The Monopolists by Mary Pilon

Reviewed By

In 1892, a stenographer named Elizabeth Magie published a book of poems about love, creativity and altruism. The following winter, the twenty-something Washington, D.C. resident secured a patent for a device that improved upon the standard typewriter roller. Two years later, one of Magie’s short stories appeared in a leading literary magazine. For good measure, she was also a talented amateur actress, a knowledgeable political activist and a single homeowner in an era that wasn’t exactly kind to women who did and thought for themselves.

The heroine of Mary Pilon’s smart and revealing The Monopolists: Obsession, Fury, and the Scandal Behind the World’s Favorite Board Game, Magie was a driven polymath who seems to have been capable of almost anything. But she was also the victim of a longstanding injustice: Magie developed one of the 20th century’s ubiquitous consumer products, but never received proper credit for her work.

A century ago, Magie dreamed up something called the Landlord’s Game. A family-friendly board game based on property sales and paydays, it was a not-so-distant ancestor of a leisure pursuit with a much more recognizable moniker: Monopoly. The hugely successful game has sold 275 million copies and, according to Hasbro’s website, is “available in 111 languages, in 43 countries.” The company has long maintained that Monopoly was created during the Great Depression; in 1935, a patent was issued to Philadelphian Charles B. Darrow. But Pilon, a New York Times reporter, demonstrates that the official story has some major holes, and that Magie was written out of a streamlined narrative used to sell the game.

From the start, Magie was motivated by a very particular set of goals. She subscribed to the theories set forth by the prominent lefty economist Henry George, and she wanted to use her game to win a wider audience for his “single tax” idea. As Pilon explains, George argued “that individuals should own 100 percent of what they made or created, but that everything found in nature, particularly land, should belong to everyone. Land was not meant to be seized, bought, sold, traded, or parceled into city blocks where people were forced to pay exorbitant rents. Since, however, some people did own land, they should pay a tax for that privilege.” To Magie and other devotees, George’s communitarian ethos seemed like a visionary response to the vast wealth gap that separated the working classes from the increasingly powerful industrial titans of the day.

Patented in 1904, the Landlord’s Game came with “play money and deeds and properties that could be bought and sold,” Pilon writes. “Players borrowed money, either from the bank or from each other, and they had to pay taxes.” Though they were competing to accumulate riches, the game was meant to subtly remind players of the inherent inequities of monopoly ownership. The board featured a railroad, a jail, and a space called “Mother Earth”—when players passed by, they earned a $100 stipend. Sounds familiar, no?

The game caught on. In Arden, Delaware, citizens living in a village set up in accordance with Georgist ideas played the Landlord’s Game often and enthusiastically. Upton Sinclair, the famed novelist, and Scott Nearing, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania, lived in the village for a time, and they “were among those who took their handmade versions of the Landlord’s Game from Arden to other locales in the Northeast, spreading the anti-monopoly game to an unknown number of players,” Pilon says. Versions of the Landlord’s Game were played by political staffers, lawyers and college students in the 1920s, and it was subsequently taken up by a group of Quaker friends living in Atlantic City. Decades before viral marketing campaigns, Magie’s invention appears to have spread for the most wholesome of reasons: people liked playing it, and they wanted to share it with their friends.

The tale of how the game evolved over time—and why, after a series of modifications, an alternative version was issued a patent in 1935—is fairly complex, and it includes an Altman-esque ensemble of characters. Yet Pilon’s refreshingly direct prose and ample storytelling skills make for a breezy, enlightening inquiry into the plight of an under-appreciated innovator. For all her talents, Magie didn’t have access to the kind of business-planning strategies that enabled others to carve out an enormously lucrative corner of the board-game market. In her day, she was deprived a fair share of the wealth she had earned, but in terms of historical recognition, Magie gets her due, finally, in The Monopolists.

Kevin Canfield is a writer in New York City. He is a regular contributor to the San Francisco Chronicle, Film Comment and other publications. More from this author →