THE PLAY-MONEY GAME THAT MADE MILLIONS

Founded on a kitchen table as a Depression-era '52 fundamental errors,' Monopoly has reigned for 30 years as the pastime and initially rejected because it contained most popular board game in the country
December 02, 1963

In 1935, when more than five years of Depression had sapped the country's spirit and when the lack of money had left almost everyone in a continuous state of apprehension, a game called Monopoly appeared. It offered Americans a chance to be the economic swashbucklers they used to think they were. It let them handle large sums of money freely, and it permitted them to buy and sell property and privileges, collect rents, mortgage land, win or lose a fortune in minutes, gouge cash from their enemies and ruin their friends. As they risked erecting a cheap hotel in the run-down section of Mediterranean and Baltic avenues—being a slum landlord can have its benefits—or took their last Monopoly dollar to plunge for a single house on exclusive Park Place—nerve-racking social climbing—the players entered a world that fact and fate had denied them. Happily, Depression times and moods are gone now, but the pastime that seemed so perfectly suited to the era is still emphatically present. Unchanged by prosperity, inflation, the two-car garage or the two-bowl sink, Monopoly remains the country's biggest-selling board game.

Monopoly was just the thing for a Depression-ridden people. It sold more than one million sets the year it was introduced. Demand was so heavy that it broke down the order-processing system of the surprised and quite undepressed producer, Parker Brothers, Inc., of Salem, Mass. The rush of business prior to Christmas of 1935 left the company gasping. When Christmas passed, Parker Bros, expected a breather, but what it got was a deluge. The game had been a gift sensation, and almost everyone who played on one of the sets wanted a board of his own. Clerks had to spread dozens of laundry baskets on the floors in offices and halls to serve as rough files merely to handle the telegraphed orders.

In its 28 years, Monopoly has far outsold all other proprietary games (chess, checkers, playing cards, etc., are not patented). Almost all game companies are privately owned, and the operators surround their sales figures with the kind of secrecy Dior devotes to its hemline-plans, but it is generally agreed in the trade that Monopoly has been the top-selling game every year since it came out, with the possible exception of two years in the mid-50's when the Scrabble craze reached its crest. Asked about the chance of Scrabble having ever passed Monopoly, Parker Bros, executive vice-president and grandnephew of the founder Edward Parker, has several things to say. They can best be summarized as, "Don't be silly."

Because of the statistics gap, the full extent of Monopoly's popularity is hard to measure. Parker executives admit to annual sales of one million to two million sets in recent years, which is about like General Motors confessing it does, perhaps, make automobiles. Parker's confession of total sales runs from 35 to 40 million. Once the company has said this much, it points out that the number of households in the U.S. is about 55 million. Noting that many persons have played Monopoly even though their households do not own sets, Parker Bros, executives conclude that there are few Americans who have not tried the game at least once. You can go up to almost any literate American older than 10 and say: "Go directly to jail. Do not pass Go. Do not collect $200," and he will surely know that you are talking about Monopoly. Not even the great have missed the game. Many Washington diplomats play it, and Winston Churchill once did, too. It is a favorite on the nuclear-powered submarine Seawolf, especially during its two-month underwater cruises, and a Pentagon exhibit of a model fallout shelter included a Monopoly set in the survival stocks.

In the early years of Monopoly's popularity, the experts in the games industry explained its success on the grounds that Monopoly gave people a pleasurable illusion of wealth. But time has proved that this analysis is far too unsophisticated, since Monopoly now thrives amidst relative peace and plenty. FORTUNE was closer when it said that Monopoly is "a game that caters to the most grindingly acquisitive instincts of every businessman. The idea is to squeeze out all your fellow players until you own the whole board. The more you own, the more you make." And everybody knows that all Americans are businessmen at heart. "Monopoly evokes a unique emotion, the surge of thrill you get when you know you've wiped out a friend," said Comedian Shelley Berman recently.

Like alcohol, Monopoly will often bring out and then exaggerate the worst side of people's personalities. A quiet evening around the Monopoly board is not necessarily quiet. Dad, who has for a lifetime affected to be sober and responsible, reveals himself as a reckless clown, a ne'er-do-much, willing to risk his all on a throw of the dice. Mummy, seemingly tenderhearted and everyone's pal, omits to notify a distracted child that her token stands on one of his properties and laughs when she gets the dice and moves on without paying rent. The children turn on each other and the adults like loan sharks pursuing destitute widows. Two years ago a 15-year-old Pennsylvania boy gave a friend an almost fatal beating. "I don't know why Dickie would do a thing like that," the victim's mother told the police. "The boys were good friends. This very afternoon they spent four hours together playing Monopoly."

