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Monopoly? Darrow didn't build that

Posted by Sarah Laskow  November 7, 2012 02:20 PM

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Monopoly cropped by Fiona Shields.jpg

The story of Monopoly's creation matches nicely with its capitalist bent: Parker Brothers says it sprang fully formed out of the creative mind of Charles Darrow, a dog walker and American striver living in Philadelphia. But Christopher Ketcham, writing for Harper's Magazine online, tells a different story: the first version of Monopoly was called "The Landlord's Game" and, years before Darrow "invented" it, was played in the commune of Arden, Delaware, a 160-acre utopian experiment where land was owned collectively.

In this telling, Monopoly was the Settlers of Catan of the early 1900s: it was popular with geeky economics professors, students at elite universities, Quakers, and camp counselors in the Poconos. While being developed at Arden, the game's rules took on an ideological bent almost exactly opposite to the one Monopoly represents today. Instead of trying to own all of the land and bankrupt their opponents, players in this first Monopoly were encouraged to pool their resources and raise their fortunes together. The game was meant to help teach the ideas of Henry George, the nineteenth-century journalist whose popular book "Progress and Poverty" railed against private property ownership. In its original form, it was distributed without copyright, in the public domain. The "Go!" box that on the modern Monopoly board read "Labor Upon Mother Earth Produces Wages."

Landlord's Game patent.png

1904 patent drawing for the Landlord’s Game board

Ketcham follows a trail leading from the game played at Arden to the version of Monopoly the Parker Brothers and Darrow patented in 1935. (There are a lot of juicy details, and it’s worth reading the whole thing.) Along the way, a series of people added to and refined the original version. Darrow's contribution? "His only innovation seems to have been to claim the mantle of sole inventor," Ketcham says.

[Top photo: Fiona Shields]

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About brainiac Brainiac is the daily blog of the Globe's Sunday Ideas section, covering news and delights from the worlds of art, science, literature, history, design, and more. You can follow us on Twitter @GlobeIdeas.
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Guest blogger Sarah Laskow is a freelance writer and editor in New York City. She edits Smithsonian's SmartNews blog and has contributed to Salon, Good, The American Prospect, Bloomberg News, and other publications.

Guest blogger Joshua Glenn is a Boston-based writer, publisher, and freelance semiotician. He was the original Brainiac blogger, and is currently editor of the blog HiLobrow, publisher of a series of Radium Age science fiction novels, and co-author/co-editor of several books, including the story collection "Significant Objects" and the kids' field guide to life "Unbored."

Guest blogger Ruth Graham is a freelance journalist in New Hampshire, and a frequent Ideas contributor. She is a former features editor for the New York Sun, and has written for publications including Slate and the Wall Street Journal.

Joshua Rothman is a graduate student and Teaching Fellow in the Harvard English department, and an Instructor in Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. He teaches novels and political writing.


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