Lizzie Magie is the secret behind the game Monopoly.In 1904 she produced , and patented a new concept of hers, which she called the Landlord’s Game. “It is a practical demonstration of the present system of land-grabbing with all its usual outcomes and consequences,” she wrote in a political magazine. “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.”
Lizzie’s game featured play money and deeds and properties that could be bought and sold. Players borrowed money, either from the bank or from each other, and they had to pay taxes. And it featured a path that allowed players to circle the board – in contrast to the linear-path design used by many games at the time. In one corner were the Poor House and the Public Park, and across the board was the Jail. Another corner contained an image of the globe and an homage to Lizzie’s political hero, the economist Henry George, whose ideas about putting the burden of taxation on wealthy landowners inspired the game: “Labor upon Mother Earth Produces Wages.” Also included on the board were three words that have endured for more than a century after Lizzie scrawled them there: GO TO JAIL.
The Landlord’s Game had nine rectangular spaces along the edges of the board between each set of corners. In the centre of each nine-space grouping was a railroad, with spaces for rent or sale on either side. Absolute Necessity rectangles offered goods like bread and shelter, and Franchise spaces offered services such as water and light. As gamers made their way around the board, they performed labour and earned wages. Every time players passed the Mother Earth space, they were “supposed to have performed so much labor upon Mother Earth” that they received $100 in wages. Players who ran out of money were sent to the Poor House.
Players who trespassed on land were sent to Jail, and there the unfortunate individuals had to serve out their time or pay a $50 fine. Serving out their time meant waiting until they threw a double.
From its inception, the Landlord’s Game aimed to seize on the natural human instinct to compete. And, somewhat surprisingly, Lizzie created two sets of rules: an anti-monopolist set in which all were rewarded when wealth was created, and a monopolist set in which the goal was to create monopolies and crush opponents. Her vision was an embrace of dualism and contained a contradiction within itself, a tension trying to be resolved between opposing philosophies. However, and of course unbeknownst to Lizzie at the time, it was the monopolist rules that would later capture the public’s imagination.
Lizzie Magie’s role in the invention of Monopoly remained obscure. But in 1973, Ralph Anspach, a leftwing academic who was under legal attack from Parker Brothers over his creation of an Anti-Monopoly game, learned her story as he researched his case, seeking to undermine the company’s hold on the intellectual property. The case lasted a decade, but in the end, Anspach prevailed, in the process putting Magie’s vital role in the game’s history beyond dispute.
But Hasbro, the company of which Parker Brothers is now a subsidiary, still downplays Magie’s status, responding to a request for comment with a terse statement: “Hasbro credits the official Monopoly game produced and played today to Charles Darrow.” And even in 2015, on Hasbro’s website, a timeline of the game’s history begins in 1935. Over the years, the carefully worded corporate retellings have been most illuminating in what they don’t mention: Lizzie Magie, the Quakers, the dozens, if not hundreds or thousands, of early players, Ralph Anspach and the Anti-Monopoly litigation. Perhaps the care and keeping of secrets, as well as truths, can define us.
If Darrow invented the story rather than the game, he may still deserve to have a plaque on the Boardwalk honoring his ingenuity. It’s hard not to wonder how many other unearthed histories are still out there –stories belonging to lost Lizzie Magies, their contributions so seamless that few of us ever stop to think about their origins. Commonly held beliefs don’t always stand up to scrutiny, but perhaps the real question is why we cling to them in the first place, failing to question their veracity and ignoring contradicting realities once they surface.
This is an edited extract from The Monopolists: Obsession, Fury, and the Scandal Behind the World’s Favorite Board Game by Mary Pilon.