Elizabeth and the Landlord’s Game

Elizabeth the game maker

Elizabeth J. “Lizzie” Magie was born in a small Illinois town in the 1860s. He came from a petty bourgeois family: his father, James, was a newspaper editor, Lincoln’s contributor and therefore an abolitionist. Instead, the mother is basically unknown. Following in her father’s footsteps, Elizabeth first became a stenographer and then a writer, but also a comedian, feminist, engineer, finally returned to her origins and worked as a journalist. Pogressist, supported the thesis of economist Henry George, also supported by his father. However, he cultivated a singular passion: that of board games, especially their invention. In 1910 he married Albert Philips. She was 44yo, very late for the time. Just 7 years earlier she had moved to Chicago, where she had a small group of friends who were fond of economics and board games. Here she therefore founded the Economic Game Co., aimed at promoting a board game that Elizabeth had invented only a few years earlier, but which had spread widely among her friends in Maryland. The game, patented between 1903 and 1904, wanted to demonstrate the negative economic effects of the land monopoly and the use of property tax as a remedy.

Elizabeth and Albert

In the meantime, he managed to publish some of his board games, which were also sold on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean, in Scotland. Elizabeth released two games thanks to some Scottish liberals, having minimal success among the British Left. A controversy arose over patents, which apparently never actually existed in Britain. Meanwhile Elizabeth and Albert returned to the USA and began to design together a new version of the game so dear to Elizabeth, The Landlord’s Game, now widespread in some US universities, where some students had created their own non-patented versions. In 1932 the game was republished, which also included another version, called Prosperity. Probably through her father’s editorial friendships, Elizabeth managed to put pressure on and publish two more games from Parker Borthers. Subsequently she and her husband managed to publish other games, but without success. Magie died in Virginia in 1948, aged 82, and was buried with her husband, also in Virginia. Currently there are still very few original copies of The Landlord’s Game.

So far, quite normal, indeed, a slightly different life, but not so much, at least for us who are used to knowing his century through books and films. Elizabeth’s life, however, has left its mark, albeit a little indirectly and involuntarily.

Elizabeth Magie showing the similarities between her game and Monopoly

The Landlord’s Game

In 1973, university professor Ralph Anspach of San Francisco State University waged a legal battle with Parker Brothers. During the construction of the lawsuit, Anspach discovered Elizabeth Magie’s patents and his search ended up in the court files. It was discovered that the game had been created with the intent to demonstrate that the land grabbing system was detrimental to renters, for the benefit of large landowners. A game was supposed to make Henry George’s theories easy to understand, but it didn’t. Magie also hoped that the game, if played by children, would arouse their natural suspicion of injustice, and that they could bring this awareness into adulthood, but it didn’t. With these preliminary rulings, the game was initially considered too complicated. The game featured properties and tokens that had to pass over them after the dice roll, but in Atlantic City, household items began to be used instead of tokens, changing the names of the properties and making them more burgess.

From Illinois to the world

Are you starting to remind something? If the answer is negative, I will help you: Elizabeth Magie had created, or rather, patented, the first version of Monopoly, actually launched by Parker Brothers, which, however, for safety also bought the patent of The Landlord’s Game, frightened by the idea that Elizabeth could sue them. The faults, however, were not so much of Parker Brothers, but of an engineer, Charles Darrow, who had done nothing but modernize the design and take some elements from other university versions of the game. Elizabeth, however, had not invented the game either, but had probably taken inspiration from a game typical of the Kiowa, North American Indians, called Zohn Ahl. So, in essence, Elizabeth Magie, then Elizabeth Philips, was the point of contact between a niche environment of Eastern American intellectualism, a tribe of the American Indians and real capitalism, even if the game she created, which was intended to demolish a certain way of enriching, has now become a worldwide symbol of capitalism.

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