The Scandalous History of Monopoly

The corporate greed and obsessive rivalries behind the world's favorite game
Illustration: Peter Crowther

In the Great Depression, when thousands of banks failed, Americans became enthralled with financially themed board games that let them spend fistfuls of fake cash. They played Easy Money, Finance, Inflation, and Big Business. When Monopoly was released in 1935, it trounced them all.

Parker Brothers, Monopoly’s manufacturer, made sure of that. Robert Barton, the company’s president and son-in-law of founder George Parker, relied on cash and legal threats to neutralize competitors. The company had tried unsuccessfully to profit from the tiddlywinks and Ping-Pong crazes around the turn of the century, and Barton was determined not to relive those failures. He himself didn’t care much for Monopoly—he thought it had too many rules and took too long. But he became interested when he learned of the success of similar games. Monopoly was soon selling almost 2 million $2 games a year.

This quest for dominance is unearthed in Mary Pilon’s book, The Monopolists: Obsession, Fury, and the Scandal Behind the World’s Favorite Board Game. As a reporter at the Wall Street Journal in the Aughts, Pilon discovered that Parker Brothers had publicized the tale that Monopoly was created by Charles Darrow, a down-on-his-luck Philadelphian, even though Barton knew full well that others—and one woman in particular—deserved the credit.

Elizabeth Magie, an early feminist writer, had made the virtually identical Landlord’s Game three decades prior. Her goal wasn’t to promote capitalistic greed; she wanted to further the 19th century social activist Henry George’s theory that government spending should be funded by a tax on real estate. Still, Parker Brothers was concerned enough about the similarities between her game and Darrow’s knockoff that it purchased the rights to the Landlord Game for $500, with no residuals.

Much of Pilon’s story focuses on Ralph Anspach, the man who discovered Parker Brothers’ deception. As an irascible left-wing college professor in the 1970s, he created a satirical version of the game called Anti-Monopoly. Parker Brothers sued him, of course. Then he became so obsessed with digging up dirt on his rival that he lost his wife and almost went broke. (He won and can sell Anti-Monopoly.)

Pilon’s research is deep, and it makes for a solid caper about corporate greed. But the writing isn’t original enough: Buildings are “fortresslike.” Famous people’s faces are “plastered everywhere.” Economies, alas, head “south.” She lards her narrative with hackneyed historical references, like this one: “It was March 1935. Darrow had just missed the race riots uptown in Harlem, and the Dust Bowl would hit Oklahoma in just a few weeks.” It’s not clear what race relations and environmental disaster have to do with the board game business. Pilon could have easily mentioned that Elvis Presley was born that Jan. 8.

The book will probably still appeal to the game’s many fans. Monopoly, which Hasbro purchased in the 1990s, is as popular as ever. There have been hundreds of versions worldwide. Recently, fans who bought an 80th anniversary French edition were surprised to find real euros in the box. People obviously still have time to fritter away play money. Pilon, a Monopoly player herself, says the average game doesn’t take as long as you might think. Just 90 minutes. 

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