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

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