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New Book Reveals Untold History of Monopoly

More than 275 million Monopoly sets have been sold worldwide and it’s available in 111 countries, in 43 languages. 

| BY Donald Liebenson

There is—we kid you not—a Monopoly movie in the works. Principal photography will reportedly begin this summer. The project was originally conceived as a satire of the real estate, but has since evolved into a “family adventure” story a la The Goonies.

This seems a wasted opportunity, because when it comes to Monopoly, truth, as ever, is stranger and more gripping than fiction. “The Monopolists,” a new book by author and journalist Mary Pilon, chronicles the iconic board game’s long-hidden history and in part it’s a crackerjack David vs. Goliath story in the classic American entrepreneurial tradition.

Most Americans are too busy trying to avoid landing in jail or on their opponent’s hotel-laden properties to think about Monopoly’s history, but the long-accepted version is a doozy: In the depths of the Great Depression, an unemployed salesman named Charles Darrow created the board game as a way to support his family. “Who doesn't want to believe that they can go into their basement in one of the nation's darkest hours and create something that will change, you know, their own fate and make everybody rich and make you beloved?” Pilon told NPR.” I think that's a great story…I mean this thing has stuck like nobody's business. And I actually think the true story is more interesting."

Monopoly is big business. Darrow sold his version of the game to Parker Bros. in 1935 for $7,000 plus residuals. The next year alone, 1.75 million sets were sold.  All told, more than 275 million games have been sold worldwide and it’s available in 111 countries, in 43 languages.

Click on an online post such as “80 enterprising facts you may not know about Monopoly” and you will read all about Charles Darrow. You will find no mention of  Lizzie Magie, who, at the turn of the century, patented her own creation, a board game called the Landlord’s Game. Magie was a feminist, a poet, and a game designer at a time, Pilon notes, that fewer than 1 percent of patents in the United States came from women.

Pilon created her board game as a teaching tool on the evils of capitalism. She offered two versions. In one, everyone benefited from wealth creation. In the other, players sought to create monopolies and bankrupt their opponents. Guess which one caught on? Magie’s reportedly earned $500 for her creation.

Pilon first reported Magie’s story for The New York Times. Her unsung contribution to Monopoly’s history came to light in the course of a decade-long legal battle between Parker Bros. and Ralph Anspach, a San Francisco State University professor who created his own board game, Anti-Monopoly. “Some of his fate [is] hinging on that story and that the game had this whole life before Parker Bros. entered the picture,” Pilon said.

“The Monopolists” taps in to a vast reserve of nostalgia for the game. “When you talk to people about Monopoly, they love talking about their memories associated with it,” Pilon told NPR. “When I think about Monopoly I think of my family playing at the holidays. And so I think now people have projected so much of their own memories and moments onto it that that will keep it going for a long time because it's just this multigenerational thing that everybody can share.”


About the Author

Donald Liebenson

Donald Liebenson writes news and features for Millionaire Corner. He has been published in the Chicago Tribune, The Chicago Sun-Times, The Los Angeles Times, Fiscal Times, Entertainment Weekly, Huffington Post, and other outlets. He has also served as a marketing writer for Chicago-based Questar Entertainment and distributor Baker & Taylor.  

A graduate of the University of Southern California, he is married with a college-age son. He also writes extensively about entertainment.