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Off The Path — Garden State: The Secret Behind the Monopoly Board

The Atlantic City boardwalk circa 1930-1945, around the time 'Monopoly' was released commercially.
Courtesy of the Boston Public Library
The Atlantic City boardwalk circa 1930-1945, around the time 'Monopoly' was released commercially.

How did Atlantic City end up as the inspiration for all those place names in Monopoly — Marvin Gardens, Park Place, the Boardwalk? It’s a tale of race and social conflict you’d never suspect when you sit down to play one of America’s most famous board games.

Mary Pilon is the author of The Monopolists, a book about the hidden history of Monopoly. She says a lot of people think the game originated in the 1930s from a man who sold it to Parker Brothers. But its predecessor was actually patented decades earlier — in 1904 — by Elizabeth Magie.

Elizabeth Magie's Landlord's Game.
Credit Tom Forsyth / Bloomsbury
Elizabeth Magie's Landlord's Game.

“Liz Magie was a really fascinating person,” she says.

Magie was born into an abolitionist family in Illinois. She was an early advocate for womens’ suffrage and racial equality. She wrote poetry and short stories, and performed in theatrical plays.

“And she was very outspoken at a time when that wasn’t quite accepted by the mainstream as a thing that women should do. And she creates games,” Pilon says.

Magie used one of those games to promote an economic ideology called Georgism, named after Henry George, a 19th-century economist and social reformer. Georgism is kind of complicated — but it’s the idea that land should belong equally to everyone. Magie called it the Landlord’s Game.

“And when you look at the board, you see a lot of today’s Monopoly board in it,” Pilon says. “The circular design, you go around and around. Instead of free parking, cars weren’t as big of a deal in 1904, so you have ‘free park.’”

Georgists liked the idea of having lots of shared public spaces. And Magie put something else on her board game as a form of social commentary.

“You see the railroads — in 1904, the railroad barons were a huge news story. There was this amount of wealth being created in this country that hadn’t really occurred in that way. And there were a lot of questions around, how should that be distributed? How should we tax people?” she says.

Elizabeth Magie set the game up so you could play it two ways. The monopolist way — like the version we know today, where you gather up as much property as you can and other players pay you rent. And the Georgist way, where the goal was to work together and share resources so everyone had enough to get by.

“And it’s the monopolist version of her game that really starts to take off, which I’ve always thought was fascinating — you have these people who were anti-monopolist in their political practices, but when it comes to the game they want to play, they’re very interested in clobbering each other,” she says.

Mary says Magie’s game spread around the U.S.

“People localized the board,” she says. “You would make your own version of the landlord’s game and you would infuse the properties in your area, community as you were playing it.”

One area where it spread was in the northeast — among what Mary calls a who’s-who of left-wing America. That’s how the game found its way to the New Jersey shore.

“And Atlantic City in the late 1920s and early 1930s is kind of like New York and Philly, a hub for immigrants, thinkers, religions, et cetera,” she says.

Among them, members of the Society of Friends — Quakers.

“The Atlantic City Quakers make some modifications to make it easier to play with kids,” Mary says. “They put fixed prices on the board. They add Atlantic City property names — because like other players at the time, they wanted it to mimic their community.”

An original (circular) Monopoly board designed by Charles Darrow.
Credit Courtesy of the Associated Press
An original (circular) Monopoly board designed by Charles Darrow.

A bunch of game designers tried to sell their own versions — despite Magie’s patent — including Charles Darrow. He learned the game from an Atlantic City resident, then sold his slightly modified version to Parker Brothers in 1934. Mary says no one knows why Elizabeth Magie’s patent was ignored. But Darrow got credit as the game’s inventor.

The Monopoly board hasn’t changed much since the Parker Brothers game debuted. But Atlantic City has — except for the famous boardwalk. The shoreline is dominated by high-rise buildings. Many once housed casinos that started to spring up in the 1970s.

