Snakes and Ladders | Part I

It was the turn of the 20th century, and Lizzie Magie found herself in a predicament. America would not grant women the vote for another two decades or so, and yet Magie was proudly outspoken: brimming with fierce intelligence and committed to bravely promoting ideas that would have been controversial for her time. She was an accomplished writer, inventor, political activist, stage actress, comedian and poet all rolled into one. She was all of these things at a time when women were expected to marry and dutifully carry out the responsibilities of a housewife. She had earned herself some notoriety a few years previously for posting an advert in a newspaper selling herself as a “young woman American slave” to the highest bidder, a stunt which ruffled a few feathers but one that Magie hoped would serve as a powerful statement on the stifling effect of marriage on women in American society.

Magie’s politics didn’t start and end with feminism, however. She was also drawn to progressive economics, especially the writings of Arthur George. George was a popular and charismatic political leader in America at the time who argued that instead of taxing people’s income (money generated by individuals that George believed belonged only to them) the government should instead tax land. This in theory would then redistribute wealth to people that need it and prevent landowners from profiting off the people that are forced to pay them rent, a theory which inspired a movement of determined activists named after him called Georgists. The Georgists felt something urgently needed to be done to curb America’s rising inequality, as the new faces of American capitalism such as Rockefeller and Carnegie raked in enormous wealth the likes of which had never been seen before.

Magie found these ideas extremely compelling – but how to communicate them? She felt that they needed to be shared with an audience even larger than the people that read George’s books or attended his speeches, but the complexities of economics don’t exactly lend themselves well to provocative newspaper ads, and besides: who would have listened to a woman anyway? Given Magie’s previous work on a patent she had filed for a typewriter with improved paper rolling, she was no stranger to finding practical solutions to practical problems. She decided to put her inventor’s mind to work once again, and set about designing a way of illustrating George’s ideas in a way that was easy for people to grasp. Over the course of a year she developed a board game called The Landlord’s Game which she was granted a patent for in 1904, which is an especially notable achievement when you consider that back then less than 1 percent of all patents were filed by women.

From a design perspective the game was pioneering in two key aspects. Though it’s a common feature of games these days the circular gameplay with no set ending was a radical departure from the kind of linear path that other games of the time tended to follow. What’s more, the ability of players to interact with and own the tiles of the board itself was a major innovation in game design that has been copied over and over ever since. Magie took her prototype to game publishers Parker Brothers in 1910, but they turned her down on the basis that they felt the game was a little too convoluted – more interested in preaching politics at the expense of being fun.

Photo by Thomas Forsyth /

Magie was undeterred. She self-published the game with a group of other Georgist activists, but it failed to sell many copies. Still, handmade bootleg versions of the game began to spring up throughout the country, with the pirated board games often carrying the local street names of whichever town they were being produced in. Over time the game passed through many different hands, each of them adding or taking away different elements but with the basic mechanics remaining the same. Through this process the game began to mutate, and it became further and further removed from its origins as an educational tool that Magie had hoped would demonstrate to people the evils of hoarding land.

By 1924 Magie filed for another patent in a bid to reassert her rights as the creator of the game that was continuing to grow in popularity especially on college campuses across the States. In her revised version of the game she adopted some of the features others had contributed over the years as well as updating it with a few new mechanics of her own. She took it once more to Parker Brothers and was once again rejected on the grounds that the game was “too political”. Magie eventually found another publisher in the Adgame Company of Washington D.C., but sadly never found widespread acknowledgement of her contributions before her death a couple of decades later.

A few years after her second knockback from the Parker Brothers, one of the game’s many copies found its way to Philadelphia (via Atlantic City) and into the hands of a man called George Darrow who was introduced to it at a dinner party. The game was a total revelation to Darrow, and he enjoyed it so much that he immediately seized upon it, spying an opportunity to make a quick buck. He insisted the party’s hosts write down the rules and the Atlantic City-based street names and then set about marketing and distributing the game under the name Monopoly in the art style that we are familiar with today. Passing it off as his own creation, the game sold extremely well during the Christmas of 1934 which caused Parker Brothers (by then under new management) to sit up and take notice.

By 1935 Parker Brothers had struck a deal with Darrow and thrown their weight around as a big publisher to reinforce his legal claim as its creator and buy out Magie’s patent and all its many variants. Later that same year they shipped a copy of the game to Victor Watson of Waddington Games in the UK. He and his son Norman played it obsessively over the weekend after it arrived, loving the game so much in fact that they made a transatlantic phone call to Parker Brothers (which was at the time an incredibly lavish gesture) to arrange the licensing rights. The Waddington version with its iconic London street names was a hit, finding its way into the shelves of many British living rooms and cementing itself as an instant classic. And inside all those shiny new boxes it was Darrow’s name, rather than Magie’s, which was credited in the game’s instructions booklet as its sole creator.

It wasn’t too long after British people discovered the endless fun to be had in ruthlessly squeezing rent out of friends and family that war broke out in Europe. The situation was rather serious – not only was there no metal to produce the wee gameboard characters due to the war effort, but the German Luftwaffe were also flying overhead British cities at night. Under the cover of darkness their aircraft dropped bombs on London, Glasgow, Hull, Liverpool and many other urban centres and strategic ports. Cowering in their homes and subject to strict blackout laws, it’s unlikely that many Brits found much time to sit down to play a board game under dim candlelight.

