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The idealist behind a capitalist game

Christopher Furlong/Getty Images

For decades, every Monopoly game sold contained the tale of how Charles Darrow, an unemployed American radiator repairman with a family to feed, had dreamt it up in the depths of the Depression. Except it’s not true, says Tim Harford in Cautionary Tales. Although Monopoly went on to make Darrow and Parker Brothers millions, it was created by a writer and left-wing activist from Delaware called Lizzie Magie.

Years earlier, the idealistic Magie had invented her Landlord’s Game – which bore a striking resemblance to Monopoly – with the intention of deterring the sort of competitive property speculation Monopoly would later encourage. “Let the children once see clearly the gross injustice of our present land system and when they grow up… the evil will soon be remedied,” she wrote. She received a patent for her game in 1904.

Alas, it was not a hit. But versions of the Landlord’s Game circulated for years – Darrow played one with a friend in the early 1930s. He and his family were indeed broke, but when they approached Parker Brothers, they claimed credit for an idea that wasn’t theirs. And, despite Magie’s patent, they took out their own for Monopoly. In 1935 George Parker persuaded the elderly Magie to sell all rights for the Landlord’s Game for $25,000 in today’s money.

Ever hopeful, she wrote her board game a letter: “Farewell my beloved brainchild, remember the world expects much of you.” Parker published the game without fanfare four years later. It flopped. That’s because, says Harford, Parker knew what he had really bought: “a monopoly on Monopoly”.

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