In 1935, when more than five years of Depression had sapped the country's spirit and when the lack of money had left almost everyone in a continuous state of apprehension, a game called Monopoly appeared. It offered Americans a chance to be the economic swashbucklers they used to think they were. It let them handle large sums of money freely, and it permitted them to buy and sell property and privileges, collect rents, mortgage land, win or lose a fortune in minutes, gouge cash from their enemies and ruin their friends. As they risked erecting a cheap hotel in the run-down section of Mediterranean and Baltic avenues—being a slum landlord can have its benefits—or took their last Monopoly dollar to plunge for a single house on exclusive Park Place—nerve-racking social climbing—the players entered a world that fact and fate had denied them. Happily, Depression times and moods are gone now, but the pastime that seemed so perfectly suited to the era is still emphatically present. Unchanged by prosperity, inflation, the two-car garage or the two-bowl sink, Monopoly remains the country's biggest-selling board game.
Monopoly was just the thing for a Depression-ridden people. It sold more than one million sets the year it was introduced. Demand was so heavy that it broke down the order-processing system of the surprised and quite undepressed producer, Parker Brothers, Inc., of Salem, Mass. The rush of business prior to Christmas of 1935 left the company gasping. When Christmas passed, Parker Bros, expected a breather, but what it got was a deluge. The game had been a gift sensation, and almost everyone who played on one of the sets wanted a board of his own. Clerks had to spread dozens of laundry baskets on the floors in offices and halls to serve as rough files merely to handle the telegraphed orders.
In its 28 years, Monopoly has far outsold all other proprietary games (chess, checkers, playing cards, etc., are not patented). Almost all game companies are privately owned, and the operators surround their sales figures with the kind of secrecy Dior devotes to its hemline-plans, but it is generally agreed in the trade that Monopoly has been the top-selling game every year since it came out, with the possible exception of two years in the mid-50's when the Scrabble craze reached its crest. Asked about the chance of Scrabble having ever passed Monopoly, Parker Bros, executive vice-president and grandnephew of the founder Edward Parker, has several things to say. They can best be summarized as, "Don't be silly."
Because of the statistics gap, the full extent of Monopoly's popularity is hard to measure. Parker executives admit to annual sales of one million to two million sets in recent years, which is about like General Motors confessing it does, perhaps, make automobiles. Parker's confession of total sales runs from 35 to 40 million. Once the company has said this much, it points out that the number of households in the U.S. is about 55 million. Noting that many persons have played Monopoly even though their households do not own sets, Parker Bros, executives conclude that there are few Americans who have not tried the game at least once. You can go up to almost any literate American older than 10 and say: "Go directly to jail. Do not pass Go. Do not collect $200," and he will surely know that you are talking about Monopoly. Not even the great have missed the game. Many Washington diplomats play it, and Winston Churchill once did, too. It is a favorite on the nuclear-powered submarine Seawolf, especially during its two-month underwater cruises, and a Pentagon exhibit of a model fallout shelter included a Monopoly set in the survival stocks.
In the early years of Monopoly's popularity, the experts in the games industry explained its success on the grounds that Monopoly gave people a pleasurable illusion of wealth. But time has proved that this analysis is far too unsophisticated, since Monopoly now thrives amidst relative peace and plenty. FORTUNE was closer when it said that Monopoly is "a game that caters to the most grindingly acquisitive instincts of every businessman. The idea is to squeeze out all your fellow players until you own the whole board. The more you own, the more you make." And everybody knows that all Americans are businessmen at heart. "Monopoly evokes a unique emotion, the surge of thrill you get when you know you've wiped out a friend," said Comedian Shelley Berman recently.
Like alcohol, Monopoly will often bring out and then exaggerate the worst side of people's personalities. A quiet evening around the Monopoly board is not necessarily quiet. Dad, who has for a lifetime affected to be sober and responsible, reveals himself as a reckless clown, a ne'er-do-much, willing to risk his all on a throw of the dice. Mummy, seemingly tenderhearted and everyone's pal, omits to notify a distracted child that her token stands on one of his properties and laughs when she gets the dice and moves on without paying rent. The children turn on each other and the adults like loan sharks pursuing destitute widows. Two years ago a 15-year-old Pennsylvania boy gave a friend an almost fatal beating. "I don't know why Dickie would do a thing like that," the victim's mother told the police. "The boys were good friends. This very afternoon they spent four hours together playing Monopoly."
Monopoly came into existence in 1933 on a kitchen table in Germantown, a suburb of Philadelphia. Charles Darrow, the inventor, was in a typical American squeeze for those days. A heating-equipment salesman, he had not had a real job in three years. He was the father of one child, and his wife was about to have another. He knew heating, and he could see that his outlook was pretty cold. The situation cried out for diversions, but the only entertainment the Darrows or their friends could afford was to visit with each other and talk about their mutual miseries.
One day, working with a piece of oilcloth, Darrow devised a game for his family and his friends to play. Reflecting on more prosperous times, when he and his wife could afford to take vacations, he sketched out along the edge of the oilcloth the names of streets in that American dream resort, Atlantic City. He ended his game with a square for the Boardwalk itself. Using play money and a pair of dice, the Darrows and their neighbors spent their evenings buying, renting, developing and selling Atlantic City's real estate.
His friends liked Monopoly, so he made a few sets for them. Soon friends of friends wanted sets, and Darrow began to make some to sell, turning out two sets a day and letting them go for what he felt was a monopoly like price of $4 each. The demand grew rapidly and, by contracting out board production to a job printer, Darrow raised his output to six sets a day. He found he could produce houses and hotels rapidly by cutting them from lengths of wooden molding. Monopoly sales quickly overtook his production capacity, and he decided to copyright the game.
When Philadelphia department stores began to order Monopoly sets wholesale, Darrow realized he had a neat monopoly of his own. He took the game to the Massachusetts firm of Parker Bros., the world's largest publisher of games. Accustomed to turning out such unsophisticated fun as Rook, Authors, the Win-nie-The-Pooh game and Flinch, Parker Bros, executives shied at Monopoly. The games they produced could be explained in a few sentences. Since its establishment in 1883, the company had never had a successful game that took more than 45 minutes to play. Darrow's game had complicated rules, involved a number of concepts that might confuse people—mortgages, interest, deeds—and took an evening to play.