Board games are making a comeback. With cafes catering to analog gamers popping up around New York and titles like Settlers of Catan gaining a certain amount of trendy cache, it's safe to say that people are returning to the great American pastime of staring at pieces of cardboard and trading fake money. The greatest of all pieces of cardboard, of course, is Monopoly: the classic board game that takes six hours to finish and teaches children the pleasures of ruthless capitalism. Mary Pilon, a former sports reporter for the New York Times and business reporter for the Wall Street Journal, spent five years looking into the weird history behind Monopolyand found that, contrary to popular belief, it wasn't invented during the Great Depression. Also, it was created by an anti-capitalist feminist poet.
Out now from Bloomsbury, Pilon's The Monopolists is a deep-dive into the past century: from controversies surrounding the game's creation to recent Hasboro lawsuits. I spoke with Pilon to learn more about Monopoly's anti-capitalist roots, the weird world of patents, and the rightful inventor of America's favorite game.
VICE: How did you end up writing about Monopoly? Are you a big fan?
Mary Pilon: I'm a big games nerd. I grew up playing a lot of video games and board games. But this whole project came about by accident. In 2009, I was writing about the economy at the Wall Street Journal, which was—as you can remember—really depressing. In one piece, I thought I'd just have a throwaway line about Monopoly being invented during the Great Depression. Then I started to do research and came across Ralph [Anspach]'s lawsuit. I reached out to him and said I was a reporter at the Journal, trying to learn about Monopoly. I wrote about his legal battle, and kept researching. So much business coverage is so technical—you're writing about derivatives and investment banks—so to get involved in the board game world was great.
Wait, what was the Monopoly lawsuit about?
In the early 1970s, this guy Ralph was living in the Bay Area. He was very left wing, politically. He made a game called Anti-Monopoly, trying to teach people about the evils of Monopoly. It's not long before he hears from Monopoly's attorneys, saying that he couldn't make Anti-Monopoly. Ralph, like me—like everybody—thought this man Charles Darrow had invented the game, but [over the course of his lawsuit] he unearthed this whole scandal, that this woman had invented Monopoly in 1904.
Hs legal battle hinged on proving this, what he called the " Monopoly lie." I originally started researching his lawsuit because any time you have a source you want to make sure their story checks out. But this was the first time where I finished a story and I had way more questions. I was spending my weekends at the the New York Public Library, and I used my vacation days to fly out to San Francisco and meet with Ralph in person. He had boxes of documents and photographs that I began to report off of; his case hatched open all these historical records. I shipped all of those to New York and just started with that.
What was the most surprising thing you came across in your research?
I was surprised that the game wasn't just invented so long before the Great Depression, but by a woman. Female inventors a century ago were often overlooked and the fact that one was so pivotal in creating an economic game was highly unusual for her time. The more I learned about Lizzie Magie, the more strange and unusual the story of Monopoly became. Its creation came from what many historians would deem an unlikely source.
Who was Lizzie Magie?
I actually thought I might write a Lizzie Magie biography! She was a feminist. She had these really outspoken views about how women were being treated at the time, how they were being paid. She wrote short stories and poetry, and over and over again in her writing these themes of justice and inequality kept coming up. The idea that she would make this board game to teach the evils of monopoly and spread her political views made a lot of sense.
I didn't set out to write a feminist book, I set out to write a book about the game. But the fact that that's the direction it took is fascinating. Since [ The Monopolists] has come out, I've heard a lot from women in tech. More and more of these stories are coming out; whether you're a woman or a persecuted ethnic minority, there are all sorts of inventions and things that were created by a more dynamic group of people than we realize, because often they just got erased by history. Lizzie Magie, if you think about her time period and women then, it makes sense that she would have been mostly forgotten. One of the last traces we have from [Magie] is on the 1940 US Census, where she listed her occupation as "Maker of Games"—even though she had so many other occupations—and her income is zero.
Why do we think that Monopoly was invented by Charles Darrow, then?
For years, the Darrow story was the commonly told one. Even if it isn't accurate, it's a really romantic tale. It's a classic Cinderella, Horatio Alger, rags to riches narrative. I think we're all intoxicated by that because on some level, we want to relate to it ourselves. Who doesn't want to dream that they can have a "eureka!" moment and become a millionaire instantly?
What was the message behind Magie's version of the game?
The Landlord's Game, ironically, was devised to teach people about the evils of the monopolists of her time. In a 1902 issue of the Single Tax Review, [Magie wrote], "It might well have been called the Game of Life, as it contains all the elements of success and failure in the real world, and the object is the same as the human race in general seems to have, i.e., the accumulation of wealth."
So is your next book on Settlers of Catan?
I love Settlers but I'm still in recovery from my first book. Maybe Clue. I have no idea. This took five years. I don't regret it for a second, but this book took longer than any game of Monopoly I've ever played.
Buy The Monopolists, out now from Bloomsbury.
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