Wednesday, December 22nd, 2010
A complete Monopoly game set handmade by unemployed heating engineer Charles Darrow in 1933 sold at Sotheby’s Malcolm Forbes Toy Collection auction on December 17 for $146,500. The set includes a circular gameboard made out of oilcloth and decorated with pen-and-ink gouache, the rules sheet, playing cards, money, deeds and tokens. It was purchased by the National Museum of Play in Rochester, New York to add to their impressive collection of 65 historical Monopoly sets.
Monopoly has a storied history. Its earliest iteration was a British game called The Landlord’s Game, invented in 1904 by Elizabeth Magie to illustrate the dangers of unequal wealth distribution. It migrated across the Atlantic in various forms as people created their own boards and pieces to play with their friends. Ruth Hoskins played a version called Finance in Indianapolis which she customized with the now-familiar Atlantic City place names after she moved to New Jersey.
It was the Hoskins version Darrow was first introduced to by friends in Philadelphia. Darrow saw the real money-making potential of the game and began to produce handmade sets to sell. He produced one or two a day at most, and although they were only publicized by word of mouth from his friends and family, soon he had more orders than he could keep up with. Within months he had copyrighted the game and contracted with a local printer to make complete Monopoly sets (on the cheap, though; he still colored the boards by hand).
In 1934 he offered the game to Parker Bros. but they thought it was too complicated for us stupids to figure out, so they turned him down. Darrow kept at it, now ordering full color printed versions which he sold to major retailers like F.A.O. Schwarz in New York. The next year Parker Bros. came calling, hat in hand, and the rest is history.
The set bought by the National Museum of Play is the earliest Darrow set that has all the pieces including the rules. Since Darrow was the first Monopoly hobbyist to actually codify the rules — the predecessors’ rules were all just informally determined at the table — this set illustrated a pivotal moment in the evolution of the game, when it went from playful trend to cultural icon.