To celebrate Women’s History month, this year I am going to profile Lizzie Magie.
I hadn’t heard of her either until herstory (sic) was revealed in 2015.
Elizabeth (aka Lizzie) Magie invented the game Monopoly.
Oh no, you say, that was Charles Darrow, who created the game during the depression, was rejected by the major game companies, and produced it himself. A Philadelphia department store, Wanamaker’s, agreed to sell it and it became a hit. Only then did the major game companies take notice. Darrow claimed that he was the sole inventor and Parker Brothers purchased the rights to the game, giving the family royalties in perpetuity.
Except that is only the tail end of the story. The game of Monopoly went through several iterations before Darrow played it at a friend’s house in Atlantic City and called it his own invention.
The original game was invented and patented by Elizabeth Magie in 1904. She was the first developer of a square boardgame. Before her invention, games were played on linear boards. Her patent would have been lost to history had Parker Brothers not tried to sue Professor Ralph Anspach for trademark infringement when he offered an Anti-Monopoly game. As part of Anspach’s decade-long legal defense, he discovered that the true story of Monopoly was missing a few game pieces.
The board game, Monopoly, bears little resemblance to the game that Magie patented and even thwarts the original purpose of her game, which she named The Landlord’s Game.
But we’ll get to that. First, let me tell you why I am highlighting Lizzie Magie for Women’s History month.
Lizzie Magie was born in 1866 at a time when women had few options in life. Fortunately, she was born to a family who encouraged her to use her intellect. Her father was a newspaper publisher and an abolitionist.
Magie was an outspoken feminist and a critic of the role that women were relegated to at that time. To highlight her views, she purchased an advertisement auctioning herself off as a “young woman American slave” looking for a husband to own her. Its goal was to show the limited opportunities and status for women and African American people in America. She believed the only people who were free in America were white men.
In the early 1880s, she moved from Illinois to the D.C./Maryland area and worked as a stenographer, typist, and news reporter. She was also a short story and poetry writer, comedian, stage actress, feminist, and engineer.
At the age of 26, Magie received her first patent for an invention to make the typewriting process easier by allowing paper to go through rollers. At the time, women held fewer than 1% of all patents.
But, back to Monopoly.
Magie was a staunch advocate of Georgist philosophy, a progressive economic theory named after Henry George. Georgists proposed a single tax on land instead of income. The tax would be assessed according to the usefulness, size, and location of the land. It was to replace other taxes that are considered to be both unfair and inefficient. Wealthy property owners would pay higher taxes and those who owned no property would pay no taxes.
Many progressive political leaders at the time supported this economic perspective. In theory, it would motivate people to cultivate land and would redistribute wealth to people of low socioeconomic status. It put a premium on people’s work over their ownership of land.
To demonstrate how much better a cooperative Georgist approach was over capitalism, Magie invented The Landlord’s Game, which could be played both as a strictly capitalist game (such as Monopoly is today) or a Georgist game. The purpose of the game was to demonstrate that the cooperative Georgist approach resulted in all the players being happy vs. the capitalist version where there was only one winner.
The Landlord’s game gained a following among the intellectual elite, being played by faculty and students at colleges such as the Wharton School at University of Pennsylvania, Harvard University, and Columbia. Eventually a community of Quakers in Atlantic City adopted the game and gave it its property names. It was this game that Charles Darrow played thirty years after Magie’s patent.
The Atlantic City version game retained the core elements of Magie’s game, but also included modifications to make the game easier to play. The Quakers renamed the properties after Atlantic City streets and added fixed prices. Darrow eliminated the Georgist rules, redesigned the board, added tokens (at the time people were using whatever pieces were handy such as a thimble), designed the cards, and named the game Monopoly.
After discovering that Magie owned the original patent, Parker Brothers purchased her Landlord’s Game patent and two more of her game ideas; but there was little promotion for those games, and the games were lost to history.
In my opinion, what makes Magie an important figure in Women’s History is not the game that she originally invented, but who she was. She was an early feminist, willing to flout the conventions of her time and live a broader life. Her life goal was to increase opportunities for women and African Americans. And the fact that she invented the predecessor to the game of Monopoly, well that is just one more feather in her cap.
Angela Rieck, a Caroline County native, received her PhD in Mathematical Psychology from the University of Maryland and worked as a scientist at Bell Labs, and other high-tech companies in New Jersey before retiring as a corporate executive. Angela and her dogs divide their time between St Michaels and Key West Florida. Her daughter lives and works in New York City.