The Monopoly magnates among us know the thrill of landing on an up-for-grabs Boardwalk or Park Place and buying the pricey properties with our stash of brightly colored fake money.
We’re also familiar with the feeling of trepidation when we land on those same properties after they have been purchased and improved by someone else, knowing we will have to pay an exorbitant rental fee before we can once again pass “Go” and collect our much-needed $200.
While the iconic board game Monopoly is embedded in our culture, it’s likely that few, if any, of us have given much thought to how it came to be. In “The Monopolists: Obsession, Fury, and the Scandal Behind the World’s Favorite Board Game,” author and journalist Mary Pilon offers a fascinating look at the game’s surprisingly contentious roots.
For decades, the credit for Monopoly’s invention went to Charles Darrow, Pilon writes. An unemployed salesman in the Great Depression era, Darrow was said to have created the game to entertain his children. Then, desperate to care for his family, he cleverly marketed and sold it.
But Pilon’s research reveals that the roots of the popular board game go back even further. It turns out that about 30 years earlier, a young idealistic stenographer named Lizzie Magie also was disheartened with economic circumstances. Powerful monopolies were at play in America. Magie, along with many influential decision-makers of the time, was grappling with the rich getting richer and the poor getting poorer.
Board games were becoming increasingly popular, and in search of a new medium to reflect her progressive political views, in 1902 Magie invented “The Landlord’s Game.” Pilon shows us in her book how it may have been the earliest precursor to modern-day Monopoly. While Magie’s game contained anti-monopoly messages, many of the modern Monopoly game’s traits — like the “Go to Jail” space — can be traced back to her original game board.
Others also impacted the evolution of Monopoly before Darrow’s version hit the market in 1933. This engaging read introduces us to those characters, traces the history of game giants Parker Brothers and Milton Bradley and just may change the way you look at your Monopoly board the next time you unfold it on the dining room table.
Bob Kustra is president of Boise State University and host of Reader’s Corner, a weekly radio show on Boise State Public Radio. Reader’s Corner airs Fridays at 6 p.m. and repeats Sundays at 11 a.m. on KBSX 91.5 FM. Previous shows, including an interview with Pilon, are online and available for podcast at http://boisestatepublicradio.org/programs/readers-corner. To listen to previous shows anytime, download our free player from the iTunes App Store. Search for “Reader’s Corner.”