Monopoly came into existence in 1933 on a kitchen table in Germantown, a suburb of Philadelphia. Charles Darrow, the inventor, was in a typical American squeeze for those days. A heating-equipment salesman, he had not had a real job in three years. He was the father of one child, and his wife was about to have another. He knew heating, and he could see that his outlook was pretty cold. The situation cried out for diversions, but the only entertainment the Darrows or their friends could afford was to visit with each other and talk about their mutual miseries.

One day, working with a piece of oilcloth, Darrow devised a game for his family and his friends to play. Reflecting on more prosperous times, when he and his wife could afford to take vacations, he sketched out along the edge of the oilcloth the names of streets in that American dream resort, Atlantic City. He ended his game with a square for the Boardwalk itself. Using play money and a pair of dice, the Darrows and their neighbors spent their evenings buying, renting, developing and selling Atlantic City's real estate.

His friends liked Monopoly, so he made a few sets for them. Soon friends of friends wanted sets, and Darrow began to make some to sell, turning out two sets a day and letting them go for what he felt was a monopoly like price of $4 each. The demand grew rapidly and, by contracting out board production to a job printer, Darrow raised his output to six sets a day. He found he could produce houses and hotels rapidly by cutting them from lengths of wooden molding. Monopoly sales quickly overtook his production capacity, and he decided to copyright the game.

When Philadelphia department stores began to order Monopoly sets wholesale, Darrow realized he had a neat monopoly of his own. He took the game to the Massachusetts firm of Parker Bros., the world's largest publisher of games. Accustomed to turning out such unsophisticated fun as Rook, Authors, the Win-nie-The-Pooh game and Flinch, Parker Bros, executives shied at Monopoly. The games they produced could be explained in a few sentences. Since its establishment in 1883, the company had never had a successful game that took more than 45 minutes to play. Darrow's game had complicated rules, involved a number of concepts that might confuse people—mortgages, interest, deeds—and took an evening to play.

"We had it for weeks, playing with it," says Edward Parker. "We liked it, but we felt the general public wouldn't, because it took too long to play." Eventually Parker Bros, rejected Monopoly, advising Darrow tartly that "your game has 52 fundamental errors."

This annoyed Darrow. He returned to Philadelphia and ordered 5,000 Monopoly sets made. Sales continued briskly, and Wanamaker's department store in Philadelphia began ordering the game in gross lots. By Christmas 1934, Darrow was working 14 hours a day trying to keep up with his shipping orders. Word of this got back to Salem, where Parker Bros, was beginning to wonder if 52 errors were really too many after all. Early in 1935 the company offered Darrow an attractive royalty contract. Darrow accepted with considerable relief. At the same time Parker bought up the patent of a Virginia woman, Mrs. Elizabeth Phillips, who had invented a vaguely similar game.

Parker Bros, refined Monopoly, clarified the rules, and suggested a version that could be played in less time. The company then introduced it through a nationwide advertising campaign, and it was an immediate success. In 1937 Charles Darrow was able to retire for life. He was then 46, and is now a millionaire gentleman farmer living in Bucks County, Pa.

"When we first put out Monopoly, we saw it as a game for adults, as too tough for kids," says Edward Parker. "We thought it would sell for maybe three years. Our sales went up and up and up in the beginning, and then they began to go down. We assumed this was it. Then, suddenly, sales began to go up again, and they never have fallen off. What happened was that children learned the game from their parents and liked it, too."

In 1935, when Monopoly was introduced, a cup of coffee cost 5¢, a fifth of Scotch cost $3, you could get an orchestra seat in a Broadway theater for $2.50, a new Buick was $800 and Atlantic Avenue sold for $260. Now coffee is 15¢, Scotch is $7, an orchestra seat is $7.50 and Buicks start at about $S2,500. But the Atlantic Avenue property on the Monopoly board still sells for $260. (Like most of Atlantic City, the real Atlantic Avenue prices have not stood still. They removed the streetcar tracks and widened the avenue in 1956, and a hotel there now would be a considerably larger investment than Mr. Darrow had in mind.)

"We have not thought of changing the rent values or the amount of money in the game," says Parker. "When you get a winner, you don't change it when it is going good. If we got a lot of letters complaining that rents and property values were too low, we might do something. But we haven't. The game plays as well, no matter what the numbers are." In some ways it is even more pleasant, in fact. The maximum income-tax payment in Monopoly is a paltry $200.

