Sixty-three years ago, Parker Brothers introduced Monopoly, which has gone on to become the most popular board game ever, selling more than 160 million copies around the world.
The story of the game's origin is a part of national lore. As a way to amuse his impoverished family, Charles Darrow, an out-of-work Philadelphia salesman, dreamt up the game during the depths of the Great Depression. To make his invention more glamorous, he set it in Atlantic City, at the time a tony resort beyond the reach of his meager means. Encouraged by his friends, who loved the game, he began to market it himself. Shortly thereafter, he sold his idea to Parker Brothers, and became a millionaire off the royalties.
It is a wonderful American story. The only problem: It's not true.
Darrow was an out-of-work guy who got rich from Monopoly. But the rest of the tale is a murky mass of competing claims and conjecture. The true story, it seems, is an American tale of greed, public relations acumen, and the triumph of the age-old desire to elbow your way out of the poorhouse.
The first version of the game was actually created in 1904 by a woman named Elizabeth Magie. A dedicated reformer, she came up with the game as a way to teach people what happens when wealth was concentrated in a few hands.
She called her invention "The Landlord's Game." She tried to sell it to Parker Brothers, which turned her down. Over the next 25 years, she refined her game, and it spread from her friends to their friends, and so on. At some point in the early 1930s this path led to Darrow.
In the ultimate irony, he may have stolen the game from a group of Quaker schoolteachers who taught it to him.
In any case, he loved the game, now known as "Monopoly," and created his own version, which he tried to sell to Parker Brothers. Again they declined, citing a whole host of problems with the game.
He decided to start making Monopoly himself, in his basement. When demand outstripped his ability to produce copies, he contracted a printer and began selling the game to toy stores. At this point, Parker Brothers became interested. They bought the game from him. It became a sensation, and he became wealthy.
With the help of Parker Brothers' publicists, Darrow cast himself as a plucky inventor who had used his wits to pull himself up by his bootstraps. Was Darrow a sneaky cheat? Or a canny capitalist? It is not clear. What is clear: The game of Monopoly had been around for a quarter-century or so before Darrow "invented" it.
Here's what reigning United States Monopoly champ Roger Craig has to say about the game he's mastred:
Written and produced by David Kohn, with graphic design by Dana Byerly. Associate produced by Jonathan Evans. Some graphics appear courtesy of Dana Ryman