SEVENTY-FIVE years ago today, an American woman called Lizzie Magie sold the rights of a board-game she had invented to Parker Brothers, the then dominant players in the market.
Her game was, in effect, Monopoly, as which Parker had already bought it from Charles Darrow, an electrician who lost his job in the Crash of 1929. Darrow’s version was a big seller. But the company knew it was merely a variation on Magie’s original. Ownership of the latter was therefore vital to their hopes of a patent.
A potential obstacle, however, was that Magie was not motivated by mere money. Then aged 70 and described in one US account as “a little old gray-haired Quaker woman”, she was more interested in the educational properties of her creation, which she had designed more than 30 years earlier to propagate the theories of a political economist named Henry George.
George’s big idea was the injustice of private land ownership, which he believed impoverished the many while enriching the few. He wanted all land nationalised and then redistributed in equal parts, with a single tax on all occupiers.
It had been in support of this, and to demonstrate the evils of private monopolies, that Magie created the “Landlord’s Game”, as she called it. Which, as Parker Brothers knew, had been played widely – especially in Quaker circles – for three decades before Darrow’s version appeared.
In a legal deposition many years later, the president of Parker recalled his impressions of Magie as “a rabid Henry George single tax advocate, a real evangelist; and these people never change”. So having made his cynical diagnosis, he gave her what she wanted: $500, with no royalties, and a promise that her game would be promoted in its original form, spreading George’s gospel, alongside the Monopoly version.
Well, the writer doesn't quite have all his facts right -- Henry George did not seek to nationalize land or redistribute it in equal parts, just to collect the lion's share of the rental value of the land and use it for public purposes. And I've heard it said that though the game was widely played in Quaker circles, Lizzie Magie was not herself a Quaker.
Frank McNally might also have chosen to mention that another of Henry George's books, originally titled "The Irish Land Question," was later republished as simply "The Land Question" because what was seen in Ireland was actually occurring nearly everywhere, but was more visible in Ireland. The book remains in print today, including a new edition available from schalkenbach.org and Amazon.