Except for updating the cartoons on the Chance and Community Chest cards, Parker Bros, has hardly changed the looks of the game at all. About 10 years ago the company began to use plastic instead of wood for the green houses and the red hotels. A few persons wrote to object to this tampering, but not enough to outweigh the production advantages of plastic. And a few years ago Parker Bros, produced a Monopoly set that had metal coins for all denominations of money. The idea was that you could play Monopoly on a picnic or on the front porch without worrying about the wind blowing the money away. It did not catch on.

There are jokes about playing Monopoly with real money, and it may have happened recently. When Scotland Yard searched the farmhouse hideout of the robbers of the Royal Mail train last summer, investigators found a Monopoly set, but no Monopoly money. If you have £2.5 million in small bills on hand, why not?

As a producer of currency, Parker Bros. is way ahead of the Treasury Department. In making one million sets of Monopoly a year, the company turns cut more than $15 billion (in Monopoly money). During fiscal 1962, the Bureau of the Mint and the Bureau of Engraving and Printing had a combined total production of only $7.9 billion.

The average length of a game of Monopoly is three hours, but two years ago a University of Pittsburgh fraternity kept a game going night and day by drafting members to play in 4-to-6-hour shifts. After four days the bank was broke. The rules dogmatically state that the bank cannot go broke and suggest making your own money if this unlikely situation arises. Instead the fraternity wired Parker Bros, for help, and the company sent $1 million by air express to save the bank. The game ran 120 hours, and this was offered as the alltime international Monopoly-playing record. A few weeks later a West Virginia University fraternity played for 132 hours, a record that apparently remains unbroken.

There are no Monopoly pros and no books written on how to play winning Monopoly. People often ask Darrow for advice, so often that all he will say now is: "Stay out of debt and own Boardwalk and Park Place." This is like saying the way to make money on the stock market is to buy low and sell high. Playing a winning game of Monopoly is actually very much like operating a successful business. You have to be aggressive, but not too aggressive. You must stay flexible, invest enough to provide an income and save enough to deal with emergencies, such as steep rents late in the game.

Regional variations of Monopoly have sprung up in the past 28 years. Parker Bros, officials can tell by the letters they receive that new ground rules are developing around the country. People write in for clarification of rules that do not officially exist. The company assumes that many families are playing by rules that have come down byword of mouth, long after the rules sheet has disappeared. Another indication of Monopoly's place in American life is that people are beginning to spell it with a small M, the same treatment they have been giving to such familiar articles as Jell-O, Vaseline, Scotch tape, Yo-Yo and Coke. Parker Bros, is grateful for the compliment implied, but they would be happier with a large M.

Monopoly migrated to England shortly after its success in the U.S. Since then it has been sold and played in most of the free world. Mr. Darrow once saw natives playing it in New Guinea.

Generally, foreign countries translate Monopoly into their own real estate and currency. In England the location is London, instead of Atlantic City. Mediterranean Avenue and Baltic Avenue come out as Old Kent Road and White-chapel Road. Boardwalk and Park Place turn into Mayfair and Park Lane. In Spain, Boardwalk translates to Paseo del Prado, in Germany it is Schlossallee and in France it is the Rue de la Paix. Instead of the railway lines serving the Atlantic City area, foreign Monopoly boards generally use railway stations, such as Gare de Lyon or King's Cross Station. In Japan, Monopoly retains all the American names and has translations underneath them. The Australians use a British board pattern. In most cases Monopoly, as a name, is still Monopoly after translation. But Italy has no y, so it becomes Monopoli. The Scandinavians call it Monopol.

Obviously, Monopoly is the epitome of a capitalistic game, and Communists could hardly be expected to embrace it. The game was very popular in Cuba, but when Fidel Castro took over he said it was "symbolic of an imperialistic and capitalistic system," and ordered shops to destroy all of the sets that they had in stock.

The Soviet Union banned Monopoly almost before Mr. Darrow got up from his kitchen table. But it is obvious that the game is played in the U.S.S.R. Little groups of would-be entrepreneurs, hard at play behind shuttered windows and locked doors, must be passing the subarctic winters buying houses for Marvin Gardens and trying to corner both utilities. During the American National Exhibition in Moscow in 1959—scene of the famed Nixon-Khrushchev kitchen debate—there were six Monopoly sets on display. By the end of the exhibit all six had been stolen.

ILLUSTRATIONROY McKIE ILLUSTRATIONROY McKIEThe Government analyzed what a family was going to need if suddenly faced with a few weeks in a sandbagged dungeon. It suggested taking in food and water and.... ILLUSTRATIONROY McKIEAs the Monopoly board is unfolded, adults envision a tranquil evening of family togetherness during which parents and children grow closer. Then play begins. ILLUSTRATIONROY McKIECastro implied that Cuban Monopoly players might be sent "directly to jail."

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)