Welcome to the first installment of Retrobituaries! DB Grady's new column will look back at the lives of interesting (but not crazy famous) people who died long ago.
In 1904, Elizabeth "Lizzie" Magie designed a board game to demonstrate the tragic effects of land-grabbing. In this game, oligarchs enrich themselves at the expense of tenants, the latter of whom only grow poorer as available land decreases and the cost of rent increases. Anyone interested in traveling a non-trivial distance has to pony up for a railroad ticket. Anyone desiring light and water had better open their wallet. And crossing the wrong landowner sends a player directly to jail. The poorer the proletarian player gets, the more he or she is squeezed; there is nowhere to go that doesn’t demand a fee of some kind, and there is no respite. The game ends only when everyone is driven penniless into the ground, but for a single aristocrat who now owns everything. Lizzie Magie named her grim reflection of life The Landlords’ Game, but you probably know it better as Monopoly.
Magie was a disciple of Henry George, a 19th century economist who proposed that land was “common property,” and that as a way of mitigating the self-evident absurdity of owning nature, a single tax would be applied to landowners. The tax would supersede the taxation of “productive labor, ” and such regressive taxes as those on sales would be eliminated. Magie believed The Landlords’ Game would show the world as it is, and might hopefully inspire reforms. “Let the children once see clearly the gross injustice of our present land system and when they grow up, if they are allowed to develop naturally, the evil will soon be remedied,” she said two years before she patented her idea.
Thirty-one years later, a man named Charles Darrow sold a game called Monopoly to George and Fred Parker. As later printed in the game’s instructions: “In 1934, Charles B. Darrow of Germantown, Pennsylvania, presented a game called MONOPOLY to the executives of Parker Brothers. Mr. Darrow, like many other Americans, was unemployed at the time and often played this game to amuse himself and pass the time. It was the game’s exciting promise of fame and fortune that initially prompted Darrow to produce this game on his own.” This finely-threaded needle of a history neglects to mention that Darrow stole the idea entirely from Lizzie Magie.
After Monopoly became a hit, the brothers Parker moved quickly to seize all rights to the game. They tracked down the elderly Lizzie Magie Phillips and offered her one bright orange $500 bill and no royalties. When Parker Brothers offered to produce an unsullied version of The Landlords’ Game, she gladly sold the rights. She was keen to promote Henry George’s economic philosophy and perhaps make a difference in the world. After manufacturing a few copies of the original, the board game giant quickly and thoroughly buried it, all the while slipping the name Elizabeth Magie into the memory hole with its fraudulent “history.” It was far sexier to play up fictitious Great Depression origins than to describe how a couple of board game robber barons ripped off an old lady.
Elizabeth Magie Phillips died in 1948.
Primary image courtesy of PieceOfMind.