Charles Darrow: Mount Airy’s Millionaire Monopoly Thief?

We had a question this week about the board game Monopoly. As I often do, while researching the question, I got sucked into reading more about the history of the game. It’s incredibly fascinating, and it’s got Philly all over it, so I thought you might dig it too. (If you’re a fan of local history, check out quizzo regular GroJlart over at Philaphilia or check us out at Phillysportshistory.com.)

The Great Depression hit Germantown (now Mt. Airy) resident Charles Darrow hard. He lost his job as a domestic heater salesman, and with a bunch of free time on his hands, started tinkering around on a piece of oilcloth with a new game that was formulating in his mind. He tinkered with rules, made little houses and hotels, and invited friends over to try his new game. They were enthralled. With little money of their own during the Great Depression, the idea of playing a game that gave them money and power was an instant hit. Darrow saw that he had created something special, and started selling the game out of his house. Orders came pouring in, so he went to Parker Brothers to see if they could manufacture it for him. They weren’t interested, so he sold it to Wannamaker’s himself. The game flew off the shelves in Philadelphia that holiday season. Parker Brothers reconsidered, bought the game from Darrow, and paid him royalties that within a year had made him a millionaire. See, a little elbow grease and originality, and the American Dream can come true for anyone!

At least that’s the official story that Parker Brothers told for 40 years after the game was invented. And parts of it are true. But like most stories, it was a hell of a lot more complicated than the “official” version. Darrow positively did not create the game. He was just the guy who hustled it and made the money off of it. The woman who invented it, Lizzie Magie, is like the dude who invented chicken nuggets according to DeAngelo in the Wire. A quick history of the game after the jump, according to About.com:

On January 5, 1904, Lizzie J. Magie, a Quaker woman from Virginia, received a patent for a board game. Lizzie Magie belonged to a tax movement led by
Philadelphia-born Henry George
(ed. note: a fascinating dude himself); the movement supported the theory that the renting of land and real estate produced an unearned increase in land values that profited a few individuals (landlords) rather than the majority of the people (tenants). Henry George proposed a single federal tax based on land ownership believing a single tax would discourage speculation and encourage equal opportunity.

Lizzie Magie wanted to use her game, which she called “The Landlord’s Game” (above) as a teaching device for George’s ideas. The Landlord’s Game and
Monopoly are very similar, except all the properties in Magie’s game are
rented not acquired as in Monopoly and instead of names like “Park
Place” and “Marvin Gardens” one finds “Poverty Place”, “Easy Street” and
“Lord Blueblood’s Estate”. The objectives of each game are also very
different. In Monopoly the idea of the game is to buy and rent or sell
property so profitably that one becomes the wealthiest player and
eventually monopolist. In The Landlord’s Game, the object was to
illustrate how (under the system of land tenure) the landlord had an
advantage over other enterprisers and to show how the single tax could
discourage speculation.

Long story short, the game bounced around for the next 30 years, enjoying most of its popularity in Eastern PA. In the late 20s, it made its way to Atlantic City, where a woman named Ruth Hoskins played it with friends, and added AC street names. Friends of hers played her updated game with a Germantown man named Charles Todd, who then introduced the game to Charles Darrow. Darrow encouraged Todd to write down all the rules, which he then used to pitch to Parker Brothers, claiming he had come up with the game himself. Parker Brothers bought the game, and then the other creators started coming out of the woodwork. So Parker Brothers did what they had to: they bought out all competing versions of Monopoly, and to keep things simple they named Darrow as the sole creator. Charles Darrow made millions off a game he didn’t invent. Was he a thief? entirely. The bottom line is, the game wasn’t mass produced, and he thought it should be. It had been floating around for 30 years, and nobody had thought to take it to Parker Brothers. Somebody eventually would have. It might as well have been Charles Darrow. He was however a liar. He claimed to have invented the game. Like Abner Doubleday inventing baseball, it makes for a nice story, but it simply isn’t true.