Elizabeth Magie was a bold and progressive American game designer who created The Landlord’s Game, a precursor to Monopoly, to illustrate the economic theories of political economist and journalist Henry George. George believed the economic value acquired from land should belong to all members of society equally.
Magie was born in 1866 in Illinois to a forward-thinking political family. Magie’s father, James Magie, was a newspaper publisher who had accompanied Abraham Lincoln around Illinois in the 1850s when Lincoln was engaging in public debates with American politician Stephen Douglas. James Magie was also an anti-monopolist and introduced his daughter to Henry George’s 1879 text Progress and Poverty, which would later form the backbone of her political beliefs and inspire the creation of The Landlord’s Game.
Progress and Poverty was incredibly popular – it outsold all books except the Bible in the 1890s – and continues to be influential in left-wing activism and policy. The text outlined the theory that individuals should own what they have made or created, but that land should belong to the collective. Most famously, George championed a single tax on land which shifted the burden of taxation to wealthy landowners. George argued that this tax would be so significant it would allow the state to invest in public and social services, and would encourage landowners to use land in a responsible and collective way.
In the early 1880s, Magie worked as a stenographer, a profession which gained popularity among women in that decade. Away from work, she explored her creativity: she performed in theatres, drew, wrote short stories, experimented with engineering and began designing The Landlord’s Game. In 1903, Magie filed the patent for the game, and in 1905 she published a version of the game through the Economic Game Company. When Magie applied for the patent, she represented less than one percent of women applying for patents.
The game had two sets of rules. There was an anti-monopolist version, where all were rewarded when wealth was created, and a monopolist set in which the goal was to bankrupt other players in order to win the game. Magie had hoped that the game would show how ruthless and grossly unjust capitalism was, an spur players into agitating for reform.
The Landlord’s Game was designed to be a practical demonstration of the system of land-grabbing and to demonstrate the outcomes and consequences. Magie’s version featured mock money, deeds and properties which could be bought and sold, while players needed to borrow money from each other or from the bank and pay taxes. Magie’s board also featured the square most popularly associated with Monopoly: GO TO JAIL.
Her game became a cult favourite among left-wing intellectuals and was played on college campuses. Such was the game’s popularity, Magie obtained a patent on her revised version and a second edition was produced in 1932.
Charles Darrow was introduced to the game by friends and he eventually sold the idea to Parker Brothers as Monopoly in 1934, without any acknowledgement of Magie. The version which went to market, and made Darrow a rags-to-riches folklore in the process, was the capitalist version. After Darrow sold Monopoly, Parker Brothers offered Magie $500, with no royalties, for her patent. When Parker Brothers offered to produce the original Landlord’s Game, plus two further new games as invented by Magie, she agreed.
Parker Brothers produced The Landlord’s Game and two further games. Bargain Day and King’s Men were produced in 1937, and The Landlord’s Game followed in 1939. Today, copies of the three games are incredibly rare.
Magie was also critical about the role of women in America. Shortly after she received the patent for The Landlord’s Game, she took out an advert and offered herself for sale as a ‘young woman, American slave’ to the highest bidder. She mocked the expectations of how women should present themselves and described herself as ‘not beautiful’ but had ‘features full of character and strength, yet truly feminine.’ The stunt made national headlines and Magie told reporters that her goal had been to make a statement about the subjugated position of women. Magie was offered a job as a journalist off the back of it.
At the age of 82, Elizabeth Magie died in 1948 and was buried alongside her husband, Albert Phillips, who she had married at the age of 44. Her obituary did not mention her role in creating Monopoly, and neither does her headstone.
Magie’s key role in inventing Monopoly was unearthed in 1973. Economics professor Ralph Anspach was in the middle of a legal battle to publish an Anti-Monopoly board game and when researching his case he discovered Magie’s patents. Anspach’s battle ended at the Supreme Court, where he won the right to produce his Anti-Monopoly game and, in the process, brought public attention to Magie’s lost brilliance.