Monopoly’s Anti-monopolistic History

America’s favorite board game has a hidden history that you never would’ve expected. Not only was Parker Brothers’ game Monopoly once anti-capitalist, it was also a blatant theft of intellectual property, according to Christopher Ketcham, who recently wrote on the board game in Harper’s. Monopoly was actually based on an earlier board game inspired by a socialist thinker named Henry George who wrote in the late nineteenth century. In his 1879 work Progress and Poverty, George condemned the idea of owning property as an “erroneous and destructive principle” and instead argued that land should be held in common, with society itself acting as “the general landlord.”

The Landlord’s Game, 1906. Image courtesy of Thomas E. Forsyth.

According to its current owner, Hasbro, Monopoly was invented in 1933 by a Philadelphia dog walker named Charles Darrow, who based Monopoly’s now iconic place names on his hometown of Atlantic City, NJ. Darrow patented the game in 1935 and sold it to the gaming company Parker Brothers, which mass produced the game as we know it today. However, Monopoly was predated by a remarkably similar game dating from 1903 created by a Maryland actress named Lizzie Magie by the name “The Landlord’s Game,” which demonstrated the principles of socialism.

Though their game boards look remarkably similar, Monopoly and The Landlord’s Game differ greatly in their rules and hence winning strategies. While in Monopoly players succeed by acquiring property alone and bankrupting opponents who land on their property, in The Landlord’s Game players win in a different sense. Players were supposed to vote before beginning a game whether to play the game the traditional Monopoly-style way or to instead pay the “rent” incurred by landing on a property into a communal pot—essentially as a social tax, which could then be used to purchase more property. As Magie wrote about the game, as players soon realize, only by the latter system is “prosperity achieved.” The game was popular with Quaker communities, economists, and others who had taken to experimenting with variants of socialism. Ketcham describes George’s socialist philosophy as largely a response to the economic paradox of Gilded Age America.

What puzzled George was that wherever he saw advanced means of production arise in the United States—wherever industry was built up and capital accumulated—more poor people could be found, and in more desperate conditions. It was for him a stunning paradox. “It is the riddle which the Sphinx of Fate puts to our civilization, and which not to answer is to be destroyed,” wrote George. “So long as all the increased wealth which modern progress brings goes but to build up great fortunes . . . progress is not real and cannot be permanent.” In 1879, he published the book that made him famous, Progress and Poverty: An Inquiry into the Cause of Industrial Depressions and of Increase of Want with Increase of Wealth—The Remedy, which provided a sweeping answer to the riddle: land monopoly was the reason progress brought greater poverty. As American civilization advanced, as populations grew and aggregated in and around cities, land became scarce, prices soared, and the majority who had to live and work on the land paid those prices to the minority who owned it. For the laboring classes, rent slavery was the result. “To see human beings in the most abject, the most helpless and hopeless condition,” George wrote, “you must go, not to the unfenced prairies and the log cabins of new clearings in the backwoods, where man singlehanded is commencing the struggle with nature, and land is yet worth nothing, but to the great cities where the ownership of a little patch of ground is a fortune.” [1]

Unlike more radical proposals, George’s didn’t require the state to confiscate all land itself, only the rent “unnaturally” reaped from it, which would be used to support projects for the public good like utilities and schools. Yet, when we play Monopoly today, we are possessed by greed and experience classic schadenfreude in bankrupting our fellow players. In America’s deeply capitalist culture, the game seems to tacitly endorse Weber’s notion of the “Protestant work ethic,” the common cultural connection we make between wealth and self-worth. Monopoly has gone deeply awry in its original ideology but remains popular for its value as an outlet for current capitalist fantasies just as it once reflected George’s socialist fantasy. Yet, the very fact that the Monopoly we have today is a product of intellectual property theft should make us worry. By a subtle tweak of rules and of property names on the board, Monopoly was transformed from a piece of socialist propaganda into one of the most profitable board games in history. Well, that’s capitalism for you.


[1] “Monopoly is Theft,” Christopher Ketcham, Harper’s

Images via
Thomas E. Forsyth

  • lvtfan

    I disagree with the next to last sentence, where you describe the Landlord’s Game as socialist propaganda.   Georgist ideas and socialism are quite in opposition to each other.   It is fair to say that George sought to socialize the economic rent on land, while land monopoly capitalism leaves it mostly in the pockets of landlords, and instead socializes a portion of wages, and takes a portion of what one produces in the form of sales taxes and ongoing taxes on houses, cars, business equipment — all of which are the result of human effort.  Land value is not a function of human effort, and therefore rightly belongs to all of us.  Natural public revenue.

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