Monopoly was stolen from socialist land-reformers and perverted

Christopher Ketcham's beautifully written Harper's feature on the history of Monopoly, "Monopoly Is Theft," traces the idealistic socialist land-reformers who created the game and modified it over decades, and the unscrupulous "inventor" who claimed to have created it and sold it to Parker Brothers. Monopoly's forerunner was "The Landlord's Game," created by Lizzie Magie, inspired by Henry George, who believed in the abolition of land-ownership and created a powerful movement to make this a reality. Many of George's devotees played The Landlord's Game, learning about the evils of real-estate and rentiers, and they modified the rules together, creating the game as we know it, changing its name to "monopoly" (all lower-case). Then "an unemployed steam-radiator repairman and part-time dog walker from Philadelphia named Charles Darrow" copied it, patented it, and sold it to Parker Brothers. The rest is history.

About a month before the Pittsburgh tournament, an amateur Monopoly historian and game collector named Richard Biddle invited me to the village of Arden, Delaware, to have a look at the first Landlord’s Game ever fashioned. Arden had been founded as a Georgist experiment in 1900, four years after a failed attempt to implement the single-tax system across the state. It was envisioned as a self-sufficient utopia on 160 acres of woodland, and it soon attracted artists, poets, actors, anarchists, and freethinkers. Upton Sinclair had a cottage there, dubbed the Jungalow. Ardenites were barred from “owning” their plots, instead purchasing ninety-nine-year leases on cooperatively held land. It didn’t matter whether the residents built mansions or shacks: they were taxed only on the underlying value of the land, often at very high rates. This revenue paid for roads, parks, a commons, playgrounds, and utilities.

Lizzie Magie visited the village not long after its founding, and brought with her an oilcloth mock-up of her Landlord’s Game, which soon became a pastime among residents. While at Arden, she built a board for the game with the help of a resident carpenter. Biddle spoke solemnly of this alpha board; he estimated that it could be worth a million dollars.

We met at the village green and walked a few blocks, where we found the owner of the board, an eighty-year-old retired autoworker named Ronald Jarrell, standing outside his cottage looking nervous. Apprised of our visit, Jarrell had earlier in the day gone to his safe-deposit box at the local bank to retrieve the board.

Monopoly Is Theft


  1. Thanks, Cory!  What a wonderful thing…  I live just down the road from Arden.  I’m going to need to make up a Georgist monopoly set for the family.

  2. Oddly enough I always thought the game Monopoly taught the lesson that monopolies are a bad thing. Yes, the object of the game is to achieve complete control of the board, but once that happens the game is over.

    I always thought the conclusion of any Monopoly game was, “You’ve now completely destroyed the system, preventing anyone else from being able to participate. Congratulations asshole.”

      1. Actually there almost always came a point when the conclusion seemed inevitable, and all of us, including the person who was poised to win, would collectively say, “Forget this. Let’s go do something entertaining.”

        It’s not hard to believe that the world would be a better place if a similar principle were applied on a grand scale.

        1. I once played with a three law students and a future stock broker.  No one ever went out because they just entered into debt contracts with more successful players.  After the first three hours everything devolved to contract renegotiation and battles over potential loophole exploits and I don’t think we even rolled any dice for the rest of the evening.

    1. There used to be a PC game called ‘Nuke’ or ‘MAD’..something..  The only way to ‘win’ was to destroy the other three global powers (among the USA, Russia, China, and India) and in the process, destroy the planet.  You couldn’t win the game unless you reduced Earth to radioactive ash.

      It wasn’t easy, but I managed to do it exactly once.

        1. “..only 9 million killed..” and “..I wonder if this 20 megaton bomb will be able to take out this tent…”.

          I’d completely forgotten about the pneumatic ST doors.  Thanks!

      1. There was a cold war game on MacOS in black & white days that started off with various diplomatic and strategic maneuvers which invariably descended into nuclear war, after which the game chided you in plain text for your role in the destruction of the earth, pointedly refusing to show any ending animation or “reward.”  

        (The fucked thing was that the AI superpowers reacted hugely asymmetrically and unreasonably; if you were playing the US and built missile bases in friendly Canada, the USSR or China would likely as not take it as a provocation to launch a first strike. Whereas if you registered a diplomatic objection to either of them moving ground troops into Mexico, they would take that as… a provocation to launch a first strike.)

  3. The followers of Henry George are certainly not Socialists and did not believe in the abolition of land-ownership.

  4. Monoploy was also featured in an episode of Games Britania on BBC Four (In the UK). The full episode is not currently available but here is a clip:

  5. We covered a lot of this early MONOPOLY history with interviews, pictures, and video in our documentary “Under the Boardwalk: The MONOPOLY Story,” which is available on Amazon, iTunes, and Netflix, as well as on  In addition to the history of the game, we also take a look at the competitive side to the game, with coverage of the last US & World MONOPOLY Championships.

