Boardgames in the News: How Old is Monopoly Really?

There have been a number of articles in the popular press regarding the 80th Anniversary of Monopoly this year, but what are the origins of Monopoly and how old is it really?

– Image used with permission of
BGG reviewer EndersGame

The boardgame, Monopoly is actually based on a 1904 game called “The Landlord’s Game” designed by Elizabeth J. Magie.  Magie was inspired by American political economist Henry George, who championed progressive property taxes and the game was meant to illustrate the harm caused by land monopolies.  The game, which Magie released herself, spread by word of mouth, becoming popular in the Delaware community of Arden.

The Landlord's Game
– Image by BGG contributor sfessy

Thus, Upton Sinclair and Scott Nearing came across the game and introduced it to others throughout the north-east USA.  Nearing began calling it “Monopoly”, later writing, “the game was used to show the anti-social nature of monopoly.”  The Landlord’s Game continued to sell, and concurrently, Monopoly spread as well, with other players players making changes along the way.  For example, in the 1920s, after buying miniature houses on a trip to the Ukraine, Daniel Layman and brothers Ferdinand and Louis Thun at Williams College in Massachusetts, introduced the idea of using physical houses to mark one’s ownership.  They had a go at marketing their version of the game which they called “Finance”.  Charles Darrow heard about it from his friend Charles Todd, and further developed the game.  Darrow eventually released his version of “Monopoly“, in 1933, using materials from his own home for the pieces:  cards were handwritten, a piece of oilcloth covered the board and the original houses and hotels were made from wooden molding scraps.

– Image by BGG contributor zitt

Die-cast tokens were suggested by Darrow’s niece who recommended that charms from a metal charm bracelet were used instead.  The original set included ten tokens:  the iron, the purse, the lantern, the racing car, the thimble, the shoe, the top-hat, the battleship, the cannon, and the rocking horse.  Since then, there have been more than twenty different tokens with the cat the most recent addition.

Monopoly Cat Token
– Image of unknown origin

In the early 1930s, in need of money with a young son left brain-damaged by scarlet fever, Charles Darrow presented the game to Parker Brothers.  Parker Brothers promptly rejected it because of its length, theme, and complexity, but reconsidered their decision to purchase rights to market the game after its success in local Philadelphia stores over Christmas period of 1934.  Parker Brothers acquired the rights to the game on March 19th, 1935 and their first editions were published later that year.  Almost immediately, their investment was rewarded as, within a year, they were making 35,000 copies of the board game per week.

Monopoly Flyer
– Image by BGG contributor loopoocat

In 1935, Waddingtons, received the license to distribute Monopoly in Britain who released the well known London edition.  Perhaps a more interesting edition was manufactured by Waddingtons during the second world war.  Paper maps wear out quickly and someone in MI5 suggested printing maps on silk as it’s durable, can be screwed-up folded and unfolded as often as necessary making no noise at all.  At the time, Waddingtons was the only company that had the ability to print on silk.  Since “games and pastimes” was a category of item qualified for insertion into Red Cross parcels, a plan was then hatched to mass-produce escape maps that could be folded so small that they would actually fit inside a Monopoly playing piece.  While they were at it, they also added a two piece metal file hidden in the board, a playing piece containing a tiny magnetic compass and significant amounts of genuine high-denomination German, Italian, and French currency, hidden within the piles of Monopoly money.  These special sets could be identified by a tiny red dot, one cleverly rigged to look like an ordinary printing glitch, located in the corner of the Free Parking square.

– Image of unknown origin

Parker Brothers secured the Monopoly trademark and Darrow became rich and famous as Monopoly’s creator;  Elizabeth Magie and the others who contributed were all but forgotten.  Then, in the 1970s, Ralph Anspach, an economics professor, brought out Anti-Monopoly. When Parker Brothers sued, the resulting lawsuit required Anspach to track down the game’s past.  After almost ten years of legal warfare, an appeals court eventually ruled in Anspach’s favour, rejecting the Monopoly trademark.  As a result, Parker Brothers lobbied the United States Congress leading to a revision of trademark legislation.

– Image of unknown origin

So the Monopoly Brand  is 80 this year the though the game itself is older and in turn is based on games that are much older still.  In any case, to celebrate the 80th Anniversary of the Monopoly Brand, Hasbro (who now own it) have released a list of “80 things you didn’t know about Monopoly“, as well as the inevitable special edition.

2 thoughts on “Boardgames in the News: How Old is Monopoly Really?

  1. Pingback: Boardgames in the News: 20 Years of Catan and El Grande | boardGOATS

  2. Pingback: Boardgames in the News: The Monopoly Community Update | boardGOATS

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