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The story of 'Monopoly' and American capitalism

A detail of the new updated Monopoly board game is seen at the London Toy Fair on January 25, 2006 in London. The Toy Fair, held at the ExCeL centre, is the leading UK exhibition for the industry.
Bruno Vincent
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Getty Images

Listen to Throughline on Apple Podcasts and Spotify.

Monopoly has been one of the best-selling board games in the United States for nearly a century now. In fact, sales actually went up during the pandemic – an unlikely time for a game that champions wealth and landlords to thrive. And sure, maybe it is just a board game, a way to pass the time, but writer Mary Pilon, the author of The Monopolists: Obsession, Fury, and the Scandal Behind the World's Favorite Board Game, says Monopoly is much more than that. Its history challenges us to consider the aspirations, desires, and myths we, as a country, continue to hold onto. Depending on how you look at it, she says, "Monopoly is the American dream in a board game – or a nightmare."

"We have to look at board games as cultural artifacts, the same way we look at songs, books, movies–they represent the time periods that they're in" -Mary Pilon

For a long time, the supposed origin story appeared right at the top of the game's rulebook and went something like this: A man named Charles Darrow was down on his luck, unemployed amid the Great Depression and looking for something to pass the time. In 1934, he came up with Monopoly, sold it to Parker Brothers, and became a millionaire. A classic rags to riches American story. But what really happened is a lot more complicated, and a lot less rosy.

The game was originally known as The Landlord's Game, and was patented by a woman named Lizzie Magie in 1904. At that time, fewer than one percent of patents in the United States were granted to women, so this was a pretty big deal. She created the Landlord's Game as a way to teach people about the nature of monopolies and land ownership, and to show the fundamental inequalities of both. She was in a world where robber barons had come to dominate every sector of the economy, from oil to railroads, and their wealth depended on the ownership of land. Her version of the game became popular among left-wing America, being played by progressives at universities, social reformers, and even Upton Sinclair himself.

Lizzie Magie's Landlord's Game was an argument against the concentration of wea
Tom Forsyth / Tom Forsyth
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Tom Forsyth
Lizzie Magie's Landlord's Game was an argument against the concentration of wea

Charles Darrow came across it while having dinner at a friend's house. Jobless and short on money, he took Lizzie's idea and decided to pitch it as his own to Parker Brothers. It was the Great Depression and board games were having a moment. People couldn't afford to do much, but a board game could entertain your family for hours and hours. Parker Brothers released Monopoly in 1934, selling a story along with it. The story of how Darrow, with not a cent to his name, dreamed up this board game and rescued his family from poverty. No mention of Lizzie Magie to be found.

To learn more about this fascinating history, be sure to check out this episode from Throughline.

This Throughline episode was adapted for the web by Rund Abdelfatah, Taylor Ash and Emily Kinslow. You can follow us on Twitter at @throughlineNPR!

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Rund Abdelfatah is the co-host and producer of Throughline, a podcast that explores the history of current events. In that role, she's responsible for all aspects of the podcast's production, including development of episode concepts, interviewing guests, and sound design.
Ramtin Arablouei is co-host and co-producer of NPR's podcast Throughline, a show that explores history through creative, immersive storytelling designed to reintroduce history to new audiences.
Lawrence Wu
Julie Caine
Julie Caine is supervising editor for NPR's Throughline. An award-winning editor, reporter and audio producer, Caine's heart is in her ears. She led podcasting and on-demand audio at KQED in San Francisco, overseeing strategy, new show development and a vibrant podcast portfolio, including The Bay, Truth Be Told and Rightnowish. She helped found Jetty Studios, an international podcast unit for the Al Jazeera Media Network, where she launched Closer Than They Appear and Game of Our Lives, and developed The Take. She's a founding producer and editor on The Stoop and The Specialist podcasts, and was managing producer for Crosscurrents at KALW Public Radio, a springboard for shows like 99% Invisible, Snap Judgment, The Intersection, and Kamau Right Now. She believes deeply in Grace Paley's maxim that you must be a story listener to be a storyteller.
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Yolanda Sangweni is NPR's Vice President of Programming and New Content Development. In this position, she is a key member of the programming leadership team, helping drive NPR's strategy to reach new audiences, including developing new programs and initiatives. She also serves as the executive sponsor for several podcasts, including Throughline and Code Switch, and acts as programming's senior liaison with the Marketing division.
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Cristina Kim is a reporter/producer for Throughline.
Devin Katayama
Devin Katayama is a Senior Producer for NPR's Throughline podcast. He was formerly Editor of Talent and Development for KQED, where he created equitable opportunities for interns and newsroom staff. Prior to that, he hosted The Bay and American Suburb podcasts. While an education reporter with WFPL, Katayama won WBUR's 2014 Daniel Schorr award and a regional RTNDA Edward R. Murrow Award for his documentary "At Risk." Katayama has also received numerous local awards from the Associated Press and the Society of Professional Journalists. He earned his master's in journalism from Columbia College Chicago, and a bachelor's in English creative writing from CUNY Hunter College. Katayama is based in Vallejo, California – the 707.
Laine Kaplan-Levenson
Laine Kaplan-Levenson is a producer and reporter for NPR's Throughline podcast. Before joining the Throughline team, they were the host and producer of WWNO's award-winning history podcast TriPod: New Orleans at 300, as well as WWNO/WRKF's award-winning political podcast Sticky Wicket. Before podcasting, they were a founding reporter for WWNO's Coastal Desk, and covered land loss, fisheries, water management, and all things Louisiana coast. Kaplan-Levenson has contributed to NPR, This American Life, Marketplace, Latino USA, Oxford American (print), Here and Now, The World, 70 Million, and Nancy, among other national outlets. They served as a host and producer of Last Call, a multiracial collective of queer artists and archivists, and freelanced as a storytelling and podcast consultant, workshop instructor, and facilitator of student-produced audio projects. Kaplan-Levenson is also the founder and host of the live storytelling series, Bring Your Own. They like to play music and occasionally DJ under the moniker DJ Swimteam.
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Casey Miner is an audio producer and senior editor for KALW’s award-winning news, arts, and culture program Crosscurrents. She’s contributed work to NPR, Marketplace, Mother Jones, The Takeaway, Transportation Nation and PopUp Magazine. If you like rollover fires, fermenting cabbage, and/or taxidermy-in-progress, she suggests you also check out The Field Trip Podcast. Casey is a graduate of the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism and enjoys talking with people at length about what exactly they do all day.
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Taylor Ash
Emily Kinslow
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