Among the many impressive feats that Mary Pilon pulls off in "The Monopolists," her fascinating history of one of the most popular and iconic American games, the most remarkable may well be that, unlike Monopoly, her book never lags.
Pilon, who first wrote about Monopoly as a reporter for the Wall Street Journal in 2009, has spent the last five years doggedly tracking its evolution from teaching tool to global pastime, cash cow and trademark lightning rod. Her journalistic instincts have not misled her. Monopoly is an inspired subject because both the game and its herky-jerky history illustrate key aspects of capitalism, including issues about sharing wealth and about the ownership and fair use of ideas.
Pilon makes it clear that games are serious business and notes that "successful games had to be easy to learn but difficult to master." Successful reporting too must make even complex issues accessible without oversimplification. "The Monopolists" lucidly weaves together a multifaceted story that encompasses feminist, social, political, economic and legal issues, several outsized personalities, the genesis of two major game companies (Parker Bros. and Milton Bradley, now both owned by Hasbro) and a primer on patent, trademark and copyright law.
With so much material to cover, Pilon's narrative jumps around in the opening chapters, much like players taking turns inching around a Monopoly board at varying speeds. Fortunately, also like the game, the book eventually builds to a riveting high-stakes showdown — in this case, a David versus Goliath courtroom battle involving brand identity and free speech.
Pilon stresses that, contrary to the heartwarming myth tucked into Monopoly boxes for decades, the game was not invented during the Depression by an unemployed salesman named Charles Darrow. Darrow's contribution was to repackage a game he'd been taught by friends and sell it as his own creation (complete with a friend's misspelling of "Marven Gardens" with an "i") to Parker Bros. in 1935 for $7,000 plus residuals. He enlisted another friend, political cartoonist Franklin Alexander, to provide the now-ubiquitous eye-catching illustrations and burnish the design, for which the artist never received a penny. In 1936 alone, 1,751,000 sets of Monopoly were sold, rescuing Darrow — and Parker Bros. — from the brink. (Pilon does not report overall sales records, which would have been interesting.)
The real inventor of Monopoly was, in fact, a woman. At the turn of the 20th century, Lizzie Magie was an ardent feminist stuck in the sort of miserable low-wage stenography jobs then available to women. She created what she called the Landlord's Game to propagate the ideas of Henry George, a 19th century proponent of "single tax theory" who believed that land ownership was the only thing that should be taxed. Magie's game shared many features with Monopoly as we know it, including play money, properties that could be bought and sold and a "Go to Jail" directive. When Magie received a patent for her Landlord's Game in 1904, Pilon writes, "less than one percent of all patents issued in the United States went to women."
But Magie's original game had two sets of rules — the capitalist version we know today and "an anti-monopolist set in which all were rewarded when wealth was created." Pilon notes that "unbeknownst to Lizzie at the time, it was monopolist rules that would later capture the public's imagination."
By 1915, Magie's name was already detached from her game, which circulated among a succession of groups, including a utopian community in Delaware, a cluster of Quakers in Atlantic City (who renamed the properties after local landmarks), and fraternity brothers at Williams College in the 1920s. While initially "used to show the anti-social nature of Monopoly," by the time Charles Darrow played it during the Depression, 30 years after its invention, its popularity lay in the opportunity to wheel and deal regardless of one's personal finances.
Lizzie Magie isn't the only hero of "The Monopolists." At the heart of Pilon's book is an idealistic economics professor named Ralph Anspach who refused to buckle — or settle — when Parker Bros. claimed that Anti-Monopoly, a game he invented in the early 1970s to teach about the evils of monopolies, represented a trademark violation. For more than a decade, Anspach's life was overtaken by an increasingly obsessive crusade to prove that not only was calling his game Anti-Monopoly fair use but that Parker Bros.' trademark was invalid because Monopoly was played long before their 1935 patent and you "can't trademark something that's in the public domain."
The irony of Parker Bros.' attempt to protect its brand by creating a monopoly on the word "monopoly" is not lost on Anspach or Pilon. The company was desperate to avoid the "genericide" that befalls "product names that become so successful that they lose their trademark and become generic words adopted into the English language" — such as aspirin, escalator, zipper and thermos. But unlike these former brand names, the word "monopoly" predates the game Monopoly. As Anspach's lawyer points out, to trademark "a monopoly on the word monopoly, a word in ordinary, common usage … is not in the public interest."
Unfortunately, Anspach's legal odyssey circles the same board and lands on many of the same squares that Pilon has already covered earlier in her book — making us wish she had structured her narrative to avoid such repetitions. That said, like the game it depicts, "The Monopolists" is filled with winners, losers and cutthroat competition. It also builds to an intense pitch — while highlighting several fundamental issues of capitalism.
McAlpin reviews books for the Los Angeles Times, NPR and the Washington Post and writes the Reading in Common column for the Barnes & Noble Review.
Obsession, Fury, and the Scandal Behind the World's Favorite Board Game
By Mary Pilon
Bloomsbury: 304 pp.; $27