Monopoly’s Radical Roots
November 13, 2011
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Have you seen the oversized Monopoly set at the Occupy London site outside St. Paul’s Cathedral? The game’s trademark Mr MoneyBags sits downtrodden on his gameboard, his moustache drooping, holding out his famous top hat begging for small change. There are just two playing pieces – a sports car and a boot – although there are some great shots on the web of a real dog posing as a third piece alongside them. Rumoured to be the latest work by the street artist Banksy, it has caught the attention of the international media and tourists. The use of the board game – which represents the untamed market and monopolistic greed – to serve the anti-capitalist cause has been hailed as not only an act of mischief, but an act of ‘radical genius’. I decided to do a little digging. Not around this sculpture’s origins, but the origins of the game itself. This revealed an interesting twist…
Hasbro – current makers of the game – tell the story of Mr Charles Darrow presenting Parker Brothers with the idea for Monopoly in 1934, at the height of the Great Depression. When they rejected the game due to design errors, the unemployed Mr Darrow set about selling handmade sets of the board game himself. Hasbro claim he was inspired by the game’s ‘exciting promise of fame and fortune’. Following a sale of 5000 sets to a Philadelphia department store, Parker Brothers reconsidered. ‘The rest, as they say, is history!’
other sources show this is only half the story. Monopoly started life as The Landlords Game. The idea originated from Elizabeth Maggie, a follower of the economist Henry George and his tax movement, in 1903. She designed the game as a learning tool to teach his single tax theory, which proposed that the renting of land and real estate produced an unearned increase in land values that profited a few individuals rather than the majority. Henry George proposed a single federal tax based on land ownership. It was believed this would discourage speculation and favour equal opportunity. Like today’s version, the original board was also 10 squares by 10 squares, but the four corners included ‘Mother Earth collect $100’ and ‘Public Park’, properties were rented not acquired and included names like ‘Poverty Place’ and ‘Easy Street’. The Landlords Game was granted a US patent in 1904, production started in 1906. The game gathered a cult following among Quakers and proponents of the single tax, with players changing the names of properties to local ones (sound familiar?).
When the original patent expired in 1921, Elizabeth Maggie implemented changes to the game. When a new patent was granted in 1924, the game had an additional set of rules, more similar to Monopoly. From here the game travels between people and places, becoming known as ‘Auction Monopoly’, before gaining the attention of Charles Darrow during a games night at a friend’s house. Darrow amended the board and rules to those we know today.
Monopoly’s anti-capitalist roots resurfaced with Ralph Anspach’s invention of the board game Anti-Monopoly in 1974. Anspach unearthed the game’s radical roots while developing his defence against an infringement lawsuit. In 1974, the General Mills Fun Group (once owners of Parker Brothers) brought a lawsuit against him for infringing Monopoly’s trademark name. A 10 year court battle transpired, during which time 40,000 Anti-Monopoly games were buried in a Minnesota landfill by court order and Anspach was forced to mortgage his home to pay for court costs. Despite being handed a victory by the US supreme court, the legal battle is not over for Anspach. He now has a monopolisation case pending against Hasbro, Inc, the current owners of the game. Hasbro bought out Parker Brothers soon after the original supreme court victory, along with many other board game producers. This gained them control of 80% of the US board game market. A deal signed between Hasbro and the giant toy retailers Kmart and Toys R Us included an agreement that the retailers could not sell products competing with Hasbro’s. This, of course, included Anti-Monopoly. So far Anspach has not been allowed to go to trial.
So if Banksy is indeed the sculptor of the piece at St Paul’s, perhaps he has helped Monopoly rediscover its radical roots.