M is for Elizabeth Magie

I am again focusing on the famous, the forgotten and the misbegotten for Round 21 of the popular ABC Wednesday meme. But finding suitable characters is getting harder, so apologies in advance if there are repeats of previous posts.

This week’s ABC Wednesday subject is Elizabeth ‘Lizzie’ Magie, the woman responsible for countless family squabbles by creating the game that became known as Monopoly.

Magie was born in Macomb, Illinois, in 1866, the daughter of newspaper publisher and abolitionist James Magie who accompanied Lincoln when he travelled around the state in the late 1850s.

Her father introduced Magie to writings of the political economist Henry George, specifically his most famous work Property and Progress which investigated the paradox of increasing inequality and poverty amid economic and technological progress, the boom and bust cycle and advocated anti-monopoly reforms as the solution to the problem. This philosophy was to influence Magie throughout her life.

In the 1880s Magie worked as a stenographer but she wasn’t one to settle for a single career and over the next twenty years she worked as a writer of short stories and poetry, a comedian, a stage actress and as a journalist.

In 1902 Magie devised The Landlord’s Game, the forerunner of Monopoly, which she designed to illustrate the failings of land monopolies in which the rich get richer at the expense of their tenants.

The game illustrated that the poor are made poorer by the continual demands for money for everything from property rents, electricity, water and travel and only ends when every player is penniless, apart from one who owns everything.

Magie hoped that the game would show the world as it is and inspire reform. She said: ‘Let the children once see clearly the gross injustice of our present land system and when they grow up, if they are allowed to develop naturally, the evil will soon be remedied.’

It proved to be a popular pursuit among her circle of friends and in 1903 she applied for a patent on her board game which was granted in 1904.

By 1906 Magie had moved to Chicago where with other followers of Henry George she formed the Economic Game Co to publish The Landlord’s Game. She also designed other games such the humorous Mock Trial that was published by Parker Brothers.

The Landlord’s Game gained a cult following, particularly among students, and in 1924 she obtained a patent on her revised version of the game and a second edition was published in 1932 that included alternate rules for a game called Prosperity which reflected her views on the solution to increasing poverty.

The game might have remained a niche amusement but in 1934 Charles B Darrow of Pennsylvania presented the game to Parker Brothers, now rebranded as Monopoly, without any acknowledgement that he had stolen the idea.

after a few copies had been produced they quietly dropped it along with any mention of Magie

Monopoly became an overnight success and Parker Brothers determined to grab all rights to the games. They tracked down the now ageing Magie offered her $500 as a one-off payment with no royalties. She agreed but only when they agreed to also publish The Landlord’s Game in its original form. This they did but after a few copies had been produced they quietly dropped it along with any mention of Magie’s role in the creation of Monopoly.

For many years, Darrow was given the credit for creating the game and the truth only came to light in 1973. The economics professor Ralph Anspach was in a legal dispute with Parker Brothers over his own game Anti-Monopoly. He came across Magie’s patents as part of his research and her role as the game’s inventor was acknowledged in the court records.

It is ironic that the creator of a game intended to highlight the evils of capitalism should have been duped by big business and Magie died uncelebrated in 1948 at the age of 82.

Incidentally, Monopoly is probably responsible for the spelling preference of ‘jail’ over ‘gaol’, a word borrowed twice from French. Both are pronouned the same but the g-spelling came first from Normandy while the j-spelling came along much later from the posher Parisians. But the j-spelling stuck thanks in no small part to Monopoly’s ‘go to jail’. (See The Story of English in 100 Words by David Crystal.

Nobody’s prefect. If you find any spelling mistakes or other errors in this post, please let me know by highlighting the text and pressing Ctrl+Enter.

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