    – Kevin Tostado,
    Director, “Under the Boardwalk: The MONOPOLY Story”

  6. That was one of the greatest reads of forgotten history I have ever had the pleasure to sit down to. I had no idea of the real history, and the amazing work of Henry George.

    All these years I thought what George thought over 150 years ago- that renters are screwed by people who add no value to anything, and simply profit for exploiting land ownership.

    I am going to read George’s book now, and research his work. I had no idea till now there was an alternative to the terrible system we live in, and one even outside of socialism. George’s system was neither- and benefited all.

    I cannot understand why his way is not the American way today. Perhaps there is more to it. You’ve really made me think Cory, thank you!

  7. I read Anspach’s book, “The Billion Dollar Monopoly Swindle,” some time back and aside from the tone (which is, essentially “HAH! I WAS RIGHT YOU BASTARDS!”) it was a pretty fascinating history. There are many versions of “Monopoly” that were created/edited/played around early 20th century. Anspach goes through all the ones he could find. The book is available via Kindle

  8. Monopoly was created by classical progressives who were *not* socialists. The only people who called them socialists are the socialists who want to take credit that is not theirs, and the reactionaries who want to discredit everything by calling it socialist. The actual socialists of the time hailed monopoly as an inevitable step toward socialism, and attacked progressives for trying to remove privilege instead of taking over.

  9. I imagine that a nicely turned reproduction of the 1906 game might sell quite a few copies. I’d be interested.

  10. So, copying is theft when you, personally, agree with the agenda of the victim.  Yet when you agree with the agenda of the thief, copying is not theft.  Got it.

    1. Don’t be daft. Copying in and of itself is not “theft” and to my knowledge BB has never said it was. The theft here occurred when Charles Darrow took out a patent that rightfully should have belonged to the game’s developer(s).  Got it now?

  11. “As to what is the just distribution of wealth there can be no dispute. It is that which gives wealth to him who makes it, and secures wealth to him who saves it. So clearly is this the only just distribution of wealth that even those shallow writers who attempt to defend the existing order of things are driven, by a logical necessity, falsely to assume that those who now possess the larger share of wealth made it and saved it, or got it by gift or by inheritance, from those who did make it and save it; whereas the fact is, as I have in a previous chapter shown, that all these great fortunes, whose corollaries are paupers and tramps, really come from the sheer appropriation of the makings and savings of other people.”

    – Henry George, *Social Problems*, Chapter 9, “First Principles”

  12. I  grew up in walking distance of Arden. Studied Henry George there. My first girlfriend still lives there. It’s a wonderful artist-colony type place, at least when compared to the sterile suburbs it’s in the middle of, where we were so bored we played a lot of monopoly… I knew the game had single-tax origins but didn’t know there was an Arden connection. Nowadays I mostly aspire to be a landlord.

  13. Really old news. Even Parker Bros. had long ago rewritten their history to include the story of The Landlord Game.  However, Darrow didn’t just “copy it”. He did massive amounts of play testing and tinkering, and then did the legwork to get it into stores.

  14. “However, Darrow didn’t just ‘copy it.’ He did massive amounts of play testing and tinkering, and then did the legwork to get it into stores.”

    That’s not true, although it’s part of the Parker Brothers myth. The game evolved as a folk game over the years, and most of the changes Darrow claimed for himself (such as the grouping of properties to get building rights) had been developed and thoroughly tested by his predecessors. Darrow didn’t even correct the misspelling of Marven Gardens from the incorrect spelling in the game he stole from the Raifords.

    Basically, Parker Brothers wanted to strip all political implications out of the game, and needed a myth. They purchased Lizzie Magie’s patents in a deal that included their agreement to manufacture a goodly number of games with the original rules. They manufactured the games but refused to sell them, and after Lizzie Magie died, they destroyed those games.

    And while it’s old news to those who know a lot about it, it’s not as widely known as it should be, given the game’s significance and popularity. Of all games developed during the 20th century, it was the most popular in terms of sales.

  15. Great learning opportunity!  But please note that Henry George DID NOT propose the abolition of land ownership; he proposed redirecting the flow of rental income, real or implied.

    “For justice to be done between men it is not necessary for the State to take the land; it is only necessary to take its rent.” – Henry George, Progress & Poverty, 1879

    From the French Physiocrats to Adam Smith, Simon Patten and Thorstein Veblen, this was considered the prerequisite for free market capitalism.

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