1936 Monopoly Origins Document

MonopolyOrigins

I recently stumbled upon a very interesting document on an obscure blog, where Brian Sutton-Smith explains:

Today, the “real story” behind the invention of Monopoly, America’s most iconic board game, is well-known. But, as the game’s popularity began to intensify, executives at Parker Brothers wanted to keep the origin of Monopoly a secret. LeRoy Howard, a game designer and developer at Parker Brothers, advised George S. Parker about purchasing Monopoly from Charles Darrow in 1935. During the acquisition, Parker Brothers learned that Darrow’s commercially-produced version of the board game was based on Elizabeth M. Phillips’s previously-patented creation, The Landlord’s Game. In the end, Parker Brothers purchased the original patent from Phillips for $500. The document, titled “The Origin of the Game of Monopoly,” includes a handwritten annotation that reads “Not for Publication, L.H.” and was originally marked “Confidential.”

I can shed some additional light on this. Although this 1936 document was not published, it must have been prepared by Parker Brothers as press release material that could have appeared in magazines or newspapers. Similar accounts, although not as lengthy, did in fact appear in the press around this time.

In light of the Anti-Monopoly case and various events that took place after 1948, it may surprise some to learn that this was, in fact, the official Parker Brother position on the origins of Monopoly. From early 1936 until Mrs. Elizabeth Magie Phillips died in 1948, Parker Brothers credited her and Charles Darrow as the co-creators of Monopoly.

By this time, Parker Brothers had obtained a virtual monopoly on the rights to Monopoly, so far as they were able to do so at the time. As we know today, the basic game of Monopoly derives from The Landlord’s Game, which Elizabeth Magie patented in 1904. By the time this article was written, however, her original patent had expired, and therefore it is not mentioned here.

Competitors such as Milton Bradley were certainly aware of it, however, as they issued the game Carnival in 1937, based on just that expired Landlord’s Game patent. But Parker Brothers did not want to mention it here, as it would have tended to undermine their legal claims to Monopoly, serving to have the Monopoly patent invalidated.

No mention, of course, is made of the various early Monopoly players such as the Thuns, Daniel Layman, Ruth Hoskins, Eugene Raiford, et al who made various contributions to the game before Charles Darrow learned it from Charles Todd. Therefore, Parker ascribes any and all such improvements to Darrow.

Charles Darrow, while certainly not the inventor of Monopoly, was certainly instrumental in developing the game to the point where it became successful. He brought it over the finish line, so to speak.

In order to consider what were the aspects of Monopoly that Parker Brothers considered to be Darrow’s intellectual property, one has only to compare the 1935 patent application with the similar game Fortune they issued the same year. This can be considered as Parker’s backup plan, a game that they could quickly popularize if it turned out that Charles Darrow was not the true inventor of Monopoly.

If Parker was forced to terminate their contract with Darrow and cease paying him a royalty, they would have gotten behind Fortune instead. Fortune is almost identical to Monopoly, but with a different name.

There are also different property names and, of course, this game did not use Darrow’s iconic illustrations or the distinctive metal tokens made by Dowst.

Interestingly, the 1935 Fortune has only houses, not hotels, and they apparently credited this innovation to Darrow.* But it does have both Chance and Community Chest cards. By the time this game came out, Parker Brothers apparently knew that these were not introduced by Darrow.

The 1936 Parker Brothers document summarizes, in a fairly factual way, the true origins of the game Monopoly, but leaves out anything that would have tended to undermine their legal position regarding the game. It is very complimentary to Mrs. Elizabeth Magie Phillips, who surely could have insisted on collecting a royalty on Monopoly but who, instead, sold her second Landlord’s patent to Parker for $500.

The “conventional wisdom” today is that she was cheated out of a fortune, but the real situation is more nuanced and certainly more interesting. As a dedicated follower of economist Henry George, Mrs. Phillips took out patents on her inventions in order to receive proper credit and recognition, but Georgists would have considered it unseemly for her to have profited financially from such a legalized government monopoly.

By 1935, she was already well off through her marriage to Albert Phillips, who was a successful publisher. Although she kept abreast of game patents through her connections at the patent office, Mrs. Phillips never made any attempt to benefit financially from any of her various patents. She made no attempt to stop earlier commercialized games based on her invention such as the 1932-35 Finance, which was about 90% the same as Monopoly.

