For many years, the story of Monopoly’s origins began with a man during the Great Depression. However, the person who created the progenitor of the game was actually Lizzie Magie, an outspoken feminist who received a patent for her Landlord’s Game in 1904. In this excerpt from her book “The Monopolists,” Mary Pilon explores Magie’s feminist roots and what she was trying to say with her game.
At the turn of the twentieth century, board games were becoming increasingly commonplace in middle-class homes. In addition, more and more inventors were discovering that the games were not just a pastime but also a means of communication.
Lizzie Magie took out her pen and paper.
Her message was political; her purpose, educational. She was an impassioned follower of Henry George, a popular political mind who advocated for taxing land, and only land. Magie and her fellow “anti-monopolists” were railing against wealthy titans like Carnegie and Rockefeller. By creating a game, she could illustrate the evils of monopolies and educate even more people about the virtues of a single tax solution.
“It is a practical demonstration of the present system of land-grabbing with all its usual outcomes and consequences,” she wrote in a 1902 issue of the Single Tax Review. “It might well have been called the ‘Game of Life,’ as it contains all the elements of success and failure in the real world, and the object is the same as the human race in general seem[s] to have, i.e., the accumulation of wealth.”
For Lizzie to try to put her ideas out in public so brazenly was something of a risk at that time. Most women didn’t do such things. It would be seventeen more years before women gained the right to vote, and while innovations such as the typewriter and the telephone had afforded new professional opportunities for women, common thought still held that they had little to contribute to the world of ideas. As one newspaper would put it in 1912, women may have greater longevity than men because “they don’t use their brains as much as men.”
Behind the audacity of her “monopoly game” was a progressive, political upbringing. Born in Macomb, Illinois in 1866, Magie was the daughter of James Magie, a prominent newspaper owner and political mind. In 1858, before Lizzie was born, James Magie had accompanied Abraham Lincoln and Joseph Medill, the thirty-five-year-old publisher of the Chicago Tribune, as the lanky lawyer traveled around Illinois debating politics with Stephen Douglas.
From a young age, Lizzie had exposure to newsrooms. She also watched and listened during the years when her father clerked in the Illinois legislature and ran for office on an anti-monopoly ticket — an election that he lost.
Just two years after patenting the Landlord’s Game, Lizzie moved to Chicago. Meanwhile, her game thrived as folk game, played by a constellation of left-wing intellectuals who began to start calling it “the monopoly game.” One of many young, professional women who were drawn to the vibrant city at the time, Magie lived in a flat at 307 Chicago Avenue in an era when the stinking stockyards and diseased meatpacking factories of the city were becoming nationally notorious.
Finding it difficult to support herself on the ten dollars a week she was earning as a stenographer, Lizzie staged a stunt. Purchasing an advertisement, she offered herself for sale as a “young woman American slave” to the highest bidder. The ad read:
Lizzie also said that she had “rare and versatile dramatic ability; a born entertainer; strong bohemian characteristics, can appreciate a good story at the same time she is deeply and truly religious — not pious.” She said that she didn’t go to church, but obeyed the laws of God. She was a “crackerjack typewriter, but typewriting is hell.”
The goal of the stunt, Lizzie told reporters, was to make a statement about the dismal position of women.
“Money only has a relative value,” Lizzie said. “Once $10 might have been opulence. I do not know, but $10 in a city like Chicago or New York can buy only the bare necessities of life. If we could be reduced to the character of a machine, having only to be oiled and kept in working order, $10 perhaps would be sufficient for the purpose. We are not machines. Girls have minds, desires, hopes and ambition. They see on every side women enjoying pretty clothing, comfortable homes, refined entertainment, and other luxuries. These they want also . . . But they cannot have them.
“In a short time, I hope a very short time, men and women will discover that they are poor because Carnegie and Rockefeller, maybe, have more than they know what to do with. My people believe that the only way to help working girls is to get rich and give something to the poor. That is just the way not to do it. Working girls want only what they produce. If they get that they will have all they need. They can have silk underwear then.”
Lizzie described the salary that she earned for the work she performed as “slavery of one kind or another.” She also said that men were blind to the plight of the victims that the capitalist system created.
Despite the fact that Lizzie was forty years old at the time that she took out the advertisement, she was described by one reporter as “the girl with the gray-green eyes” and by another as “the girl of a thousand moods.” A Washington Post reporter wrote that she was “always strange and frank.”
Many likened Lizzie to Mary MacLane, a writer who was openly bisexual and so the subject of never-ending gossip. A pop culture legend of her time, MacLane published an autobiography, The Story of Mary MacLane, in 1902, when she was twenty-one years old, laying out in plain language the need for women to liberate themselves from the mores of the Victorian era.
“I am not good,” MacLane wrote in I Await the Devil’s Coming. “I am not virtuous. I am not sympathetic. I am not generous. I am merely and above all a creature of intense passionate feeling. I feel — everything. It is my genius. It burns me like fire.”
Lizzie was among the many young women readers who were moved by MacLane’s words. “People may think Mary McLane [sic] is crazy,” Lizzie told her mother. “They will be saying the same thing about me some day.”
She found herself besieged by a flood of responses. One man offered her $100,000. Another, a trip to Europe. A crank proposed paying her $150 “to pose as a freak in a dime museum.” She looked upon these offers with contempt and pity.
One of the most flattering responses came from none other than writer Upton Sinclair, who immediately understood the meaning of Lizzie’s advertisement. He sent her a check for an unknown sum and invited her to meet him in New York, explaining that he might give her a writing assignment. Lizzie promptly traveled to the city and met Sinclair, finding him to be “one of the most fascinating men I ever knew.”
“I’m thankful that I was taught how to think and not what to think,” Lizzie said. “I’m thankful that I’ve got good eyesight and better brain-sight than most people have by a darn sight . . . I am thankful for what we have left of free speech.”
Meanwhile, Lizzie’s board game would go on to become one of the most successful of all time, but her role in its creation, as well as her reputation as an impassioned feminist, would largely be lost through the ages. Most Monopoly players today have no idea the game originated with a woman, let alone such an outspoken one.
Lizzie’s mother, Mary, described her daughter as “a woman of high ideals. Some may think she is crazy, but she isn’t.”
She added; “Elizabeth has always been what one might call eccentric. But she numbered her friends by the hundreds and they swear by her. I think she is a genius, but I can’t say I fancy being the mother of a genius.”
This article was adapted from Mary Pilon’s “The Monopolists,” (Bloomsbury, 2015). Pilon is a New-York based journalist who has covered sports at The New York Times and business at The Wall Street Journal. She prefers the orange properties on the Monopoly board. Find her at MaryPilon.com and tweeting @marypilon.