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The Untold Story of Monopoly's Tiny Houses and Hotels

For decades, the board game Monopoly was believed to have been invented during the Great Depression. However, the game's roots actually date to a woman, Lizzie Magie, in 1904. In this excerpt from The Monopolists, author Mary Pilon explores the evolution of the game's hotels and houses.

It turns out one of the greatest home and hotel builders of the last century may have been…Parker Brothers.

Since the game company began publishing Monopoly in 1935, millions, if not billions, of little red hotels and green houses have been constructed, 32 houses and 12 hotels in each Monopoly set.

But long before its Great Depression-era popularity, property played a huge role in the development of the game. In fact, that was the whole point of it.

In 1904, outspoken feminist Lizzie Magie received a patent for her Landlord's Game. She created the game to teach the world about single tax theory and the idea that land—and only land—should be taxed. It was a protest against the monopolists of her time rather than a rallying cry for them.

Her game quickly spread among left-wing thinkers, chiefly in the Northeast. Among them was Dan Layman, who had played a version of the "monopoly game" with his fraternity brothers at Williams College and began to produce his own version of it in 1931, hoping to sell it on a mass scale. His game also used poker chips, printed money, and miniature houses.

The idea of using houses had been introduced to him by his college friends, the Thuns, who had returned from a trip to the Ukraine with sets of little houses and churches. When they played, they made each church represent five houses and called it an "apartment," even though it had a steeple.

Such improvisations were common in the various folk flavors of the game. In Texas, a man named Rudy Copeland made a game called "Inflation" that included twenty cottages and ten apartments instead of houses and hotels—the limited numbers designed to "encourage rapid improvement."

But it would be game's players in Atlantic City that would add hotels to the game, a nod to the vacant inventory during the Great Depression.

"We were in a hotel town," Cyril Harvey, one of the early Quaker players later said. "We wanted a real game," Cyril said. "A game that fit our situation, was the whole idea of it."

Hotels were the undisputed kings of Atlantic City, with their owners engaged in a race to create the best and grandest accommodations ever seen. Builders, famous guests, and even the hotels themselves became players in the glittering theater that was Atlantic City. On Indiana Avenue reigned the magnificent Brighton Hotel, and on Park Place and the Boardwalk shone the Marlborough-Blenheim Hotel, the first "fire-proof" building in town, its construction of reinforced concrete supervised by Thomas Edison and designed by Quaker William Price, the same man who had designed the modest cottages of utopian Arden, Del.

Ironically, some of the city's most famous and elegant hotels were owned by simplicity-loving Quakers and single-taxers like Price. On North Carolina Avenue was the Quaker-owned Chalfonte-Haddon Hall, which served no alcohol and was known for its elegant teas, available in posh dining rooms set with white porcelain and silver teapots. The Quakers owned both the Morton Hotel on Virginia Avenue and the nearby Glaslyn Chatham. The St. Charles Hotel on St. Charles Place was a favorite venue among single-taxers for their regular meetings, thanks to its large porch, rocking chairs, and bay windows overlooking the sea.

A bald man with a well-trimmed snow-white beard and wire-frame spectacles, Price had obtained his earliest architectural commissions through his connections to the Quaker church. A pioneer in the Arts and Crafts movement, he scorned elegance in his personal life—he felt more at home in Arden than he did in Atlantic City—but built hotels that rivaled the palaces of European royalty. He and other Quakers like him may have originally envisioned Atlantic City as an alcohol- and dance-free fresh-air resort, but as the profits associated with decadence soared, so too did their involvement in creating that lushness.

Jesse Raiford, a real estate agent and a friend of many of the Quakers playing the game, made little wooden boxes to use as the game's houses. Jesse then experimented with using color sequences on the board, finally deciding to divide the properties into groups of three. Closely familiar with Atlantic City property values, he also affixed prices to the game board. They pulled miscellaneous objects out of their pockets to play the game—a tie clip, a penny, an earring.

It was a version of the Quaker Atlantic City board that Charles Todd would introduce to his friend, Charles Darrow. Darrow went on to sell the game to Parker Brothers and Monopoly went on to be an international phenomenon, the history of its origins largely tucked away for decades, houses, hotels and all.

The story wouldn't come to light until the 1970s, when after years of decay, Atlantic City had become another experiment in urban renewal. Today most of the hotels that inspired the game have been blazed. Representatives from large casinos and area politicians had argued that in order to rebuild the city, it was first necessary to destroy it. Hotels like the Traymore and other decadent pieces of the city and its Quaker-constructed past were demolished, Ardenite William Price's beloved Marlborough-Blenheim imploded spectacularly to make room for a modern Bally's. Thousands of residents were displaced as casino moguls designed businesses that isolated their guests as much as possible from the city's harsh streets. By the end of the 1980s, Atlantic City had become one of the top tourist destinations in the United States, yet only five of the twelve major casinos in town were posting a profit, and what little bounty was earned was seldom passed on to locals.

Local papers reported that elderly residents were being robbed on Oriental Avenue and that the city's youth pelted the tourist buses with rocks. Land speculation pushed people out of their houses, and local churches and synagogues left the city, never to come back. Void of customers, hundreds of businesses shut their doors.

The political squabbling over Atlantic City's real estate predicament continues today. And few visitors there are fully aware of the lives that strolled the streets before, the ghosts of the grand hotels of yore hanging in the air.

But whatever the future holds for the Boardwalk, Park Place and what small vestiges of the original architecture remain, we'll always have that Monopoly board.

"From THE MONOPOLISTS by Mary Pilon. Copyright ©Mary Pilon 2015. Published by Bloomsbury." Top and second-to-last images from Charles Darrow's 1935 patent, courtesy United States Patent and Trademark Office
· Official site: Mary Pilon [marypilon.com]