In 1935, she was being courted by three different game makers regarding her 1924 patent– Parker Brothers, Milton Bradley, and Knapp Electric. But there was never any doubt in her mind that she would make a deal with Parker Brothers, although she insisted on dealing directly with company founder George S. Parker, who she considered the “King of Games.”

History belongs to the living, and therefore it should be no surprise that Parker Brothers stuck to the narrative as outlined in the above document at least until Mrs. Phillips died in 1948. The very deferential tone towards her stands in contrast to the stance Parker took before buying her patent. A brief mention of Monopoly in a 1935 issue of Fortune magazine includes a denial that the game was invented by Henry George.

This kind of slight, and Parker’s subsequent building up of Darrow as a game inventor, rankled her to the point where she gave some press interviews in early 1936 that mentioned her 1904 patent. As a result, Parker Brothers took additional steps to mollify her. They agreed to publish two more of her games (Bargain Day and King’s Men) and crafted this very carefully worded narrative.

The problem is, they forgot the parts about Elizabeth Magie Phillips from their press pronouncements after she died. It was not until the early 1970s that she once again received her due as the true inventor of Monopoly, and this is in large part through the efforts of Dr. Ralph Anspach and the Anti-Monopoly case, without which much of the game’s origins would have been lost in the mists of time.

-Clarence B. Darwin

*Pictures of the game on the Board Game Geek web site show hotels, but these must have been imported later from some Monopoly set. The copyrighted rules only mention houses.

6 thoughts on “1936 Monopoly Origins Document

    1. thetrolleydodger Post author

      After the patent office issued the Monopoly patent on December 31, 1935, Parker’s competitors had to fall into line. Knapp Electric sold Finance to Parker Brothers, and Milton Bradley had to make changes to Easy Money.

      One major change involved the elimination of property cards, something that Parker likely insisted on. But when MB issued Carinval in 1936, it had such cards because they had been used in the 1904 Landlord’s Game patent. So, even in such cases where Parker tried to assert a monopoly on Monopoly, it wasn’t fully effective.

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    2. Malcolm Holcombe

      The problem of limited board space for 5 houses (improvements) on a property was resolved in multiple ways. In 1923, about the time the Thuns first learned about monopoly, a Philadelphia folk MONOPOLY (the name as displayed on the game board) game, solved the problem by using 3-dimensional houses with windows on each side of a house. There were 5 sets of houses – displaying 1, 2, 3, 4 or 5 windows on each side of a given house. Therefore, only 1 house was displayed on a property from the 1st improvement to the 5th improvement. In addition, this 1923 Philadelphia folk MONOPOLY game houses had pins in the base that mounted to the board so as to become fixed and unmovable unless they were pulled out of place. Of course, when commercialization of the game began in the early 1930s, that approach would have been prohibitively expensive, hence hotels were substituted. Beginning in 1932 Dan Layman’s Finance game used hotels as distinguished by red vs. green buildings or roofs as physically they were the same shape. Of course, Dan Layman learned the game from the Thuns. Too bad there is no publically available physical information or photographs of the Thun game.
      The 1923 Philadelphia game also had Chance spaces and cards.

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      1. David Sadowski Post author

        Chris Williamson claims to have enough information on the Thun game (from various sources) to reproduce it. The 1932-35 Finance rules do not mention hotels, or explain why there are both red and green houses. The game was, of course, a simplification of the Thun game, which did have hotels.

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    1. thetrolleydodger Post author

      There were things about that article that Parker probably was not happy about, including the picture showing her holding up one of her game boards with the word “Monopoly” printed on it. I think that Elizabeth Magie Phillips was unhappy about all the attention being lavished on Darrow as the supposed inventor of Monopoly. In particular, she couldn’t have been happy with the 1935 Fortune blurb that denied any connection between Henry George and Monopoly.

      So, she gave some newspaper interviews in early 1936 to set the record straight. Parker mollified her by agreeing to publish more of her games such as Bargain Day, and doubtless this press release was part of that. It set the terms whereby Parker Brothers officially designated her and Darrow as equal co-creators of Monopoly.

      It seems likely that the press release came after the Washington Star interview appeared. The handwritten “not for publication” note may have been put on there years later, since there does seem to be evidence that this type of material actually was handed out to the press, at least based on some articles that appeared at the time.

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