Photo by Sue Wallace / Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 2.0)

When the dawn of peace came and people were eventually allowed to stick their lights on in the evening again, the country had emerged victorious but also incredibly traumatised by what it had endured. A quarter of a million homes had been completely destroyed, with 3 and a half million more badly damaged by German explosives. The destruction left deep wounds both in the towns and cities themselves as well as in the hearts and minds of the people that had survived the war. Survivors of blasts whose homes had been reduced to rubble were rehomed in the fewer buildings that remained standing, and overcrowding became commonplace. The bright optimism of victory was dulled by the fact that, for many ordinary Brits, living standards had taken a severe hit during the war. The popular cries for more and better housing grew increasingly louder until they could no longer be ignored, and they entered the political agenda of the incoming Labour government who won the 1945 election in a landslide.

We often remember the post-war government as the one which established our beloved NHS. The man who led its establishment was a socialist Labour MP called Nye Bevan, who as Minister for Health was also responsible for housing policy. As with his views on healthcare, Bevan was also a staunch supporter of the right of all to a quality home regardless of income, even going as far as to envisage a society where government provided housing went far beyond its expected role of sheltering the poor. Bevan saw public housing as capable of forming the very foundations of the nation, where “the working man, the doctor and the clergyman will live in close proximity” in a “living tapestry of a mixed community”. Bevan fundamentally believed that if neighbourhoods weren’t segregated along class lines, society would be a far more harmonious, decent place for everyone who lived in it.

Measured in terms of enduring legacy, Bevan might be one of the most successful policymakers this country has ever known. Conservative governments that immediately followed left his twin programme of public housing and healthcare largely untouched, such was their popularity with voters. By the end of the 70s everybody in the UK had guaranteed access to healthcare free at the point of use, and almost a third lived in council housing. To this day the NHS remains a treasured and celebrated institution in the UK, yet somewhere along the way public housing was fatally undermined, and Bevan’s vision of a Britain where the rich and poor coexisted as one began to be dismantled brick by brick.

The bulldozer of that vision was none other than Margaret Thatcher. Despite the UK’s generous welfare system that Bevan had helped to construct the economy limped badly through the 70s, beset by inflation, currency woes, industrial strike action and an energy crisis which once again plunged British homes into darkness at night. Britain’s problems were many, and complicated, yet Thatcher’s proposed solution was comparatively simple: instead of the government assuming responsibility for the provision of necessities like transport, infrastructure, and housing, these can instead be left to corporations to carve up amongst themselves and for the free market to decide what is fair.

Stoke Newington Common during the Winter of Discontent in 1979, just before Thatcher came to power. The binmen had gone on strike, leading to a mass pile up of rubbish. Photo by Alan Denney / Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Above all else, central to Thatcher’s theory was the belief that protecting the supremacy of the individual is the end goal of politics. This theory, called neoliberalism, puts that somebody is to blame entirely for their own successes or failures, and it is the government’s job not to get in the way of a person’s rise to the top nor to step in to provide someone with a safety net should they reach rock bottom. It’s every individual for themselves – except when Thatcher first took power it initially wasn’t, because by the end of the 70s the number of people living in council housing had reached an all-time high. Rather than see this as an obstacle to her vision, Maggie spied a unique opportunity to both rip up this existing framework and bring round millions of people to her way of thinking.

Before we move on in our story it’s important to bear in mind that, thanks to Bevan, housing back then was not viewed in the same way that it is now. People in the UK had come to see housing (and healthcare) much in the same way that they viewed education: in that the government at a minimum should be able to provide a quality home for all at a subsidised rate, and that if people would like something better then they can pay for it out of their own pocket. Put more simply: housing was seen not as a commodity but as a necessity. This status quo didn’t square well with Thatcher’s neoliberal beliefs. She believed people shouldn’t be guaranteed a home – they should have to earn one – and that the best way of empowering individuals was for them to own property and compete with one another in pursuit of this goal.

That line of thinking is all very well and good, but voters are notoriously not very happy with losing something they once benefitted from. In fact, there’s ample research in psychology that proves that people have far stronger emotional reactions to losing something than they do to gaining something of the same value. Unsurprisingly people really don’t like being losers, and this presents a problem for politicians looking to enact changes. So in order to get around this problem, Thatcher was going to have to roll back public housing while at the same time making sure that people didn’t feel they were having something taken away from them.

To achieve this, she decided to design a game – a game in which there were supposedly no losers, and everyone could be a winner. This game wouldn’t be played at home but rather with actual homes, and so long as people kept winning it was intended to radically change the way British people saw housing: from a necessity to a tradeable commodity. But much like the fate that would befall the game that Elizabeth Magie had created, Thatcher’s game would come to produce results that would act against the very purpose she intended it for. However, much unlike the humble board game that we have come to know as Monopoly, there was no putting Thatcher’s game back in the box once it got underway.

Read Part II here.

Words by Charlie Forbes

Artwork by Katy Bremner (instagram: @katsbrems)

Sources, Further Reading and Other Resources:

Charlie Hoopes – ‘The True Origin of Monopoly: Lizzie Magie and The Landlord’s Game’
Thomas Forsyth – Website dedicated to the Landlord’s Game and its history
The Economist – ‘Home ownership is in decline’
The Economist – ‘Generation rent grows up’
New Statesman – ‘”Housing as a basic human right”: The Vienna model of social housing’
CBS News – ‘Hasbro aims to jazz up Monopoly with new token’
National Women’s History Museum – ‘Monopoly’s Lost Female Inventor’
The Guardian – ‘How Monopoly boards got second world war prisoners out of jail free’
Smithsonian Channel – ‘Who Really Invented Monopoly?’
BBC History Magazine (Daniel Todman) – ‘The cruel cost of the Blitz: how did everyday Britons rebuild their lives?’
(and a few Wikipedia articles, sorrynotsorry): 1, 2, 3, 4.

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