The more the economy faltered, the more popular games became. One social worker found Philadelphia children "playing eviction," mimicking the harsh reality around them. Sometimes they "played relief," but they preferred "eviction" because it had more action and they all knew how to play.
One board game moved quickly to the forefront. The fantasy of real estate speculation, with a dice roll determining the winner, made Monopoly a perfect fit for the Depression. (It's still the world's best-selling board game - 250 million copies globally and counting.)
The story of how this all came about is complicated - and is itself a metaphor for capitalism.
In his 2003 book, The Game Makers, Philip E. Orbanes traced the game back to Lizzie J. Magie, a Quaker from Virginia, who received a patent for a board game on Jan. 5, 1904. Magie belonged to a tax movement led by Philadelphia-born Henry George, who preached that the renting of land and real estate profited a few (landlords) rather than the majority (tenants). Instead, George proposed a single federal tax based on land ownership, to discourage speculation and encourage equal opportunity. Lizzie Magie wanted to use the Landlord's Game to teach George's ideas.
The objective of this game differed markedly from Monopoly. In Monopoly, the idea is to become the wealthiest player and eventually the monopolist. In the Landlord's Game, the object was to show how the single tax could discourage speculation.
In the summer of 1929, Ruth Hoskins, a Quaker schoolteacher from Indianapolis, moved to Atlantic City, where she introduced the game to her new friends - and made a version using Atlantic City street names.
Friends then showed the game to Charles E. Todd, a Philadelphia hotel manager, who passed it on to an acquaintance named Charles Darrow, who soon was playing it in Philadelphia. The game had no trinkets to represent each player, so Darrow suggested common household items - thimbles, buttons and coins.
Darrow refined the game and then claimed he'd invented it. He called it his "brainchild." To get his 1935 patent, he rewrote some rules and changed the board's design. After Parker Bros. bought his idea, its managers also paid Magie $500 for the right to adapt her game.
But it was Darrow they publicized. The idea of a poor man who became suddenly wealthy fit perfectly with the spirit of the game and the times.
According to Orbanes, "People just embraced the game because it gave them the chance to feel like they were back in tall cotton again."
Thus the game that would come to be named Monopoly began as a lesson in the excesses of capitalism and evolved into an exercise in capitalism and the joy of bankrupting one's opponents. Charles Darrow is a hero of modern capitalism even if he didn't invent it; he stole it fair and square. - Bill Ecenbarger