Boardwalk And Park Place

During a beautiful Saturday afternoon in the middle of the summer, the boardwalk is crowded with families and groups of friends. There are shops selling chintzy t-shirts and souvenirs.

I find — on the boardwalk — a green street sign that says Park Place. That makes this spot the intersection between the two most expensive properties on the Monopoly board.

The Atlantic City boardwalk in 2017.
Credit Julio Cortez / Associated Press
Associated Press
The Atlantic City boardwalk in 2017.

That’s news to some tourists — like Arya Hussein. She’s here with her family.

“I had no idea,” says tourist Arya Hussein. “I did notice there was, like, Mississippi, and I was like, that does sound familiar.”

I head up to the Atlantic City Free Public Library — on the corner of Atlantic Avenue (that’ll cost me $260) and Tennessee Avenue (another $180.) Jacqueline Silver-Morillo is an archivist — and a fourth-generation resident.

“Atlantic City is in my blood,” she says with a laugh. “I grew up by the shore. I was here a little bit after the casinos got here in ’78. I love Atlantic City. It has changed — significantly — since I was younger.”

Jacquline Silver-Marillo unwraps an early version of the Monopoly board at the Atlantic City Free Public Library.
Credit Davis Dunavin / WSHU Public Radio
WSHU Public Radio
Jacquline Silver-Marillo unwraps an early version of the Monopoly board at the Atlantic City Free Public Library.

Jacqueline says Atlantic City was in a heyday in the 1930s. The Boardwalk had famous hotels and jazz clubs and gangsters. It was the era of Boardwalk Empire — the HBO show set in Atlantic City. The producers consulted her library for details, by the way.

“It was the place to go,” she says. “Boardwalk had the beach, and its clubs — its Club Harlem. So it was the place to come. Of course it had its other side, like the mob. And speakeasies. The underbelly. Every city has it. It was also segregated.”

Jacqueline’s family lived that segregation for decades.

“We were Kentucky Avenue,” she says. “We were north side. North side was segregated — where all African Americans lived. Where my grandma, my great-grandma, my uncles and aunts lived.”

Kentucky Avenue was home to a thriving Black business district. But it’s still worth only a little more than half of Boardwalk’s $400 on the Monopoly board. And low-income areas like Mediterranean and Baltic Avenues are the cheapest properties on the board — just $60 each.

Author Mary Pilon says the Monopoly board is a record of Atlantic City’s history of segregation.

“It very much mimics the cartography of the town at the time,” she says. “You had very strong color lines at hotels and beaches.”

Atlantic City was a quarter Black in the ’30s, but the most expensive spots — Boardwalk and Park Place — were almost exclusively white.

“And at the time, the '20s and '30s, these were incredibly segregated places. Only white residents and visitors could tour. With the exception of a few performers, you were not allowed to be there if you were Black,” Pilon says.

Today Atlantic City has some of the highest income inequality in the country, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

Monopolists author Mary Pilon says part of this town’s history is oddly preserved in a game because of happenstance. People actually believed for decades that Monopoly was invented in Atlantic City.

“So I think it’s interesting that the myth-making is central to that, too,” she says. “But that’s also part of Atlantic City. Atlantic City is very much about fantasy. And at its peak, it was about aspiration, and there was something dreamlike to it. So I guess in a way, that’s fitting as well.”

Shortly after Parker Brothers released Darrow’s version, Mary says the company finally bought the patent for Magie’s version of the Landlord’s Game and two other games she designed. But it was too late — Darrow’s version was already on the way to becoming a classic.

Elizabeth Magie was finally revealed as the game’s initial inventor in the 1970s. Another inventor was fighting a lawsuit over his game — called Anti-Monopoly — a satire that sought to bring the game back to its Georgist roots. His research led him to Elizabeth Magie. But even after that revelation, Parker Brothers maintains Charles Darrow invented the present day game.

Davis Dunavin loves telling stories, whether on the radio or around the campfire. He started in Missouri and ended up in Connecticut, which, he'd like to point out, is the same geographic trajectory taken by Mark Twain.