6 Facts About Lizzie Magie: Monopoly’s Lost Female Inventor

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Mary Pilon
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Lizzie Magie Photo

Lizzie Magie's Landlord's Game turned into what we now know as Monopoly. (Photo: Washington Evening Star/Anspach Archives)

This year, Hasbro is commemorating the 80th “anniversary” of its iconic board game Monopoly. However, Monopoly’s roots stretch far further past the Great Depression, but to a progressive woman named Lizzie Magie who received a patent for her Landlord’s Game in 1904.

Magie created her game as a teaching tool for single tax theory, a popular political movement in her time led by Henry George. Her game was played extensively after she laid claim to it, becoming a favorite among left-wing intellectuals in the Northeast. It is a version of that game, which had been modified over three decades, that Parker Brothers began to publish in 1935, well after Magie put her ideas onto paper.

Here are some facts about Monopoly’s lost originator.

Monopoly was originally conceived to be a protest against monopolists, not in favor of them.

Magie’s Landlord’s Game paid tribute to Henry George, a charismatic 19th-century politician and economist who had been a proponent of the “land value tax,” also known as the “single tax.” His main tenet was that individuals should own 100 percent of what they made or created, but that everything found in nature, particularly land, should belong to everyone.

“It is a practical demonstration of the present system of land-grabbing with all its usual outcomes and consequences,” Magie wrote of her game 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.”

The game’s and its inventor’s political origins are tied to Abraham Lincoln.

In 1858, eight years before she was born, Lizzie’s father, James Magie, accompanied Abraham Lincoln and Joseph Medill, the 35-year-old publisher of the Chicago Tribune, as the lanky lawyer traveled around Illinois debating politics with Stephen Douglas. Magie later worked as a newspaper editor and gave speeches about his time with Lincoln during the early days of the Republican Party. Because of her father, Magie had exposure to the intellectual banter of newsrooms and politicos.

Lizzie Magie Landlord's Game Photo

She was also a stenographer and no stranger to the patent process, highly unusual for a woman of her time.

Magie attended a convention of stenographers with her father and soon found work in what was a growing profession, one that had opened up to women as the Civil War removed many men from the workforce.

Unusual for a 19th-century woman, Lizzie also dabbled in engineering. In 1893, Lizzie received a patent for a gadget that allowed paper to pass through typewriter rollers with more ease. At the time, less than one percent of all patents came from women, making her a standout at any age. But at 26, she was a phenomenon.

Lizzie Magie was an outspoken feminist.

Finding it difficult to support herself on the ten dollars a week she was earning as a stenographer, Lizzie staged an audacious stunt that made national headlines. Purchasing an advertisement, she offered herself for sale as a “young woman American slave” to the highest bidder. She 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.”

Landlord's Game Lizzie Magie Photo

The Landlord's Game board. (Photo: Lucius Kwok (Own work) [CC BY 2.5], via Wikimedia Commons)

The ad quickly became the subject of news stories and gossip columns in newspapers around the country. But in 1910, Lizzie ended decades of speculation about her sexual status as a fiery, feminist, single woman when, on October 27, in Chicago, she married Albert Phillips, who, at fifty-four years old, was ten years Lizzie’s senior.

In addition to creating games, Monopoly’s inventor was also an actress, poet and writer of short stories.

The themes of pain, romance, nature, and unfairness were constants in her work, which in the fall of 1892, she bound her poems into a book, My Betrothed, and printed 500 copies, the most she could afford. The title poem told the story of a man’s love for Roberta, a woman 10 years his junior whom he had known since birth and loved “with burning soul and body / With impetuous desire.”

Lizzie published a short story titled “For the Benefit of the Poor” in the January 1895 issue of Frank Leslie’s Popular Monthly, one of the more prominent and popular journals of her time, counting Henry James among its contributors. The story told of an impoverished boy struggling to support himself and his invalid mother by selling bonbons in a theater. Nearly a century before the term the “Matthew effect” would be commonly used to describe the phenomenon in which the rich get richer and the poor get poorer, Lizzie included the pertinent passage from the Gospel of Matthew in her story: “For unto everyone that hath shall be given, and he shall have abundance; but from him that hath not shall be taken away even that which he hath.”

Magie reportedly made only $500 from her creation.

In 1936, the nation was amidst a Monopoly craze. Charles Darrow and Parker Brothers told the tale of his “inventing” the game in his basement, which quickly caught on as a Horatio Alger tale of triumph. That year, Lizzie Magie spoke out in the pages of the Washington Evening Star against it and the paper reported that she received $500 for her invention. “Probably, if one counts lawyer’s, printer’s and Patent Office fees used up in developing it, the game has cost her more than she made from it,” it stated.

Monopoly Game Board Photo

A modern day version of the Monopoly game board.

“There is nothing new under the sun,” she said to the Washington Post in a story that ran the same day as the Evening Star interview.

Lizzie went on to tell the reporter that if Darrow’s Monopoly spread the notion of how the single tax worked, then her work would “not have been in vain.” But the vast majority of commercial Monopoly players even then had little to no idea they were learning about single tax theory.

Magie died in 1948, a widow with no children. It would take more than 40 years when an economist, Ralph Anspach, accidentally unearthed her story while researching his own lawsuit concerning his Anti-Monopoly games.

Mary Pilon is the author of 'The Monopolists,' a book that tells the secret history of the board game, Monopoly. She previously worked as a staff reporter at The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal where she primarily covered sports and business.