The Real Inventor of Monopoly Was From Arlington?

Yes, but she never made a penny off of it. Here's why.

Photo courtesy of Washington Evening Star (1936)

 

Columbia Gardens Cemetery is the eternal resting place of a little-known bit of board game lore. While it does not say so on her tombstone, Arlingtonian Elizabeth Magie was likely the real inventor of Monopoly—contrary to the oft-repeated claim that Charles Darrow, a broke salesman, created the game to save his family from financial ruin.

Born in Illinois in 1866, Elizabeth “Lizzie” Magie moved with her family to the D.C. area in 1890, right around the time that her father, an abolitionist and Lincoln supporter, introduced her to Henry George’s economic tome Progress and Poverty. A bestseller of its time, the book advocated the concept of a “land value tax” (aka “single tax”), wherein only those who owned land would be required to pay taxes.

As a believer in the Georgian model, Magie soon devised a way to proselytize the concept in board game form. Her 1904 patent for “The Landlord’s Game” depicted a square board with properties for sale or rent, along with railroads, water and light “franchises.” The corner spaces held recognizable phrases like “public park” and, notably, “No trespassing. Go to jail.”

In her patent, Magie wrote that the object of the game was to acquire as much wealth as possible—her intent being to demonstrate how extreme wealth also begets extreme poverty. The game quickly gained a following, but it didn’t bring about the moral enlightenment its creator had hoped for. Players saw it as entertainment; even a guilty pleasure.

Three decades later, Charles Darrow submitted a patent for a game called “Monopoly” that bore an uncanny resemblance to The Landlord’s Game. This was no innocent mistake, notes New York Times writer Mary Pilon, author of the game’s defining history, The Monopolists. Darrow had discovered the concept while playing a variation of Magie’s game (which fans had taken to calling “the monopoly game”) at a friend’s house. Instantly enthralled, he asked his friend for written rules and a copy of the board. Soon after, he patented his own version in 1935 and sold it to Parker Brothers.

Later that same year, Magie—now married and going by the last name Phillips—was living in Arlington when board-game magnate George Parker paid her a visit with what seemed like a great offer: $500 cash and a promise to produce The Landlord’s Game, plus two others, in exchange for the rights to her patent. Ever the idealist, she was thrilled, thinking that her game and its political agenda would finally get the platform they deserved. She was wrong.

A year later, Monopoly was a huge seller and Magie realized she had been swindled. She contacted the press, telling The Washington Post that Darrow’s game was “nothing new under the sun,” but to no avail. In the last known record of Magie’s claim to fame, a 1940 Census survey listed her occupation as “maker of games” but her 1939 income as $0.

Elizabeth Magie Phillips died in 1948. She is interred alongside her husband near the corner of Arlington Boulevard and Glebe Road—her contributions to one of the best-selling board games of all time relegated to the dustbin of history.

Categories: Local History
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