magie became interested in the anti-monopolist theories of Henry George, a politician and economist who believed that a single “land value tax” would shift the tax burden to wealthy landlords. This inspired her to design a board game to teach his economic theories to friends and colleagues.
While living in Brentwood, MD, Magie patented the original version of her board game (US patent #748,626). “The Landlord’s Game” had a square pathway where players started on a corner featuring a map of the world with the phrase “Labor Upon Mother Earth Produces Wages” (see upper right corner of the 1904 patent figure 1). Players rolled dice to advance along spaces where they paid for properties, railroads, utilities (e.g. Water Franchise), and taxes, including the second corner where you paid “absolute necessity” coal taxes. The third corner had both a Poor House and Public Park. And the fourth corner was a property owned by “Lord Blueblood” of London, England where, if you landed on it, you had to follow these instructions: “No Trespassing Go to Jail.”
The version patented in 1924 (US #1,509,312) had “The Landlord’s Game” printed prominently in the middle of the board, with a slightly different square design where players paid for properties (with names now like “Easy Street” and “Rickety Row”), railroads, utilities, and taxes. They could also still go to jail. By this time she was married to businessman Albert Phillips, so she used the name Elizabeth Magie Phillips on the 1924 patent. As she describes in the patent application, “the object of the game is 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.”
During the 1920s and early 1930s, versions of her board game were circulating among colleges and communities in the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic. This is where the story takes an unexpected turn. As Edward Dodson relays it: “The game was introduced by Eugene (Colonel) and Ruth Raiford…to Charles Todd, who lived in Germantown, PA; and Charles Todd then introduced the game to Charles and Esther Darrow. Eugene Raiford, Charles Todd and Esther Jones Darrow all attended the Quaker Westtown School from 1911 to 1914 or 1915. The subsequent connection with Atlantic City occurred because of the close association of the Westtown School with the Atlantic City Friends’ School. As Todd later recalled: ‘The first people we taught it to after learning it…was Darrow and his wife Esther….Darrow asked me if I would write up the rules and regulations and I wrote them up...and gave them to Darrow.’” The version shown to Darrow featured Atlantic City, NJ street names, which were apparently added to the game by a woman named Ruth Hoskins.
Why is this backstory important?
Well, when Parker Brothers started selling “Monopoly” in 1935, they marketed it with the inspiring story of how struggling salesman Charles Darrow created the game in his basement to support his family during the Depression. Darrow earned a patent for Monopoly in December 1935 (US #2,026,082), and neither he nor Parker Brothers mentioned The Landlord’s Game. Note also that Monopoly famously features Atlantic City street names such as Baltic Avenue, Boardwalk, and Marvin Gardens (a misspelling of the real Marven Gardens), not street names in Philadelphia where Darrow lived.
On January 28, 1936, Washington, DC’s The Evening Star featured an article about local inventor Mrs. Elizabeth Magie Phillips, now living in Clarendon, VA. The author noted Monopoly seemed a lot like the Landlord’s Game, and reported she had sold her board game patent rights to Parker Brothers in November 1935 (notice the timing?!) for only $500 and no royalties. As the article states further: “Probably, if one counts lawyer’s, printer’s and Patent Office fees used up in developing it, the game has cost her more than she made from it. However, if the subtle propaganda for the single tax idea works around to the minds of the thousands who now shake the dice and buy and sell over the ‘Monopoly’ board, she feels the whole business will not have been in vain.”
Unfortunately for her, most players surely miss the single tax “propaganda” as they rush to buy properties and bankrupt other players. To add insult to injury, Monopoly became a worldwide phenomenon with Darrow’s name touted as the inventor, while she died in obscurity in 1948. Thanks in part to a 1970s patent dispute between Parker Brothers and “Anti-Monopoly” game designer Ralph Anspach, the true origins of the world’s best-selling board game were unveiled again. Yet only now is Elizabeth Magie Phillips getting the attention and credit she deserves.